The significant update with the IS, is the new Lexus Safety System+ along with other subtleties.
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA – The entry-level luxury sedan crowd is one that never stops evolving, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. Whether it’s in the professional urban centre or the suburbs, cars like the stalwart BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Audi A4 (reviewed here) all carve out their piece of the ownership pie. The Lexus IS isn’t one to be forgotten, however. Getting its start on this side of the ocean in the 2001 model year, it has grown and changed to chase a different customer – a customer that exists in much greater numbers. This is most evident in the second-generation Lexus IS – a very strong seller in North America. It added more of a premium luxury focus, with the practicality of all-wheel drive, which the first-generation IS lacked (full disclosure: I own a first-generation IS300).
The third-generation Lexus IS arrived back in 2014, with edgy styling that challenged the typically-sedate entries from Europe. At the time, it was an almost-extreme take on Lexus’ “Spindle Grille”, and even today, it’s still very extreme and very polarizing. It got bigger to better compete with roomier rivals, and it retained the excellent naturally-aspirated V6s from the second-generation IS. For the 2017 model year, there are a number of updates to one of their most important models, and I was invited to the new Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit just outside Victoria, to check it out.
The 2017 Lexus IS doesn’t look dramatically different from previous models: the spindle grille is actually even more aggressive with larger brake ducts in the lower outboard portions of the bumper. The headlight housings feature a new shape and new standard LED low-beam, with the LED daytime running light remaining separated from the rest of the headlight housing. Out back, new taillights feature a prominent amber section as well as re-shaped LED light pipes. New exhaust tailpipe finishers flank a more aggressive rear diffuser-like section, too. It’s not a radically different look for a radical-looking car (for its class), but the small updates shouldn’t be difficult to spot on the roads.
Inside, there are more updates to the Remote Touch infotainment interface, but the mouse-like Remote Touch controller remains, aside from some added Enter buttons. It’s an interface that is about as polarizing as the exterior design, and comes with its fair share of detractors. Knob-based dials from competing manufacturers are generally better at this point – the drawback of Lexus’ system remains, as it requires a high amount of hand-eye coordination in order to effectively make your way around, which can be difficult at speed. What’s interesting: the 2016 IS 200t gains a standard reverse camera, which alleviates the one major issue mentioned in our previous review of the 2016 IS 200t.
The significant update with the IS, is the new Lexus Safety System+, which adds adaptive radar cruise control, pre-collision warning system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, lane keeping assist, and automatic high-beam control. This is similar to the Star Safety System that’s being added to new Toyotas (Toyota Safety Sense). Standard on all 2017 Lexus IS models, this new addition will be appreciated by many.
Where the IS doesn’t really change is in the powertrain department. At the entry-level, the IS 200t carries on with a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making the same 241hp as before. It is paired up with an eight-speed automatic transmission and sends its power only to the rear wheels. The IS 300 AWD is the next step-up if you’re looking for AWD traction, and its 3.5L V6 is tuned for 255hp. At the top of the range is the IS 350 AWD. Its engine still displaces 3.5L, but a more aggressive tune sees power output rise to 306hp. Both AWD models carry on with a six-speed automatic transmission.
If you were expecting the updated IS to drive similarly to the previous model, you’d be right. The on-road portion of the program showed off the V6 smoothness and soundtrack of the IS 300 and IS 350. The IS 200t (reviewed here) exhibits a different sound and feel, with generous low-end torque that comes on early with minimal turbo lag. The IS 200t gets Lexus’ Active Sound Control for 2017. The turbocharged powertrain is inherently quiet, and ASC helps augment those sounds through the speakers. Unlike the GS-F (reviewed here), where ASC can only be toggled on and off, the IS 200t features a multi-position dial so you can choose exactly how much noise is produced as you get on the throttle.
The second-half of the program consisted of track time on the new Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit. Recently completed, it is a course designed by Hermann Tilke (renowned in Formula One), and features significant elevation change (almost 100m over the course of a lap), and numerous off-camber corners to keep you alert. Overall, this motorsport country club is a challenging and densely-packed track. It’s smooth, built to FIA specifications, and has a mountain range in the background for you to look at when your eyes are off the cars.
I got a chance to put all three versions of the IS onto the track – the two V6 AWD models are noteworthy on how drama-free they are. The all-season tires are a weak point if you’re chasing maximum grip, but that’s not really what these cars are all about. While both the IS 300 AWD and IS 350 AWD feature more horsepower, the IS 200t is actually the most nimble, thanks to its reduced curb weight, simpler rear-drive powertrain, and turbocharged midrange punch. Its eight-speed automatic transmission is also the best of the bunch, with sharply-defined shifts and enough ratios to keep the engine in its sweet spot. The F-Sport seats also do a good job holding you in place, with aggressive bolstering that is practical enough to live with every day. Out of the three, the IS 200t was my favourite to pilot around the track.
The 2017 Lexus IS doesn’t change significantly, but all the little changes add up to a car that will continue to sell well in Canada. The IS 300 AWD ($42,950) is expected to be the volume model, with its smooth V6 engine that behaves better than most of its turbo-four competitors. The IS 200t ($40,150) is the enthusiast’s model, but its lack of all-wheel drive may see typical customers shy away from it, somewhat. Sitting at the top of the range is the fully-loaded IS 350 AWD, stickering at $53,350. The edgy styling was something the world seemed a little unsure of at first, but it has been embraced by Canadians in pursuit of what Lexus is best at. We will have more versions of the IS for a week-long evaluation at a later date, complete with fuel consumption numbers and even more detailed impressions.