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2017 Lexus IS First Drive

The Lexus IS continues to be a high seller for Toyota’s luxury brand, especially among younger buyers, trailing only the RX crossover in Canada. It has gone under the knife for some subtle design changes for the 2017 model year, but you will have to look pretty closely to spot them.

New headlight lenses shaped to accentuate the standard LED “hockey stick” daytime running lights underneath them, a larger take on the controversial “spindle” grille on F SPORT models, and larger functional intakes on the front bumper work nicely with the chunky wheel arches carried over from last year. New 18” Y-spoke alloy wheels pretty much complete the stylistic transition.

The bigger changes happen on the feature front, both inside and out. LED headlights are now standard on all trims, as is the addition of Lexus Safety System Plus. The package includes active lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, auto-dimming headlights, and pre-collision detection with pedestrian warning. That’s a lot of kit, especially considering that the price of entry to the 2017 Lexus IS range has dropped by $1,000. 

Speaking of which, the IS 200t RWD costs $40,150, the V6-powered IS 300 AWD is priced at $42,950, and the top-spec IS 350 AWD retails for $53,350 (with the F SPORT Series 2 package included). All V6 models come standard with all-wheel drive and a 6-speed automatic transmission, while the base 4-cylinder is only available with rear-wheel drive and an 8-speed automatic. Lexus says the AWD system’s front differential takes up the space required to fit the two extra cogs.

Turbocharged fun
That tempting price of entry becomes even more tempting when you consider just what’s on offer from the turbocharged powertrain. The latter debuted in the NX 200t crossover, so you can imagine what effect its 241 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque (more than what’s made by the V6 in the IS 300) would have on the lighter, rear-wheel drive sedan.

The 2017 Lexus IS 200t is zippy right off the line, the close-ratio gearbox helping reduce the hit of turbo lag inherent to engines like this. That’s the case whether you let the transmission swap cogs on its own, or if you do so yourself. Actually, I used the manual mode more often than I originally thought I would, because the transmission tends to spend a lot of time shuffling through gears when you really start to hustle it along. It does sound good, though; the exhaust note is a distinctive one, and while it is amplified a little through the sound system, I don’t mind it so much since the exhaust notes from many turbocharged engines often leave something to be desired. 

We had the chance to experience the cars on the highway, on some twistier backroads, as well as on a race track. The Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, just outside of Cowichan, B.C., is a very technical track with few straights and a whole whack of off-camber turns and quick chicanes that will easily expose any weaknesses a car’s chassis may have.

It’s here that the new Lexus IS 200t really starts to come alive, especially in the chassis sense. I had high hopes for the RWD/4-cylinder combo as it provides a good balance and reduced weight, which I had a feeling would be perfect for a tight, technical course like this one.

As it turns out, I was right on. Forget that the IS 200t comes from a luxury brand better known for making well-appointed soft-roaders and floaty sedans; this is a proper sports sedan that can go toe-to-toe with offerings from Audi, BMW, and others. Like I said, the track features many turns, but the most notable are two separate chicanes that are tight and require precise steering input and an agile chassis to get right. The IS 200t’s direct rack is good for this, although it is down a little on steering feel so you are left wondering from time to time exactly where the grip limits are. It didn’t help that we were driving in some sopping wet typical of Canada’s West coast in November, but the IS 200t still inspired confidence.

So did the AWD models, actually. Grip out of corners is substantial thanks to that smart AWD system that can transfer power to whichever rear wheel needs it to help provide better turn-in. The linearity of the naturally aspirated V6 helps, too, and as fun as the IS 200t is, you don’t have to work quite as hard to get the most out of the V6 powerplants. You do feel the extra weight of the engine as you start to brake for the corners, however, which leads to a bit of understeer that’s quickly countered by the torque-vectoring system.

At the end of the day, it was the Lexus IS 200t that got my attention, and the one I wanted to take back to the track—which I did, as soon as I got the chance. I can just imagine how good it must feel in the dry.

In the real world, though…
Of course, I’m not saying that the track isn’t the real world. It’s a great proving ground, which is why Lexus has a dedicated testing facility at Japan’s Fuji Speedway. But let’s face it: The chances of any IS owner actually going to the track are very small—probably like 2% small or something. The car needs to be fun when the opportunity presents itself, but it has to work in the day-to-day above all. 

In that light, the V6 models are real gems. The engines (the IS 300 makes 255 hp and 236 lb-ft, while the IS 350 puts out 306 hp and 277 lb-ft) are smooth, powerful, and they’ll cruise for days at low revs, keeping vibrations down and noise out. Road and wind noise, meanwhile, are mitigated by smart body insulation and active noise cancellation. 

It’s in these situations where you can enjoy the 2017 Lexus IS’ next party trick, namely the new 10.3” display (optional on the IS 300 as part of the F SPORT Series 2 package, and standard on the IS 350). It’s nice and clear—and big, of course—and provides some of the controls for the also optional 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. The standard 10-speaker stereo is good, but pales in comparison to the rich sound quality of the upgraded unit, which would be fit for vehicles sitting a few rungs up on the food chain at any luxury manufacturer. However, it’s still controlled by Lexus’ finicky, joystick-style Remote Touch, which proves to be a bit over-sensitive. I think I’d rather just work with an all-touch setup. 

With regard to passenger comfort, Lexus has developed new seats for F SPORT models that are designed in such a way that unsightly ripples and creases in the leather (well, synthetic leather, anyway; only the top Executive trim packages get actual leather) are all but banished to the automotive scrap heap. They’re also designed with more comfort and support in mind without overly crowding the occupants. Indeed, anyone who’s driven the old model will tell you that the F SPORT seats were very, very snug to the point where the more generously hipped among us (like me) would feel a touch infringed upon. That’s no longer the case as Lexus’ engineers have found a good balance between comfort and support.

A great mix
Actually, “balance” is one of the general themes for the mid-cycle refresh of the Lexus IS, especially when you consider the 4-cylinder turbo model. That configuration was only made available last year, and probably should have been from the get-go. 

Want effortless power and a more luxurious feel? Go with either one of the V6 models. If you desire a little more panache, though, the IS 200t hits a sweet spot the likes of which have never quite been reached before by the IS lineup.

 

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