We're not driving the 2014 Lexus IS F Sport on the Nürburgring, where some of its development took place. Rather, we're driving this exemplar of the new third-generation IS around carousels and corkscrews, through kinks and hairpins, all copied from Spa and Laguna Seca, Fiorano and Road Atlanta. This greatest-hits collection known as Driveway Austin Motorsports is approximately 2.0 miles around.
Alas, we're not driving very well. In hopes of coming to terms with the '14 IS, we eat our pride and ask to ride along for two laps with Yoshiaki Ito, whose business card pronounces him Chief Expert and Lexus Meister. "I'm not a racing driver," Ito says when we're under way. Yet his on-track assessment was crucial in the refinement of other successful Lexus models-the LFA supercar and the GS-as well as to this IS.
Ito projects the F Sport around the highly technical course with the delicacy of someone who would build dollhouses for his wife, which is in fact his hobby. The driving mode, set in Sport+, brings out the best of the adaptive suspension and eight-speed automatic transmission, and Ito's use of the paddle shifters is spare and strategic. With automatic rev-matching on downshifts, the car stays silky and as well balanced as a hipster's fedora.
Thanking him for the lesson, we try again for ourselves. Now with a better feel for the racing line and braking points, the F Sport begins to speak. It exhorts us to trust the chassis, the tires, and the pit bulls that are biting all four ventilated discs. It tells us exactly where the limit is, how hard to turn the wheel, and why we don't need to lift before flicking the car to the right at a previously intimidating bend. It's as if we had stopped expecting a rumbling in German and instead heard a murmur in Japanese.
The F Sport stands atop a revised lineup that improves in every way except for carryover engines. As before, there are the IS250 and IS350, but each is now available with all-wheel drive and in F Sport trim. The IS F and IS C are no longer offered. There's no hybrid because Lexus already fields the CT200h. Sales start in mid- to late-summer at as-yet-undisclosed prices.
Exterior improvements are immediately notable. The spindle grille here is the best exposition so far of this signature Lexus feature. Bold indeed, it really pops against real-life backdrops like the limestone structures seen all around Austin. The F Sport's full-frame version of this grille is filled with a torrent of black mesh, but even though it's functional, supplying extra air to the inboard brake ducts unique to this trim level, it reminds us of some dude wearing a fake beard. Separated from the headlamp clusters, swooshy LED running lights are appealing accents on all trims, and twin-projector LED headlamps are available.
As well and truly as the designers nailed the car's face, the profile view, with the line swooping up from the rocker and joining the taillights, is contrived and somewhat alarming. On the track, the F Sport, now with a 110.2-inch wheelbase (up by 2.7 in) looks unnaturally stretched. Perhaps we'll get used to it.
We have few reservations about the new interior, which makes the old one look like an abattoir. The layout is way better, with window switches more readily at hand and an unmessy center stack and console. Two-tone trim is highly pleasing, and the F Sport, which is mostly black inside, offers a wonderfully contoured bucket seat and a delicious wheel that's now equipped with power adjustments. The view down the track is excellent. Reaching the end of the longest straightaway, we dare to glance at the TFT screen's digital speed display, copied from the LFA, but can't read it. (Not so in the BMW 335i that was kindly provided for comparison: 115 mph.)
Electrostatic switches that control cabin temperature through the automatic climate system are a touch-sensitive triumph. These slender wedges are tall for warm and short for cold, so it's not necessary to look away from the road. Being perfectly logical and not too bad looking, either, they're superior to those found, for example, in the Cadillac XTS.
For the first time, thanks to the sedan body that's 10-percent stiffer because of obsessive welding, the liberal use of structural adhesives, and some additional rear-end bracing, the IS has been outfitted with 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks. The new, more compact multilink rear suspension contributes to greater trunk room. And the 1.6-inch increase in rear legroom paid off with a comfortable enough experience when we rode back there, crossing town to the start of our countryside driving route. However, even though we're of medium stature, head-butting the window frame was unavoidable when getting out.
The IS abounds with apps and brims with technological brilliance, including an industry-first: subscription-free traffic and weather information with the HD Radio service on all audio systems. Selecting one of three modes allows driving in Eco, Normal, and Sport, while in the F Sport the latter becomes Sport S and the equivalent of Superman's cape, Sport+, is added. (All-wheel-drive models include a Snow setting.) And the instrument panel is configurable to include navigation or phone menus, among the many choices.
We don't think the IS should be faulted for sticking with the two holdover engines. They're smooth enough, and helped by direct injection they return decent performance. The 2.5-liter V-6 is good for 30 mpg on the highway, while the 3.5-liter V-6 nudges the car from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds.
The eight-speed automatic in the IS350 (but not with AWD) is a nice addition, too. To the tiresome question of whether a manual transmission is offered, the answer is no. And why not? Because only the 44 inhabitants of Crackpot Junction would buy it that way.
The improvements to this third-generation IS make it capable of cruising around town or over back roads in perfect civility, with pleasing luxury appointments and whiz-bang amenities for daily life. This is true even of the IS350 F Sport. Yet on the track, it automated our improvement. The same will be true for you, even if you can find the racing line without the Meister's help.
Engine: 2.5-liter V-6 with VVTi and direct injection
Power: 204 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 185 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 with VVTi and direct injection
Power: 306 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission: Six- or eight-speed automatic
Drive: Rear- or all-wheel
Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Front suspension: Double-wishbone, coil springs, gas shocks, stabilizer bar
Rear suspension: Multi-link, coil springs, gas shocks, stabilizer bar
Brakes: Four-wheel disc, ABS
Tires: Bridgestone P225/45VR17 or P255/35YR18
L x W x H: 183.7 x 71.3 x 56.3 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Track (F/R): 60.4/61.0 in
Weight: 3461 to 3737 lb
Cargo volume: 13.8 cu ft
IS 250 7.7 seconds
IS 250 AWD 8.3 seconds
IS 350 5.6 seconds
IS 350 AWD 5.7 seconds
IS 250 140 mph
IS 250 AWD 131 mph
IS 350 143 mph
IS 350 AWD 131 mph
IS 250 21/30 mpg
IS 250 AWD 20/27 mpg
IS 350 19/28 mpg
IS 350 AWD 19/26 mpg