2014 Lexus IS first drive review

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The 2014 Lexus IS is here, and it has a serious set of challenges ahead of it: Taking on the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C Class, Cadillac ATS, and the upcoming Infiniti Q50. Can it hang?

This group is one of the most highly competitive in the entire industry, with luxury, performance, and style all being balanced on a razor's edge of price. Hitting the sweet spot can make or break a model's success, and directly impact a company's bottom line, as these are bread-and-butter models for almost every company involved.

It's clear, then, that there's not much room for getting things wrong. Fortunately for Lexus, the 2014 IS hits most of its marks.

Two engines are available, with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive, and F Sport packages available on the entire range, making it easy to find a combination you'll like.

The entry-level engine in the 2014 IS 250 is a 2.5-liter V-6 engine rated at 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. While it's not going to inspire triple-digit heart rates, it's up to the task of accelerating the IS sedan to highway speeds at an acceptable rate, and even willing to play when manually shifted through the six-speed transmission's paddles. Gas mileage in the IS 250 is EPA rated at  21/30 in rear-drive models, and 20/27 in all-wheel drive versions.

The 2014 IS 350 gets a 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque 3.5-liter V-6 engine that really wakes up the IS' chassis. Punchy, with a fairly wide torque band and smooth around-town characteristics, the IS 350 is definitely the choice if you want to put a little spice in your drive. Gas mileage doesn't take much of a hit in the upgrade from the IS 250 either, at EPA-rated figures of 19/28 mpg in RWD and 19/26 mpg in AWD.

When equipped with rear-wheel drive, the 2014 IS 350 gets the new eight-speed automatic transmission. Smoother, quicker, and more refined than the six-speed transmission in the IS 250 (or the slightly different six-speed in all 2014 IS AWD models), the new eight-speed is very well-suited to the IS' character, and competitive with any alternative offering in the luxury sport sedan class.

A new, 20 mm (0.79 in) lower seating position gives the driver more of a sense of being seated in the car rather than on it, enhancing the sense of control and involvement in sporty driving.

Of course, the IS takes the luxury/performance dichotomy from a different angle than the Germans. In fact, in some ways, it's more BMW than the latest 3-Series.

Upgraded Suspension

How so? Because the F30 3-Series is much softer and more ride-centric in its suspension specification, without the taut, well-damped feeling of previous 3-Series iterations. The IS takes its suspension tune in the other direction, adding a level of firmness and sophistication to its nature, especially in F Sport trim, that's a welcome improvement for the enthusiastic driver.

A 20-percent stiffer front anti-roll bar, a stiffened chassis (through the addition of many structural braces, rather than an outright redesign), a new multi-link rear suspension that moves the spring off the damper, and the F Sport's unique auto-manual dynamic suspension all contribute to this refreshed handling and ride quality experience.

2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

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The auto-manual suspension system, or Adaptive Variable Suspension as Lexus terms it, uses conventional hydraulic dampers rather than the increasingly common magneto-rheological setup you'll find in other dynamic suspension systems. So how does it adjust on the fly? Through the use of small computer-controlled motors mounted atop the dampers.

Those computer-controlled motors adjust rebound and compression damping forces on the fly, in response to the road surface, driver inputs, and chassis motion. The range includes 9 settings for each parameter, with some overlap, for a total of 21 possible "steps" in damping force. The result is a very predictable, confidence-inspiring sense of control.

The AVS suspension system also ties into the Drive Mode Select system on F Sport models, engaging a stiffer, more track-suited mode when the drive mode is set to Sport S+.

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