Aggressive Lexus takes leap forward

By Matt Greenop

Toyota's exclusive brand set to shake bland image with blend of luxury and performance

Lexus New Zealand has just launched the latest IS range - the IS250 (pictured), IS300 and IS350.
Lexus New Zealand has just launched the latest IS range - the IS250 (pictured), IS300 and IS350.

Fast or comfortable has always been a tough choice for buyers of the Lexus IS.

Getting the balance between luxury and outright go bang-on is something that has so far defied Lexus - the luxury arm of Japanese giant Toyota has been close, but hasn't quite hit the nail on the head until now.

The new IS range, launched this week, features a host of tweaks and tricks that now offer something for almost everyone looking for a bit of flash outside the big three Euro brands.

The slick mid-sized sedan has gradually come of age, and this time around the company has hit the nail squarely on the head, with spec and tech that does everything that you'd expect from cars that will put a fairly large dent in the back pocket.

That said, with pricing kicking off from a pretty reasonable $73,995 for the base IS250 and the range-topping IS350s peeking over $100,000, it's a smaller dent than some European models will leave.

There are essentially three models and a total of nine cars in the range, including a hybrid IS300h that features one of the most dubious add-ons you'll find anywhere - but more on that later. There are F Sport and Limited spec packages available - one shifting the focus more towards "go" and the other pushing the luxury level up.

The move from the aforementioned IS250 base model to F Sport hikes the price to $84,995 and the Limited to $87,395 - with advanced safety features adding another $3000 and the sweetly powerful Mark Levinson audio upgrade adding $2600, both options available throughout the whole line-up. The petrol hybrid IS300h base model is $80,995 with the Sport version set at $91,995 and the Limited at $92,195. The IS350 starts at $95,995 and pops over the magic $100K for the F-Sport at $105,995 and the Limited setting you back $108,395.

Into its third generation the car has moved up in the desirability stakes from its somewhat beige beginnings, with an aggressive and purposeful new look dominated by the bold spindle grille that follows into its front bumper and side-skirts which push a line to the rear wheel arch and meet the elongated tail lights. The L-shaped daytime running lights serve to further emphasise this strong new stance.

It is a huge move for the brand, which owes more to its US operation than to Japan, where it wasn't even badged Lexus to begin with.

Toyota New Zealand boss Alastair Davis says the American enthusiasm for Lexus has helped to mould it into a true stand-alone luxury range, and the huge leap forward in design and comfort is as much a result of the US desire to put its quality and look among the Europeans without sacrificing its Japanese roots.

"Increasingly it is not a US brand or a Japanese one," said Davis. "It's certainly becoming more international.

"They're starting to do some great design work on a brand that has often been criticised for being too bland."

Lexus' market share in New Zealand is significantly lower than its Euro rivals, but with an entry model like the new IS more than capable of taking on the likes of BMW's 3-Series Davis is confident it will do well.

There were 1.6 million kilometres of testing completed in order to get the IS ready for market, and from the day-long drive of the three key models in various guises it's fair to say that investment in R&D time and money was well worth the effort.

The most dynamic, not surprisingly, is the IS350 F Sport, which benefits from the platform's freshly extended wheelbase and widened stance to be a very exciting drive. Deep new race seats and improved driving position, plus a freshly added eight-speed teamed with paddle shifters really involves the drive, with the 3.5-litre six and its 233kW/378Nm combo giving enough shove to tackle New Zealand's curliest and most challenging roads. Even the brilliant Gentle Annie between Taihape and Napier was chewed up with ease.

A stiffer body, courtesy of upping the ante on adhesive bonding and laser screw welding, has made turn-in sharper and the whole package significantly more precise - especially with the car set in either Sport or Sport Plus modes.

The IS250's version of the six-cylinder engine is slightly less entertaining, with 153kW and 253Nm, but is still more than able on the open road, although it requires far more effort without that super-sized helping of torque.

The 300h is an interesting beast, cashing in on Lexus' leaps forward with its hybrid technology, which has always been one of the better offerings on the market for the enviro-aware. It still hasn't made the move to lithium ion batteries, but it looks likely that the brand will skip that generation, quoting issues with transport and expense.

There is a new battery, tucked below the boot floor, which balances against the four-cylinder 2.5-litre Atkinson's cycle engine up front to give a 50/50 weight split. The car is capable on paper of just 4.9L/100km and a very light 117g/km CO2 footprint. The only criticism from the quick taste of the 300h is its noisemaker. Manufacturers are pushing the noises that their cars make by adding acoustic tubes and resonators.

This is dubious ground at any rate, but the 300h does it simply - a volume control and a soundtrack that's more manufactured than generated by the car itself.

I'm not sold on it - and am unsure how many hybrid drivers really want their car sounding like a monster from their somewhat pious driving position ...

- NZ Herald

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