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Car reviews - Lexus - IS - IS250 sedan range

Launch Story

15 Nov 2005

ONE body. One engine. Three highly equipped models, led by a keenly priced opener.

This is the new strategy for Lexus’ top-to-tail redesign of its IS range.

As the ‘springboard’ into the brand, the new IS250, released this week, replaces three ageing models: the 1999 IS200 and 2001 IS300, as well as the 2001 ES300 MkIII.

The latter, a Toyota Camry-derived front-wheel drive sedan, is dead. Its left-hand-drive-only successor is chiefly for North America.

Priced from $53,890 to $78,500, the IS250 shares nothing bar model variant names with the original: IS250 base, Sports and Sports Luxury.

And like before the German BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-class and Audi A4 triumvirate is the target.

The IS MkII larger in every direction, with length, width and height rising by 175mm, 75mm and 5mm respectively. The upshot here is 35mm of extra width inside.

However, weight has ballooned too. Some models are well-over 220kg heavier than before.

The IS250 is based on a shortened version of the third-generation GS platform introduced earlier this year and retains its predecessor’s rear-wheel drive layout.

But with a new lightweight 60-degree design V6 (that’s 33kg lighter than before) slotted within a longer (by 60mm) 2670mm wheelbase and wider (by 40mm front and 50mm rear) track, it eschews the in-line six-cylinder format that helped make the old little Lexus more unique.

The Toyota subsidiary says this is for better packaging (centre of gravity and weight distribution improves, while engine length reduces) and efficiency, leaving BMW as the sole segment provider of ‘straight-sixes’.

Driving the rear wheels, the 2.5-litre twin-cam 24-valve 4GR-FSE D-4 (direct-injection four-stroke petrol) VVT-i (variable-valve timing) V6 is a high compression-ratio unit (12.0:1) that delivers 153kW of power at 6400rpm and 252Nm at 4800rpm.

In contrast the outgoing IS200 managed 114kW at 6200rpm and 195Nm from 4600rpm from 2.0 litres, while the 3.0-litre engined IS300 could claim 157kW at 5800rpm and 288Nm at 3800rpm.

Emissions outputs are said to better Toyota’s current petrol-electric Prius.

A choice of two new, Aisin-supplied, six-speed gearboxes replaces the old four-speed automatic and six-speed manual IS200 and five-speed automatic IS300 items respectively.

The new manual has an improved shift and clutch action compared to its predecessor, while the automatic has a normal ‘D’ for drive and ‘S’ for sport modes.

In the former, driver-adaptive software alter the gear ratio change-up points according to engine, road and driver-input conditions the latter allows for sequential-shift operation via floor or steering wheel ‘paddle’ levers.

The IS250’s average/combined fuel consumption bears out Lexus’ claims for greater drivetrain efficiency. Its 9.1 litres per 100km (auto) and 9.8L/100km (manual) figures compare to the IS200 man/auto’s 9.9L/100km and IS300 auto’s 11.4L/100km respective efforts.

A revised double-wishbone front and new multi-link rear suspension set-up features coil springs and high-pressure gas-filled monotube dampers.

Aiding cornering stability and comfort are rear toe-control arms, beefy front and rear cross-members and anti-roll bars all round.

The Sports model gains a firmer suspension calibration courtesy of 13mm-shorter springs and lower-profile wheels and tyres. Its steering gear ratio is also unique at 13:6:1 compared to the others’ 13:5:1.

Lexus has adopted road-speed sensitive electronic rather than hydraulic power steering. As well as offering increased fuel efficiency, it is quieter, easier to use and lighter.

Body strength and safety have also made strides for this generation IS.

High-strength steel sheet has been used extensively in a package designed with omni-directional crash-impact protection and impact-absorbing crash boxes for the main chassis rails.

All models have eight airbags – including a world-first twin-chamber front-passenger SRS that helps shield occupants much like "a mother holding a baby effect" front occupants also benefit from a knee bag each.

Stability and traction controls and larger, better brakes using anti-lock technology with brake-force distribution and brake-assist help complete the safety picture. Automatic cars also have a hill-start assist device for smoother take-offs on inclines.

Each IS250 features ‘Smart Entry’ push-button start that requires no key insertion, a 13-speaker all-format audio system that runs to sound-optimised sunvisors, 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seats with heating and cooling, climate-control air-conditioning Lexus’ Encore post-sales privileges program.

For Australia’s asthma sufferers a world-first dust and pollen-removal system – that uses the climate-control function to circulate such irritants out of the interior – is also built-in, along with the DataDot identification theft-deterrent application and a space-saver spare wheel.

