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

Friday - - Leisure -

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

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