Today at the Detroit Auto Show Lexus revealed a vehicle that has more opportunity for growth than any other in the Lexus lineup, the new, 2014 IS sports sedan. This is the third major redesign of the IS line for Lexus. Always meant to be a competitor to the BMW 3 Series, the IS has never approached the success that the BMW 3 Series has earned, nor has the Lexus even measured up to the Infiniti G Series, which is also a vehicle built specifically to attract BMW 3 Series shoppers. With the new IS, and with some changes to the marketplace underway, Lexus now has its best shot at growing its sales and also its market share. Here is why buyers might move towards Lexus with this new model.
New Lexus IS Design
Mark Templin of Lexus proudly introduced the redesigned 2014 IS and all-new IS 300h hybrid. Interestingly, Mr. Templin stated that the IS has the youngest buyer in the entry level sport-luxury car class. He said that as if it were a good thing, but young does not often equal super wealthy, so perhaps it is good, perhaps not. In any case, if one has the youngest buyers in the segment, then three things better be special about your car. First, infotainment has to be cutting edge. Lexus has addressed this with an industry first, subscription free, real-time traffic and weather service. The new IS will use the much loved Lexus Remote Touch Interface to control the infotainment system. This is now in its second generation and is at least as good as the BMW system. New electrostatic HVAC controls allow the driver or passenger to swipe a finger to increase fan speed and temperature settings. The dash will feature LFA derived gauges that are very futuristic, but also seem quite functional. An analog clock has been added, not to satisfy younger buyers, but rather because Infiniti and other brands have one, and they cost about $2.00, so why not?
Second, space matters in this segment. Young people have friends they go places with. Those friends need to be in the back seat. The rear seat legroom was a problem for many buyers shopping for the older IS. This new design features more than 3 added inches of rear legroom. In fact, since the old car could put the front seats almost all the way back to touch the rear seats, this may be one of the biggest factors for new sales of this car. Those rear seats also now split and fold. Hockey sticks, snowboards, and other longer items can now be hauled inside the car.
Third, the car had better be a looker. Here too Lexus has made some strides. Drawing on the talents of its designers in the US, France, and Japan, Lexus has built a much sexier IS this time around. The outgoing IS was a good looking sedan, and a great looking hard-top coupe/convertible. However, on the sedan, the rear end and rear quarter panel were a big let-down. It seemed like the designers had given up after they got past the driver’s door. In this new IS the rear is good. It is hard to be great on that part of a four door sedan, but this one comes close. The theme is a wedge that starts low on the front of the car and then swoops up just ahead of the rear wheels and gives the car a flowing look all the way to the back. Mimicking the GS, the rear end is now not a deal breaker by any means. Up front, the new spindle grill is employed, and on the F Sport variants shown at the reveal it is aggressive and bold. New L-shaped LED running lights look sharp and are now discrete from the light cluster above giving the car a cool look. From the sides the car is very recognizable as an IS.
New Lexus IS Drivetrains
In the outgoing Lexus IS, two V6 engines have been offered. The sales leader is a 2.5 liter V6 with just over 200 horsepower. The engine is smooth. That is what everyone says about a weak engine when they want to compliment it. Like saying “she has nice hair.” The IS250 comes with a weak engine and also has weak brakes. Other than going and stopping the car was fine. In fact, it was fine for most buyers in every respect. Slightly, but not dramatically, less expensive than the IS350, it sold pretty well and was popular in snowy areas when outfitted with optional AWD instead of its standard rear-wheel drive trim. Mr. Templin made no mention of the IS250 engine at all. We know it’s coming, but we don’t know if it has been improved in any way. The IS350 of the current model is powerful for the class, and in testing by independent parties, can move the car to 60 in about 5.5 seconds. It regularly bested the Infiniti G37 to 60mph and it was able to beat all but the most powerful BMW 3 series twin turbo V6, a car costing much more. With 306 horsepower, and both direct and port fuel injection, and all the other go fast bits, the engine was and is, fine. Mr. Templin mentioned this engine, but did not specify how much power it now has or any improvements. Look for it to carry over unchanged. The biggest news is that the IS350 gets the 8-speed sequential automatic from the outgoing IS F super-sedan. This transmission is special in that it has a locking torque converter that improves fuel economy and thrust compared to typical transmissions, and has enough gears for a quick launch and also solid fuel economy. This might make a difference in both areas of performance. The IS F sold slowly and is likely gone for good, so this new IS350 will be Lexus’ fastest production car (Forget the LFA, you can’t have one, so it isn’t a production car). It would be nice if it could run a flat 5.0 second 0-60 mph time. It very well may even pull off a 4.9.
The big news in Detroit was the engine that you can’t have. Lexus announced a new, 2.5 liter four cylinder with all the typical power and fuel efficiency tricks mated to an electric hybrid motor. This car is planned for sale in Japan and Europe only. Speaking in outlandish units that this engineering graduate recognized as the metric system, Mr. Templin made bold claims about the fuel efficiency and the low, low CO2 production the new IS 300h is capable of. He may have said the car will not exceed 2.98 Culombs per furlong. The real shocker of the presentation came when it was announced that Lexus expects fully 80% of the European IS models sold to be hybrids. Apparently, shoppers in Europe buy their luxury sports cars based on how little CO2 they create. If Lexus can expand its sales in Europe of the IS, every buyer in the US also wins because it means more parts commonality with a higher volume car. Thus, lower cost, and possibly lower prices for all. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. BMW owns this segment in Europe like Tom Brady owns the pocket after a snap. It may not matter. Europeans like to burn diesel, not gas, due to self-abusive taxation of the lighter distillate.
IS Suspension and Chassis Changes
The current IS has an unnatural steering feel. It used Lexus’ first generation electric steering system and it was just not right. The new GS nails the steering feel a sports sedan should have and the new IS takes that system. The rear suspension is also from the excellent GS, so expect the new IS to be a lighter, more compact version of a fantastic sports sedan ride. Will it win car magazine shoot-outs being conducted by writers who all drive BMW 3s sideways on weekends? Not likely. Will it win over buyers. Bet on it.
Lexus IS Sales Opportunity
Lexus pays its bills selling two models, the ES front drive sedan and the RX, 5 passenger, luxury crossover. The rest is all gravy. The third car in its sales charts is the IS, with the new GS coming fast. Here is something to think about. Would you rather be the sales manager for BMW who sold 99,000 3 Series cars in the US last year, or the sales manager of the Lexus IS line, which sold only 28,000 cars last year. If you know anything about job security you would take the IS job. There is no place to go but up. Now consider that the big news at BMW is that new models of the BMW 3 Series will come with a 184 hp four cylinder engine. Could BMW have made it any easier for Lexus? Just to complete the paragraph, the Infiniti G series sold twice as well as the IS last year with 59,000 units out the door. The G stays with its current setup, so again, Lexus is being served up an easy pitch here to hit one out of the park.
No news about a coupe or convertible has yet been announced. The new 2014 IS goes on sale in the US starting in June.