Electrically adjustable with memory function Alcantara sports seats and steering column, a sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels with the firmer-suspension pack, HID high-intensity-discharge headlights and fog lights, parking radar and electro-chromatic mirrors help make up the Sports.

Exclusive to the Sports for an extra $6600 is an ‘Option Pack’ consisting of new-generation satellite-navigation, a reversing camera, 14-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio and DVD video, and Bluetooth media compatibility.

The Sports Luxury has these plus Active Cruise Control (that alters your vehicle’s set speed according to the car’s ahead), Lexus’ new Pre-Collision system (that tenses the seatbelts if the car ‘senses’ a likely impact), better leather upholstery, woodgrain trim and a rear sun shade, but no sports suspension a 17-inch wheel package suffices instead.

Lexus is also limiting the options available to the $1500 sunroof on the base car and the $2600 automatic on the two lower-grade IS250s. No manual Sports Luxury is offered.

Lexus says the IS also establishes "global firsts" in electronics (such as the instrumentation and trick satellite-navigation system) and noise attenuation (with liberal application of sound-deadening and vibration-quelling body strengthening).

Famously the old IS200 was dynamically optimised in Australia. This time the Nürburgring in Germany and Japan’s Fuji Speedway circuit were the main testing grounds.

Speed-unlimited Northern Territory did contribute some of the aerodynamic testing, helping to achieve a smoother underbody as well as a more slippery shape. The Cd figure of 0.27 beats the old IS’ 0.28.

Service intervals have been extended from every six months or 10,000km to every 12 months or 15,000km, while Lexus claims low-speed reparability has improved.

Toyota Australia executive chairman John Conomos says that he would greatly ‘desire’ to offer the larger 3.5-litre V6 IS350 and diesel IS220d.

The former produces 228kW of power and 375Nm of torque, while the latter lets loose 130kW and 400Nm respectively, from just a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine.

Mr Conomos is hopeful that the IS350 will eventually arrive.

He admitted that Australia was out of the running for it because the European market initially declined the car, but then changed its mind quite recently.

Now for cost constraints Toyota usually only imports models into Australia that have already been certified for European emissions and other standards, due to their similarities to our rules, hence the IS350’s delay.

And it appears production constraints may be the biggest factor in delaying the diesel’s arrival here.

One Toyota spokesman says Lexus is "waiting and watching" what BMW will do with the 3 Series diesel it plans to launch here later next year.

"Anything they’ll do we will probably do" is Lexus Australia’s usual attitude to BMW.

Lexus fans should also expect further IS derivatives.

One likely contender is an IS430. The IS250’s engine bay is the same size as the GS430 so this is physically possible. In the larger car the V8 currently develops 202kW.

A fastback-style wagon to replace the previous IS generation SportCross model, unseen in Australia, is also on the cards.

GoAuto believes that a hatchback development to battle the BMW 1 Series has also been mooted within Toyota, but engineering resources within the company are reportedly stretched at the moment.

Development of the second-generation IS was overseen by chief engineer of the Lexus Product Development Group, Suguya Fukusato.

His mantra for the model was ‘Fun, Emotion and Movement’, a philosophy he says is inspired by his love of, and participation in, music, cycling, theatre and ancient Japanese archery. One of his many cars is a 1980 Porsche 911 SC.

Having spent 30 years at the Toyota Motor Corporation, Mr Suguya was also behind the MR2, several North American Corolla and related products, as well as some HiLux, European Avensis and Celica iterations.

Lexus says its IS’ pricing strategy is unique to the prestige and luxury segment as all models include many of the features most other rivals charge a hefty premium for – like alloy wheels, climate control leather seats and push-button starting.

Thus the company forecasts that half of all IS250 sales will be the cheapest model, followed by the Sports at 30 per cent and the Sports Luxury making up the other 20 per cent.

Lexus is looking at doubling sales volume initially. Currently it shifts about 115 IS200/300 cars per month.

Since 1999 a little over 9900 IS200 and IS300 cars have been delivered in Australia. For four years until 2004 they accounted for around half of all Lexus sales here – the RX300 all-wheel drive wagon has since usurped it.

A new demographic acronym – NEOs (New Economic Order) are the people that the IS is pitched at. Lexus says they make up 25 per cent of the population, have 50 per cent of all discretionary spending, are very brand-aware, are not defined by age or gender, and make up about 90 per cent of web purchases – in fact they are 2.5 times more likely to buy on-line.

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