With so many natural wonders to see across the country, sometimes it's easy to forget the beauty found in our own region. Michigan's Irish Hills area probably doesn't make it into many tourist guidebooks these days, but this area deserves a detour. Situated in the south eastern part of the state, this area marks the end of a glacial advance, resulting in rolling hills dotted with lakes, and quiet roads that throw you a curve every so often. Once the main thoroughfare connecting Chicago and Detroit, what is now called U.S. Highway 12 runs along working farms, through charming towns, and past occasional remnants of the roadside attractions of a bygone era.
Near the town of Brooklyn, it is also the home to Michigan International Speedway. The two-mile D-shaped track hosts NASCAR races as well as the annual Michigan Wine and Beer Festival. Lexus chose the facility for the first drive of the 2014 IS lineup. While we didn't take to the high banks of the track, Lexus set up a number of driving exercises on the grounds, as well as drives through the surrounding countryside. On hand were examples of the IS 250 and IS 350 in rear-wheel and all-wheel drive, which Lexus calls all-weather drive, along with the new F-Sport variations.
All-new for 2014, this represents the third generation of Lexus' entry luxury contender. While Lexus continues to dominate consumer satisfaction surveys and had the largest year-over-year sales increase in the luxury segment, last year's nine new or significantly refreshed vehicles aim to lighten up a self-admitted stodgy image. "Frankly, we've become obsessed with design," says Owen Peacock, national product and marketing manager for Lexus, pointing out the more aggressive look and new "spindle grille" of the IS.
The IS already brings in the youngest buyers to Lexus, and they expect the new styling will draw even younger buyers to the 2014 model. "It attracts buyers from many different directions," says Peacock. "For move-ups, this segment offers them their first luxury car experience...Others may be downsizing out of the 'family truckster' into something a little more luxurious and fun."
Indeed, "fun to drive" became a key goal for the IS redesign. Peacock defines that as "the feeling you get when the car immediately and precisely responds to the driver's will in an engaging and informative way." Components were changed to meet this standard over one million miles of testing that included track time at the famous Nurburgring in Germany and Japan's Fuji Speedway.
Bill Camp of Lexus College explained how these handling characteristics were engineered into the new IS. Body rigidity was significantly increased, partly through a "body bonding" process using a high strength adhesive in addition to welding. This gave them a stronger basis upon which to fine tune the suspension. Camp says the rear suspension is completely new, and coil springs were retuned all around. Interestingly, the springs were actually softened, to keep that "Lexus ride" when going in a straight line, while anti-sway bars were stiffened by twenty percent to reduce body lean when cornering.
Engines are carried over from 2013, which is customary when introducing a newly redesigned and reengineered car. The IS 250 gets the "tried and true" 2.5-liter V-6, while the IS 350 has the 3.5-liter V-6. Most get a six-speed automatic transmission, while the IS 350 rear-wheel drive has the eight-speed automatic straight from the high-performance IS-F model available. The IS-F has been discontinued for the 2014 model year. This transmission has G-AI Control, which stands for "G-Force Artificial Intelligence."
For spirited driving, select sport settings on a knob located near the shifter on the console. Camp explained the transmission programming is designed for high performance, and when it senses "hard braking it will downshift, then hold the gear while cornering." But the IS isn't all about performance driving, it also features an "ECO" mode setting, which recalibrates powertrain, electric power steering, and air conditioning to save fuel and reduce emissions.
In the on-board infotainment department, the IS has a host of new features. The multi-info display has a 4.2-inch screen located in the gauge cluster. Models with navigation have a multimedia display in the center stack. Camp says it is Lexus' "most advanced navigation yet," with a 3D map and street view. A low-fuel point of interest feature will offer you gas station locations automatically. Predictive Traffic uses a variety of sources to anticipate traffic patterns up to 45 minutes in the future; it even takes into account things like sports events. Notably, weather information updated every ten minutes, and real-time traffic updated every two minutes, are offered subscription free.
Optional for those automotive audiophiles is the Mark Levinson Premium Surround System, featuring the industrial look right from their high-end home systems. The home screen is customizable to place the controls you use the most often most prominently. The system has a radio cache, which Camp describes as "like a DVR...it can pause live radio for 15 minutes." There's also an app suite for audio apps such as Pandora. Vehicles without navigation get Lexus Display Audio, which still has the weather and traffic updates.
A variety of IS configurations were available for the test drive. Not surprisingly, F-Sport models with adaptive variable suspension, which automatically adjusts during evasive maneuvers, and variable gear ratio steering, made weaving through cones in a 35 mph slalom course nearly effortless. In contrast, the IS 250 all-wheel drive needed noticeably more steering input, but still held the same speed easily. Lexus provided an example of the outgoing 2013 IS 350 all-wheel drive for comparison, which was most elucidating. Full-throttle acceleration and panic braking exercises felt indistinguishable, but the slalom and a course of sweeping curves on rolling terrain really showed off the improvements in the 2014. Cornering is textbook well-balanced and predictable, with just a little bit of understeer - a hint of squeal from the front tires - to let you know you are approaching the limit.
Lexus is targeting the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Audi A4 with the 2014 IS 250 and IS 350, which go on sale midsummer.