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IS

10 July 2013 - 00:00

First drive: Lexus IS range

By JAMES CLEARY

So, what is it?
This is the third generation of the Lexus IS, the Japanese primo brand's compact sedan, aimed squarely at the usual German suspects - Audi A3, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Why should I care?
Global chief of Lexus (and Toyota) Akio Toyoda has been making a lot of noise in recent years about the need for the brand to find its excitement mojo, and this car is the entry point to a rapidly evolving Lexus line-up.

What's new about it?
Lots of stuff including a new platform, claimed to be lighter and stiffer, heavily upgraded suspension, a ‘Drive Mode Select' system controlling (electrically-assisted) steering, throttle response and stability control, as well as a heap of new safety and dynamic tech, an all-new interior with funky dash design, more head and legroom, plus extra boot space. Oh, and a new petrol-electric hybrid variant.

That's all nice. What's it like to drive fast?
Impressive, and entertaining. According to chief engineer Junichi Furuyama, heaps of IS development work involved pounding around the Nurburgring in Germany, as well as Fuji Speedway in Japan, and it shows. There are two V6 petrol versions - the 2.5-litre, 153kW/252Nm IS250 with six-speed auto, the 3.5-litre, 233kW/378Nm IS350 with eight-speed auto above it, as well as the 164kW/221Nm IS 300h, matching a 2.5-litre in-line petrol four, with electric motor in support, matched to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The IS 250 sounds good and goes hard, but the IS350 is the performance pic, especially in F Sport spec, a performance-focused model grade available on each variant. Lexus says it will run 0-100km/h in 5.9sec, and it feels fully capable of that.

And driving from home to the office in the city?
The IS 300h is the sleeper here. It's supremely quiet and refined, the transition from full electric mode to petrol engine and back again is seamless, and there's more than enough (combined) grunt to get the urban commute done in civilised fashion. And its claimed combined fuel consumption number is just 4.9L/100km.

How much would I have to pay for one? And is it worth the coin?
The ‘base' IS 250 Luxury kicks off at $55,900, and the top-shelf IS 350 Sports Luxury weighs in at $84,000, with six other variants in-between. Whether it's worth it depends on your point-of-view. In the luxury market badge cred and heritage stands for a lot, and despite a big step with this car, many will continue to question the IS's brand cache.

Is there anything bad about it?
The V6 engines are getting long in the tooth, as evidenced by their OK-only fuel economy numbers. But there's nothing deserving of the B word.

What about a V8 IS F?
No news at this stage on whether Lexus will reload the V8 powered M3 and C 63 basher in this new-gen model. But if added excitement is the aim, you wouldn't bet against it down the track.

Would you take this or the 3 Series?
Badge snobs will continue to opt for the Bavarian, but this new IS is a large step forward, and it's loaded with fruit. Upscale gizmos like a reversing camera, heated and ventilated front seats, sat-nav, and the Drive Mode Select system are standard across the board. But now the IS offers more than brilliant build quality and lots of equipment. It's a fun drive, and those confident enough to buy outside the performance luxury mainstream won't be disappointed.

So what would you give the A3 out of 10, then?
A solid seven, hovering towards seven and a half for the IS 350 in Sport trim. The bigger personality and enhanced capability of the new IS range is a big (and pleasant) surprise.

For the full review check out the August issue of TopGear Australia magazine, on sale August 5.

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