Road trip season is upon us, and we suspect there’s some kind of law against taking a Citibike across state lines. Craving superbly designed four-wheeled rides, we sent writer Marc Kristal out to Rockingham Speedway to take the latest from Lexus for a spin.
The 2014 Lexus IS 250 F-Sport. (Courtesy Lexus)
While “Waku-Doki” may sound like a production number that got cut from The Lion King, it is, in fact, a Japanese term that describes the excitement of an adrenalin rush—or, as the Toyota waku-doki website puts it, “the feeling you get when your heart pounds with anticipation.” And if “waku-doki” and “Toyota” seem incompatible, the soon-to-be-in-a-showroom-near-you 2014 Lexus IS may cause you to bid sayonara to your uncharitable assumptions. Partly this derives from chief engineer Junichi Furuyama’s fine-tuning of the IS’s “fun to drive” quotient, defined by Lexus national product marketing manager Owen Peacock as a car that “immediately and precisely responds to the driver.” But it’s also a function of aesthetics. According to Bill Camp, the company’s dealer education administrator, the previous incarnations of Toyota’s luxury brand were (music to our ears) “too beige”: even if a Lexus zoomed up behind you doing 100 MPH, you wouldn’t get out of the way. With the 2014 IS, and the F-Sport version in particular, Lexus has produced a model in which style and performance are cohesive—a design that is beige no more.
It’s also, at just under $36,000 for the IS 250 (and closer to $50,000 for the more powerful, fully bell-and-whistled 350 models), surprisingly well-priced for a high-performance luxury car. As such, the IS fills an open niche in the Lexus line, targeted toward 45-year-old men and women—“active singles and couples,” says Peacock—entering this particular zone of the luxury market, whether stepping up in class, downscaling from automotive McMansions, or making a lateral move from something comparably priced but less exciting.
The 2014 Lexus IS 250. (Courtesy Lexus)
And exciting it is, as we discovered roaring our way, confidently if incompetently, around a test course at North Carolina’s fabled Rockingham Speedway. The IS is fitted with a “Drive Mode Select” switch with “Eco,” “Normal,” and “Sport” settings (“Sport +” and “Snow” are also available); while the Eco mode saves fuel, and Normal offers a steering assist that produces a more traditionally smooth driving experience, the Sport setting delivers tighter steering, better throttle response, more aggressive gear shifting, and, on the F-Sport model, an Adaptive Variable Suspension feature that optimizes the car’s already snug connection to the road. (Though the F-Sport kicked our waku-doki up into the red zone, our favorite among equals was the 350 rear-wheel-drive model that, on Marks Creek Township’s country roads, with Elvis pealing from the 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound system, combined sure handling with a high luxury and comfort quotient.) The IS also offers an enhanced navigation system and customizable information display that, in addition to destination routing, helpfully predicts traffic flow, directs you to nearby gas stations and—when boredom sets in—features a ten-app package that includes stock market and sports info.
We’re not sure the IS’s aesthetic threat level will be scaring any Ferraris into the slow lane, but the beige factor has unquestionably been diminished. The most notable new feature is the model’s spindle-shaped grille (an homage to the product manufactured by the father of Toyota’s founder), which combines with the squint-eyed headlamps to create a coolly aggressive front end. More impressive from a design standpoint is what’s within: lowered, ribbed seats that embed you more firmly in the driving experience (both actually and psychologically) and operation and display zones that have been visually rationalized to ride comfortably within the driver’s purview.
This year, Lexus introduced technology specialists to help new owners understand their cars’ capabilities. This automotive version of Apple’s Genius Bar is sure to support the tech-forward IS line—and is as waku-doki as anything in the vehicle itself.