Land of the rising Lexus
Toyota’s luxury brand is changing its ways, starting afresh with a new, more youthful and rebranded image. The new Lexus IS will lead the charge. Dejan Jovanovic drove it in Japan
When I went to Japan for the first time, I banged my head on everything until it became desensitised, after which I just kept right on going through door frames and rice-paper walls.
I almost broke my land speed record in a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya. I caught a domestic flight and only had to show up at Fukuoka airport about 10 minutes before scheduled departure. I went to a six-storey toy store and got lost for days surviving only on edible playdough. I sang the world’s worst renditions of Chuck Berry and Sinatra at a karaoke bar, slept on the floor, was dumbfounded by Japanese toilet bowls, wore a kimono, puffed on a train, started lusting after a Toyota Century, saw an Alfa Romeo delivery van, bought way too many Japanese souvenirs made in China, and drove the new Lexus IS.
That last bit wasn’t the highlight of my trip to this amazing place, but it was darn close.
It’s not just about the car. Lexus put a bunch of us on an Airbus A380 to give us an insight into the relaunch of the brand. They’ve caught on to the fact that their traditional Western buyer base is soon to be an extinct species. Lexus needs younger drivers, hence all the talk of fashion and film tie-ups, invigorated design, a new global tag line, and so on.
I’ll leave it to our host for our adventure in Japan – Shuji Eguchi, a 30-year veteran of ToMoCo drafted straight out of college – to explain succinctly the new Lexus philosophy: “I hate gold teeth. Ceramic teeth are the same price as gold, but gold is progressive luxury, and ceramic is traditional luxury. Well, Lexus is becoming progressive luxury.”
In other words Lexus is about to get swagging with a nice set of 24-carat grillz, yo!
Other people hate gold teeth too, and will hate the new Lexus as well. Lexus doesn’t care. Nobody loves this brand and that’s the problem. There are enthusiasts who are deeply in love with Ferraris, Lamborghinis, even BMWs and Mercs. But nobody really loves Lexus. However, let’s get this straight, nobody hates it either. People are generally passive about the brand. With the new IS, indeed with its upcoming flagship coupé as well (which we will see at the Frankfurt show in September), Lexus will surely irk the traditional collective. But it will also impassion the few. A million or so people will do just fine.
Look, the new IS is certainly not a win-win, it’s a win-lose. Yet we need this kind of diversity in the world, lovers and haters, sashimi and shawarma, otherwise let’s just all go out and drive Corollas. I’d rather be in the Lexus IS. And the reason why I think it’s such a great car – in some ways better than the BMW3 Series and Cadillac ATS, not just in luxury stakes, but performance as well – is because it’s the result of largely one man’s enthusiastic passion for driving.
One man’s vision
Junichi Furuyama is the IS chief engineer who over the past four to five years has poured over every minute detail of his latest Lexus whenever he wasn’t busy racing cars.
“We’ve received input from customers [regarding the old IS] and addressed the problems,” Furuyama told me. But when asked why there is no head-up display like you’d find in most of the IS’s rivals, he answers, without any hesitation, “Because I don’t like head-up.” I can respect that. All great cars in history are the result of one man’s – one enthusiast’s – vision of driving perfection. A committee has never made a great car, ever. Issigonis, Porsche, Ferrari, Shelby, Ledwinka, Bizzarrini, Murray on the other hand…
Obviously I’m not saying the IS is a 250 GTO, but as a mechanical
engineer you’ve got to believe you’re doing the right thing for the driving enthusiast (because you are one) and keep at it. Let the accounting department develop the next Corolla.
There is no stop-start system in this car either, for example, as opposed to most of its rivals. And this is because of Furuyama-san’s priorities. He drew up a list of them and stop-start was somewhere near the bottom. Lexus cares more about the chassis, the sportiness of the new IS, which was at the top of the list.
This is why the car drives great, yet it’s also why there is significantly more rear legroom than before (most in class, in fact) and yet Furuyamasan doesn’t even bother to highlight the vastly increased amount of passenger space.
He likes talking about the performance a lot, though. He likes discussing what makes a car fun to drive. No seriously, this is all coming from the brand that rebadges Toyota Land Cruisers. Furuyama’s team bought a previous generation BMW3 Series as its main chassis benchmark, with the chief engineer also noting the excellence of the Cadillac ATS’s steering feel, another benchmark model they paid for. Right off the bat, the new IS doesn’t match the Cadillac in that department with its GS-sourced steering box and retuned electronic feel. But it makes up with its interior and equipment levels, while the GS platform with a shortened IS-appropriate wheelbase and completely redeveloped rear suspension work wonders to edge this new Lexus into 3 Series territory.
Is it actually sportier than the German icon? My heavily chaperoned highway experience only gave me insight into the quality and refinement of the IS’s ride and the comfort of its quiet cabin. It was once we hit the mountains around Fuji, and once a fellow motoring journalist kindly cleared the way of puttering kei cars, that the liveliness of this new chassis was made apparent. The reduced unsprung weight in the suspension components – doublewishbone front and multi-link rear suspension with plenty of aluminium – and continuously monitored dampers lay into the modest 245/45 R18 tyres with conviction, but surprisingly it’s the car’s electronics that endear the IS to the driver. Over a damp and cool surface and through tight switchbacks up in Hakone, 90 minutes outside Tokyo, the IS allowed me to get back on the throttle ever earlier – initially quite counterintuitive for a modern driver accustomed to the furiously blinking traction control light and rudely interfering throttle map.
With that new rear end you can plant the accelerator pedal well before the middle of the turn and even while the TC light blinks in distress, the physical reaction from the car is to smoothly maintain throttle position and continue gripping through the turn. Provided you go for the aggressively styled F Sport package – spoilers, skirts, sports seats, graphite finish wheels (19s are available) and an exclusive Ultrasonic Blue Mica exterior colour – you also get quicker steering, stiffer anti-roll bars and a brilliant, semi-customisable digital display unavailable in the IS Luxury line.
The future is turbo
A subjective annoyance is that Lexus continues to focus on the carried-over 2.5-litre and 3.5-litre V6 engines, although Furuyama-san admitted that the globally trending turbo path is a development for the future. For now the IS 250’s engine delivers 204 horsepower at 6,400rpm – quite some way off BMW328i’s 240bhp – and the IS 350 offers 306 horsepower at 6,400rpm, with by a pleasing naturally aspirated soundtrack. The 3.5-litre V6 is beautiful; smooth and unstressed at low revs and responsive at the high end.
Better yet is the Aisin-sourced eight-speed transmission (the IS 250 gets a six-speed auto) with a unique Lexus mapping in Sport+ mode. It’s a rare single-clutch automatic ’box that bangs down through the gears under hard braking providing a satisfactory mechanical feel. With a sportscar, and indeed a sports saloon, slowing down is just as important to the enthusiast as speeding up. You might even care to use the flappy paddles behind the wheel for once.
Furuyama-san has been with the Lexus IS range from its very beginning, and with this latest generation – at the third time of asking – he’s finally nailed it. I get the feeling the suits in the boardroom backed away and just let the driving enthusiast get on with it. Perhaps they were too busy with the 2014 Corolla to bother him. Just as well.
The new Lexus IS is the result of largely one man’s passion for driving – and it shows
Furuyama-san, right, has worked to deliver a quality ride, inside and out