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Driven: Lexus launches revamped IS C-Class rival

Sure IS: The new Lexus IS range will go head to head with the best from Germany.

Small price jump for edgier new Lexus IS mid-sizer, plus a hybrid first

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9 Jul 2013

LEXUS Australia has launched its crucial third-generation IS sedan this week, and while the Japanese brand will not disclose sales targets, it expects the expanded range to be more competitive against offerings from the dominant German brands Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.

The redesigned 2013 IS brings to the table an aggressive – and polarising – continuation of the company's trademark ‘spindle’ grille, a more hi-tech cabin and a range of chassis and suspension tweaks designed to sharpen driver dynamics.

The goal, says Lexus, is to attract a new and younger buyer to the brand, with the mid-sized IS seen as both a volume-driver and a perception-changer for a company keen to shed its cardigan-wearing image.

While it will not go into detail on volume projections, the company says it expects a jump in sales, thanks largely to the addition of a comparatively efficient IS300h petrol-electric hybrid offering that will compete against big-selling Euro turbo-diesels.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Lexus has also slapped moderate price increases on all but one member of the eight-variant range at a time when many European brands are sharpening their respective pencils.

The range kicks off at $55,900 plus on-road costs for the IS250 Luxury, a $100 jump over the IS250 Prestige it replaces. F Sport and Sports Luxury versions of the IS250 start from $64,900 (now $1400 cheaper) and $77,900 ($2100 more expensive) respectively.

Luxury and F Sport versions of the IS300h command $3000 premiums over the IS250 at $58,900 and $67,900 respectively. The IS350 range costs $65,000 for the Luxury (up $200), $73,000 for the F Sport (up $1700) and $84,000 for the Sports Luxury (up $3200).

Lexus is alone among volume premium brands to go backwards in Australia this year compared to 2012, with sales down 0.5 per cent to the end of June. On the contrary, the big German trio, as well as British brand Jaguar, have all experienced double-digit growth in our increasingly premium market.

Lexus sold around 2500 IS sedans last year and is on track to fall marginally short of that figure at the halfway point of this year. This number is little more than one-third that of the Mercedes C-Class or BMW 3 Series.

But alongside the RX soft-roader, the IS line is still far-and-away the top-selling Lexus in this country. Furthermore, with 35,000 sold here since 1999, Australia is the world’s third biggest IS market behind the US and Canada.

With major-volume new models such as a small SUV still at least 12 months away, the new IS will have an even more substantial role to play if Lexus is to edge its overall volumes closer to the warring Germans.

“It is reasonable to suggest this new line would be above that average,” said Lexus Australia CEO Sean Hanley at this week’s launch in Melbourne.

Mr Hanley said Lexus “conservatively” expected around 20 per cent of early sales to be the hybrid, with this figure projected to grow swiftly. By 2018, the company says half of its total Australian sales could be petrol-electric cars.

The IS300h’s hybrid powertrain pairs a 2.5-litre dual-injection Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder petrol engine with a synchronous electric motor and an increasingly old-hat nickel-metal hydride battery. Power is sent to the rear wheels (all variants are again RWD) via a continuously variable transmission.

Total system output is 164kW, while combined-cycle fuel consumption is a claimed 4.9 litres per 100km and CO2 emissions 113 grams per kilometre – about on par with entry European oil-burners.

The development budget has not extended to new powertrains beyond the hybrid, however. The familiar 153kW at 6300rpm/252Nm at 4800rpm 2.5-litre V6 in the IS250 and the 233kW at 6400rpm/378Nm at 4800rpm 3.5-litre V6 in the IS350 are carried over.

But while the IS250 retains a standard six-speed torque-converter automatic, the IS350 gains a new eight-speed unit.

Both engines use up to 50 per cent more fuel than the small turbo four-cylinder units found in rival BMW, Audi and Mercedes models. The IS250 uses a claimed 9.2 litres of 95 RON fuel per 100km, while the IS350 consumes 9.7L/100km.

Zero-to-100km/h sprints are dispatched in 8.1 seconds (IS250), 8.5s (IS300h) and 5.9s (IS350).

The new entry grade Luxury variant comes with dual-zone climate control with electrostatic (touch-sensitive) temperature controls, a seven-inch colour touchscreen with navigation, 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry/start, a reversing camera, DAB+ digital radio, electric seat adjustment, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, bi-Xenon headlamps, heated and cooled front seats, leather upholstery and LED daytime running lamps.

The base version also comes with eight airbags and a pop-up bonnet that lifts slightly when the car senses an imminent pedestrian impact, thereby cushioning the blow by putting air between a person’s head and the engine cover.

Sports Luxury versions are fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels, a 15-speaker 835-watt Mark Levinson surround sound system, Blind Spot Monitoring and Lane Departure Warning systems, additional rear-side airbags (making it 10 in total) and a Pre-Collision Safety system with Adaptive Cruise Control.

F Sport variants feature racier bumpers, different 18-inch alloy wheels, LFA supercar-inspired TFT instrumentation and seats, and a special upholstery colour dubbed Dark Rose. The Mark Levinson audio package is an option.

From the fourth quarter of 2013, Lexus IS models will also be offered with an onboard application system called Enform, which syncs with smartphones to provide drivers with access to roadside assistance, navigation assistance, point-of-interest search function and weather services.

The new IS sits on a variation of the larger new GS platform that adds 70mm to the wheelbase and 75mm to overall length. As a result, Lexus says the car now offers class-leading rear legroom – a bugbear of the old model.

Boot space in the petrol versions is 480 litres, or 450L in the IS300h. Lexus fitted the hybrid battery under the boot deck and fitted a tyre-repair kit to the latter to liberate cargo space. All versions including the hybrid have 60/40 split-fold rear seats.

All IS models have a 10 per cent stiffer (and 10kg lighter) high-tensile steel bodyshell than before, a 15mm wider front and rear track and a 20 per more rigid front stabiliser bar, while the double-wishbone front suspension features slightly softer springs to counteract the stiffer front bar.

The rear multi-link setup features some lightweight aluminium components, while the toe-control arm has been moved to behind the rear axle and the coil spring and dampers have been separated. Lexus says this helps ride comfort.

F Sport and Sports luxury add variable adaptive suspension.

The electric power steering adds weight with speed and is said to be quicker and sharper than the old system.

2013 Lexus IS range pricing*
IS250 Luxury (a) $55,900
IS250 F Sport (a) $64,900
IS250 Sports Luxury (a) $77,900
IS300h Luxury (a) $58,900
IS300h F Sport (a) $67,900
IS350 Luxury (a) $65,000
IS350 F Sport (a) $73,000
IS350 Sports Luxury (a) $84,000
*Excludes on-road costs.

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