A true sporting saloon
There was a time when the idea of a Japanese luxury car with handling good enough to take on Europe’s best would have been nothing more than a pipe dream. Quite simply, Japanese luxury cars were just that – luxury cars bursting at the seams with goodies, sound system technology, leather, woodgrain trim, and road manners more in the Cadillac land yacht mould than lithe BMW sporting saloon.
There were people within the motor industry who maintained that the Japanese could build cars that handled as well as European ones. They just didn’t want to – or need to. The sceptics among the motoring media took that line of thinking with a grain of salt.
And then along came the Mazda MX5 which took the best features of a British open sports car and added bulletproof reliability to the age-old recipe of fine, agile handling. Journalists’ perceptions began to change, as too did some Japanese cars as their makers began to realise that driving enjoyment was equally as important a part of the mix as reliability, durability, a good level of features and solid build quality.
Which brings us to Lexus’ IS250 Sport, a compact luxury four-door that is very much in the BMW 3-Series mould. It’s a sleek, distinctive-looking car, with a rising wedge beltline accentuated by narrowish rear side windows. The IS250 has a classic compact performance saloon layout – six-cylinder engine (in this case a 2.5-litre V6), 18-inch alloy wheels, big brakes, and rear-wheel drive (Lexus has gone RWD-only for its entire range, in true BMW fashion). The bodywork is low drag – the coefficient of drag is 0.27 – and was designed using a wind tunnel and the unlimited-speed roads of Australia’s Northern Territory. Toyota says the slippery wind shape helps performance and acceleration and also cuts fuel use. We’d accept the latter: in some very hard driving using lots of second and third gear running, we averaged 10.5 litres/100km, and a colleague saw averages in the seven .litres/100km bracket on a long but brisk open-road journey.
Inside there’s a sports-oriented dashboard with hooded instrument panel, suede-like upholstery on the sports-shaped seats (the Limited gets leather), and a perfect-sized, leather-wrapped steering wheel. The driver’s seat – or rather the relationship between it and the pedals and the steering wheel – was our only real quibble about the IS250. Somehow it didn’t seem quite right – we had similar feelings about the Toyota Yaris and our regular Corona drive car also has an uneasy relationship between the seat and controls – and it irritated a troublesome tendon in my right hip. Automatic air-conditioning has separate controls for driver and front seat passenger, the CD sound system is a 13-speaker unit that’s MP3 compatible, and windscreen wipers deploy automatically when they sense rain.
The passive safety system includes 10 airbags – among them knee-protecting bags for the driver and front passenger – and a safety cell cabin. Active safety includes adaptive headlights that “see” around corners, ABS anti-lock braking, and chassis and stability control systems. The IS250 uses a keyless ignition and locking system: the “key fob’s” presence in your pocket allows you to unlock and lock the doors and it also activates the push-button switch that starts and shuts off the engine. Hit that push-button and the engine settles into a nice, smooth and quiet burble (you have to have your foot on the brake pedal before the engine will fire).
The six-speed automatic gearbox shifts smoothly and imperceptibly and the level of quietness is impressive, even on coarse chip-sealed roads. Mash the throttle and the car leaps forward, galloping along the motorway with consummate ease and impressive silence. But it’s in the twisty stuff that a true sports saloon should show its mettle. We hit favourite roads, and open up the throttle. The Lexus leaps into action with a nice, cammy snarl, and we settle in for an enjoyable couple of hours. The quick – 2.9 turns lock-to-lock – electronic power steering offers good feel and feedback, and the well-sorted chassis tells you exactly what it’s doing. Turn-in is instant and crisp without being too direct and the Lexus is easy to place accurately. The big tyres – 225/40 R18 at the front and 255/40 R18 at the rear – combine with the front wishbone and rear multi-link suspension to provide exceptional grip.
The overriding impression of the handling is one of finely-honed balance. There’s near-undetectable understeer (only noticeable if you turn into a tight corner on a trailing throttle and then hit the accelerator, causing the nose to sledge ahead for an instant before the front wheels bite). But a degree of understeer ensures stability: cars that truly handle neutrally (the second generation Toyota MR2 is one) are tricky on the limit, require a high degree of sensitivity from the driver, and will snap into oversteer almost without warning.
The IS250 changes direction with aplomb and will tackle the most demanding twisting and turning road with absolute security and confidence. Corner speed capability is very high and the IS250 thoroughly deserves the Sport name.
A car with this potential needs strong brakes and the Lexus’ ventilated disc front/solid disc rear combo works extremely effectively.
The quad can VVT-i V6 develops 153kW of maximum power and 252Nm of peak torque and provides excellent performance.
Combine that with the responsive six-speed automatic gearbox and the well-mannered chassis and you have an intoxicating driving experience. The gearbox can be shifted manually, using steering wheel-mounted paddles which shift with exemplary speed and smoothness and are surely among the best of their type.
The IS250 is proof that a Japanese manufacturer can build a truly fine-handling sporting saloon car that offers plenty of comfort – including a supple ride – and standard equipment, along with good fuel economy, outstanding build quality, and all at a competitive price in the mid-$70,000 range. It’s little wonder they’re selling like hot cakes.