Onto the track and the new transmission is more aggressive in its response. Photo Gallery
Paul Gover road tests and reviews the 2013 Lexus IS prototype in the US.
John Travolta and Nicholas Cage turned things upside down in the action blockbuster "Face Off". Now they could easily star in an automotive re-make of the movie, if Lexus and BMW hadn't already filled their starring roles.
Just as Travolta went from nasty to nice and Cage went cop to crook in Face Off, Lexus and BMW have traded places in 2012.
The Germans have gone soft and cushy with the latest 3 Series and, after driving a lineup of disguised Lexus prototypes this week in the USA, I feel that the new IS is probably now the ultimate driving machine.
This is my second deep dive with Lexus - after a preview drive of the GS last year - but landing in Los Angeles I'm aware that the new IS is the most important car in the history of Lexus.
The original LS400 was a bigger gamble, but this is the car that must bring younger buyers to the brand and finally give Lexus a prestige starter car that's more than just nice, but... Lexus knows it too, which is why chief engineer Junichi Furuyama has only brought F Sport versions of his IS to LA and only seems interested in the way the car drives.
There is nothing about comfort or quietness in his short, sharp, presentation and he only talks about the back-seat space when I raise the obvious question. "When developing the new IS, we set ourselves the target to be the best fun-to-drive car," Furuyama says. "We believe we were able to achieve that." He talks about driving harmony and fun, as well as the car's "flavour", before a brief technical rundown.
The IS lineup is basically unchanged, although there is now a hybrid model - still to be confirmed for Australia - and the IS-F could change into an upcoming IS coupe. There is nothing to report on prices because the car will not be stripped of its camouflage until the Detroit motor show in January and Australian deliveries do not begin until the second half of next year.
Still, based on Toyota's red-pen work this year on the showroom stickers of the all-new 86 and Corolla, it would be no surprise to see a slight drop from the current base prices of $55,800 for the IS250 and $64,300 for the IS350.
Also, I cannot comment on the final finishing, or the equipment, because the various prototypes were still some way from showroom standard and almost everything in the cabins was covered with metres of black tape.
A similar IS was well beaten by the Benz C and BMW 3 in my prestige comparison earlier this year and I'm reminded of the outdated cabin, cramped back seat and suspension that makes the car feel a bit skittish.
But the new IS is improved in many, many areas, finally getting a useable back seat and a much bigger boot. It's two ticks there.
The cabin space is a huge improvement with better-shaped front seats. The wheelbase is out by 75 millimetres but there is 90 more in the back-seat space, and even the door opening has been enlarged for easier access. The view from the back bench is also helped by front seats that are set 20 millimetres lower, although that was done to improve comfort in the front. Oh, and the boot is about 20 per cent larger.
The hole in the dashboard points to a 20-centimetre display screen, the new switches and stalks feel more substantial, and Lexus promises a review-camera across the local lineup.
It gets 10 airbags and a standard reversing camera with parking radar.
The IS is basically new - "about 80 per cent of the parts" - but shares its mechanical package and suspension layout with the bigger GS. That means rear-wheel drive with more travel and control, but the basic body is much more rigid.
It has a system that plumbs engine intake noise into the cabin during enthusiastic driving. Among the claimed improvements for driving enjoyment are lighter steering, better Bridgestone tyres, softer springs and rear suspension that separates the springs from the dampers.
There is now an eight-speed automatic gearbox with various driving modes, and the gauges are a new take on the impressive TFT layout in the Lexus LF-A super car.
The cars are waiting and the first job is a couple of track laps in the superseded IS, just to set the ground rules. Onto the track and the new transmission is more aggressive in its response, the front end grips better and the car sits a little flatter through the curves.
So I step up to the camo 350 and find more of the same, with extra urge of course, and a bit more compliance in the rear suspension. But it's the road drive that will provide the real answers, so we hit the freeway and head for the hills. Literally.
The IS250 is immediately quieter than I remember - Furuyama confirms big cuts to wind and road noise - and the eight-speed auto is great. As the road turns twisty the IS responds in the way I used to expect from a BMW. It responds eagerly to the wheel and drives confidently through turns.
The IS350 is not as precise - with an extra 30 kilograms in the nose - but the extra punch makes any short straight a fun run. I also enjoy the LF-A-style instruments and the multi-mode automatic, which responds almost like a manual in the sportiest setting.
So I'm convinced. These are real driving cars for people who take their motoring seriously, but they also have the sort of practical improvements that are essential for the long-flawed IS. Yes, the IS could do with more punch as both a 250 and a 350, I'm not a fan of plumbing engine noise into the cabin, and one of the suspension set-ups is significantly better for grip and comfort.
But those are relatively small things. Overall it's a great drive. There was a time when the IS was really just a tweaked Toyota, but the new cars have grown up and improved in so many ways. Now I'm waiting to get the 'real' car out from under the camo and onto some home roads to ensure I have the story right. But, right now, it looks to me as if the BMW benchmark batton has been snitched by the IS.
A one-day run is not enough for a final verdict, but I have rarely pushed a car as hard as I did in the California canyons - or hustled as enthusiastically as I did on a closed course at the Santa Anita raceway - without finding something big to complain about.