In a luxury landscape now overrun with SUVs, it would appear that the drivers who still choose to drive cars are still in it for the actual driving experience.
That certainly seemed to be Lexus’s thinking when it reworked its IS compact luxury sports sedan (read: BMW 3 Series rival) for 2021. Its presentation of the update – which had its public unveiling on Facebook at 7 p.m. today – is dominated by an emphasis on driving dynamics.
“Agility and athleticism expand pure driving performance,” says the press-release headline. Or, as chief engineer Naoki Kobayashi terms it, “what we had foremost in mind in developing the new IS was to make it a car that excelled in communicating with the driver regardless of the road conditions or driving situation.”
Not only does the new IS itself promise a more engaging, tactile driving experience, it also marks the debut of Lexus Driving Signature, which means the same driving traits will eventually be common to the whole Lexus lineup. Contributing to that goal will be a new 5.3-kilometre test course in Shimoyama, Japan, that was inspired by the famed Nurburgring race track in Germany.
Getting down to specifics, the new IS is not a ground-up redesign but rather a subtle reskin and painstaking refresh of the existing architecture. The wheelbase is unchanged, overall dimensions grow only minimally, and the shape is clearly an evolution of the outgoing Gen-3 model, which dates back to 2014.
Also basically unchanged is the model lineup offered in Canada: the IS 300 rear-wheel drive (RWD) powered by a 241-horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine; the IS 300 all-wheel-drive (AWD) with a 260-hp, 3.5-litre V6 under the hood; and the IS 350 AWD with a brawnier 311-hp version of the 3.5-litre V6. Transmissions remain eight-speed on the RWD and (disappointingly) still only six-speed on the AWD pair. Americans can also have the IS 350 as a rear-driver with the eight-speed autobox, but that combo, theoretically the sportiest, is not offered here.
A lot of detailed chassis fettling, including structural stiffening, new suspension geometry, reduced unsprung weight (for example a switch from steel to aluminum control arms), and an increase to 18-inch wheels/tires should elevate baseline handling across the board. Beyond that, the F Sport option ups the wheels to staggered-size 19-inchers with seriously aggressive 265/35R19 rubber at the rear. Going even further, a Dynamic Handling Package adds adaptive variable damping and lightweight forged-aluminum wheels.
The F Sport package also includes a cool-air intake with sound generator, a unique exhaust and, of course, the obligatory go-faster cosmetic touches.
If Lexus does the chassis-work right, not only will it actively please engaged drivers, but even disinterested drivers should like the way the car feels, even if they don’t know why.
And everybody should get something out of the other enhancements for 2021: An easier-to-reach 8- or 10.3-inch touch-screen display; an enhanced 17-speaker/1,800-watt Mark Levinson audio option; standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; and an enhanced suite of standard safety technologies under the LSS+ 2.5 umbrella.
In the latter category, the pre-collision system (which includes forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking) adds longer-range pedestrian and cyclist detection and improved recognition of oncoming vehicles when making a left turn; emergency steering assist has been added; the dynamic-radar cruise control can now automatically increase vehicle speed for overtaking a slower vehicle; and the lane-tracing (lane-centering) assist feature has improved recognition of lane markers and the edge of the road.
The 2021 model is due in showrooms late fall this year. Pricing has not yet been announced but is unlikely to vary much from the current MSRPs, which start at $41,250.
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