Updated IS sedans keep the faith

Lexus buyers are showing less interest in sedans than ever, but there’s no intention to drop any and the IS remains especially relevant.


MAINTAINING pace with the so called ‘three-G’ (for German) rivals continues to shape the smallest Lexus four-door, but a more pressing issue is keeping sedans relevant in the face of ever-softening popularity.

Speaking at the preview of an updated IS mid-size sedan range, which maintains all previous models but introduces styling changes and more tech for minimal $400 to $1000 price increases depending on the model, Lexus New Zealand high-ups reiterated view that even though a consumer swing toward sports utilities is especially pronounced here, the quartet of orthodox four-door cars Toyota’s premium brand produces remain relevant.

Nonetheless, with the crossover NX and RX and the fully off-road capable LX together achieving 73 percent of the 720 Lexus registrations achieved in 2016, it has become increasingly challenging to keep steering buyers toward the wholly road-tuned fare.

Government-compiled registrations statistics for the past year suggest Lexus NZ could conceivably either wholly give up on, or at least slim down, its orthodox road car offers to concentrate wholly on more elevated cars.

However, Steve Prangnell - ostensibly general manager sales of Toyota NZ but in this instance speaking for the prestige side - says no sedans, not even the ES whose two versions cumulatively claimed 20 sales, are for the chop.

In fact, the new ES – unveiled at the recent Detroit motor show – is definitely of high interest, though it’s maybe two years away.

“All of sedan range suffers from bias toward SUVs … but we have no intention of dropping any of those (cars). They are still relevant to us.”

Certainly, among the four-doors, the most relevant in 2016 remains the IS; though even then just 82 were plated up, of which all but 20 being IS200Ts.

That count looks poor compared with the elevated fare. Even the gargantuan and increasingly outdated LX secured 59 buyers, while the NX won 201 and the RX 262.

What to do? Paul Carroll is a Toyota New Zealand long-timer who, after five years in Singapore as an executive vice president of Lexus Asia Pacific, has come home to become senior general manager of Lexus NZ – the sixth to take the helm in the brand’s presence here.

Carroll does not deny contention that Lexus here has had 27 years of slow-burn evolution. And keen, too, to give Lexus a gee-up – the sales target this year is 800 units - and reckons that’ll require effort from the entire family, not just the crossovers.

Though he smiles at being thought of an ‘Akio acolyte’, Carroll certainly also shares the belief espoused by Toyota/Lexus boss Akio Toyoda that Lexus has to push itself as a provider of fare that – in addition to setting the standard for build quality – also shines brightly for above-average driveability.

Every new model launched since 2102, the ES included, has been a better driver’s car than anything previously created by the brand, and it’s only going to get better. The impending LC full-sized coupe here in July and the LS flagship sedan arriving at the end of the year will both be great to drive, Lexus contends.

But how does the brand here convince customers? It’s happening already; prior to every round of the summer motor-racing championship involving the premier Toyota Racing Series, Lexus has staged customer experience days, with hot laps, slalom driving and driver assist technology demonstrations.

Could it do more? The potential for outright performance driving days at circuits is not being discounted by Carroll. Nick Cassidy – a multiple NZGP winner and now Lexus GT3 works driver in Japan – would seem to a natural choice to do for this brand what Greg Murphy has for Holden (and Holden Special Vehicles).

Ice driving at the Southern Proving Grounds between Queenstown and Wanaka has become the ‘in’ thing with Audi, BMW and Mercedes and courses are always over-subscribed.

But Carroll is – pun intended – is cool on emulating that idea. “I think it’s probably a nice thing to do but, quite frankly, I feel it is far more relevant to have a day when people can drive on the dry than on the ice – most people don’t drive on the ice that often.”

So to the IS. You know the opposition - the Audi A4 (304 sold last year), BMW 3-Series (269), Mercedes C-Class (569) all provide stern opposition and so far a model tailored to emulate style, equipment and dynamic aspects of all three hasn’t done the job.

The key change now is that safety technology that was a cost-extra on some versions is also now standard across the range. Previously, the IS was only available with radar cruise control, but the entire line-up has been updated with Lexus’ Safety System Plus bundle, which adds active lane departure, emergency city braking and automatic high beam to an improved radar/camera cruise control system.

All versions have 10 airbags, reversing and surround sonar, rearview camera with rear guide assist, heated and power-folding mirrors, daytime running lamps, automatic windscreen wipers, paddle shifters, digital radio, LCD multi-information display, a touch controller, satellite navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, voice-controlled infotainment and a tyre pressure monitor.

There are also styling revisions – minimally to metalwork, moreso with lamp shapes and trim. Reshaped air vents on the front bar mimic those on the front of the RC; such is their prominence they lengthen the car by 15mm.

The trademark ‘spindle’ grille has been re-profiled and a set of narrower headlights and new-shape daytime running lights bring it up to speed with the latest look. It takes new LED tail-lights, new exhaust tips on the IS350 and new alloy rims, plus there are some fresh paint colours.

The interior makeover is dominated by the addition of a 10.3-inch infotainment screen across the line, replacing a 7.0-inch unit. There are 15 other small changes inside. Can you pick them? They include the clock, thicker knee pads, heater control and audio panel, steering-wheel switches, shift lever, inside door handles and cupholders (now better-shaped for phone stowage and different cup types). The sat nav operation is still a muddle and, because Toyota is working on an 'alternate' system with a supplier, the infotainment system still misses Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality.

The driving experience? Two hours’ road driving around Taupo and equal time on Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park suggest it maintains a tight, assertive feel, though understeer still remains an issue for both engine variants. It’s not that different to before, but neither should it be. Aside from the front suspension having been revised, with a stiffer upper mount and a new alloy lower control arm and different bushing, there’s no been a lot of dabbling.

Likewise with the powerplants. On the pure petrol side, the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the IS200t and the IS350’s 3.5-litre V6 continue to marry to an eight speed automatic with a quasi-manual shift and respectively create 180kW/350Nm and 221kW and 370Nm.

The IS300h, meanwhile uses a 2AR-FSE Atkinson-cycle petrol engine rated to 133kW in conjunction with a 105kW electric motor for a combined total of 165kW.

The V6 is a jewel - bit a drinker when pushed - the hybrid potentially makes best sense to those who primarily maintain an urban beat but it’s easy to understand why the 200t is the favoured option. It’s not an especially power-packed engine, but has beautifully zesty manners and interacts well with the transmission, not least in the F-Sport edition with its additional Sport Plus feature.