Lexus IS 250 Luxury and F Sport  77

There hasn’t been a lack of trying in Lexus’ attempts at matching its Teutonic rivals for appeal and desirability in buyers’ eyes. For years now, the brand has been plugging away at getting buyers to view it in the same vein as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. Sales successes in select markets – such as the US – notwithstanding, it hasn’t always measured out convincingly.

There’s no argument about the engineering – it has been bombproof, and meticulously so. The problem has been the squeaky clean nature in which the wares have been presented. It’s all fine to be ticking as clockwork, quiet as a mouse and comfortable as a cushion, but there’s no denying that a mechanical nature also translates to boring.

In a bid to shed that image, the brand has finally taken a stand on things – having secured ‘reliability’ as a tagline, it’s seeking to ally ‘emotion’ to that by upping things in the looks department and making the cars more exciting prospects to be in from behind the wheel.

The LFA might be an excellent voice to showcase that new reasoning, but the GS better illustrates the approach realistically – the current fourth-gen L10 represents a radical departure from its S190 predecessor, and was a bit of a revelation when we drove it in our four-way luxury group test. Now, the third-generation IS continues on the trail paved by its larger sibling. Does it finally measure up to its rivals?

Lexus IS 250 Luxury and F Sport  19

From an exterior viewpoint, it certainly does, and then some. The second-gen XE20 was a handsome car, and on the whole has aged very well. The new XE30, as previewed by the LF-LC concept, takes things into a different direction. Led by that imposing spindle grille, the front end isn’t shy, and it’s even more in your face with the F Sport trimmings.

The rakish profile, however, looks far better in the metal than the photos suggest, and the rear – from dead-on centre – is striking, even if some of the visual cues seem to be familiar from other places. Whatever it is, there’s nothing bashful about the shape or the lines.

A comparative glance of both new and old IS 250 during the drive shows how much the phase has been altered. Traditionalists will no doubt think the new IS a bit over the top, but if you want to inject excitement into your car, exciting looks surely help. Well, at least that’s the train of thought.

Some may contend with the exterior lines, but no such qualms where the interior is concerned. The old car’s interior space was tight and the seating positions (rear, especially) pinched, to put it simply.

The new one increases the width (by 10 mm), and a longer wheelbase (increased by 70 mm to 2,800 mm) offers better access to the rear seats, while thinner front seat backs means an increase of 85 mm in knee-room.

The cabin is a roomier place, and comfort levels are decent, though there are some issues at the back – the seats are very low-set, so you can’t put your feet under them, meaning that you’ll have to sit with your legs propped up, at which point there’s virtually no thigh support. The tall and wide transmission tunnel also means that any fifth occupant is set to face an uncomfortable time.

Interior elements include a centrally mounted seven-inch high-res display screen, with a remote touch controller working things. The interface is less clunky than that on the GS, with improved logic and better sensitivity to input coming off the Remote Touch Controller joystick.

Other new bits include an analogue clock, which finally replaces the tacky, cheap-looking digital one of old, and a new circular knob Drive Mode Selector system to offer switching between the three driving modes (Eco, Normal and Sport, and on the F-Sport, an additional Sport+ mode). The centrepiece is undoubtedly the F-Sport’s LFA-inspired sliding ring LCD display instrument panel.

Mechanical improvements include revisions to the suspension set-up, which consists of double wishbones up front and a multi-link setup at the back. The wishbones have been reworked, giving a 20% increase in roll rigidity, while the new multi-link system is similar to that featured in the new GS. The IS 250 F-Sport, meanwhile, gets an exclusive Adaptive Variable Suspension System.

The media drive saw only the IS 250 on call, in both Luxury and F-Sport forms. Much has been made of the new IS’ ability to deliver, dynamically. And the car does very well in twisty terrain, as the Simpang Pulai route up and down Cameron Highlands showed.

The new car steers very ably, and tracks through corners in far tighter, cleaner fashion than the XE 20, addressing the second-gen’s shortcomings in this area of performance. The electric steering has a high level of assistance and very little feedback, but is quick, and responds to input and corrections without vagueness.

So far, so good – it’s rather funny to mention Lexus and keenness in the same breath, but here it is. From a chassis dynamics point of view, it’s a significant progression over the old car. While not quite yet the complete measure of the F30 3-Series in terms of balance and scope, it edges closer to its rival than ever before. I’d even venture that it’d make the current W204 C-Class feel spongy in comparison.

The new focus is not without its issues, however. The taut, enthusiastic handling is undoubtedly a strong point, but it also means that there’s some give to ride comfort, which has now been firmed up. It’s not rough, but IS owners will definitely feel more of the road than ever before.

In terms of overall ride scope, the IS 250 Luxury felt much more balanced than the F-Sport. The adaptive dampers worked a charm in the twists and turns, but less so on the highway – there was a small level of oscillation present in Normal mode, and Sport+ jarred off poor tarmac, very noticeable from the back seat. Settling for in between with Sport mode offered the best equilibrium throughout the drive.

The recent agility also exposes the continued powertrain and drivetrain choice to a degree. There’s no contention if you drive it in regular fashion, because all the 4GR-FSE’s smooth and silky characteristics are evident going about town, as is the six-speeder’s transitions across the cogs. Even when you urge it on, the refinement of the 2.5 litre V6 comes across.

Squeezing the most out of the newfound dynamics does however mean the engine – good for 205 hp at 6,400 rpm and 252 Nm at 4,800 rpm, with 8.1 seconds from 0-100 km/h and a 225km/h top speed for performance figures – needs to be kept on the boil. Keeping it singing is the challenge, because when the revs drop it takes a while to climb, and on the way up to Camerons in the Luxury variant, the paddles had to be employed to get the best out of things.

Lexus IS 250 Luxury and F Sport  2

Leaving it in D, even with Sport mode, didn’t quite work here, with gear selection sometimes not responding quickly enough to demand. Paddles on tightened things considerably, though at that point an extra cog in between third and fourth ratios would have been good – too long in third and there’s an element of surging, and fourth at times felt a bit too tall.

Otherwise, the six-speed auto transmission feels polished, its refinement a boon when the car is driven in a less unhurried manner. Which is how most owners are likely to drive it. That it can now handle the way it does when asked to is surely a very big plus point.

Nonetheless, if the brand continues to hone its focus on handling and performance, fresh powertrain – and gearbox – choices look like they need to come about eventually. A group test against its direct rivals should well answer if there are any deficits in the current selection; hopefully, that’s something that can be accomplished soon.

Whatever the case, as it goes, the new IS represents a significant step forward for Lexus. All the hallmarks and core competencies (superb built quality and fine engineering) are present here, but now there’s something new, and it’s called excitement. Sounds exquisite for fans of the brand, and perhaps the only minus is the price being asked for it, especially in the case of the IS 250 F-Sport.