Four into two adds up with IS250
Base doesn't mean basic with the latest entry-level version of the Lexus IS250, reports Rob Maetzig.
While it's a bit difficult to associate the word 'base' with the word 'Lexus', that's what Lexus New Zealand has done with its entry-level luxury sedan, the IS250.
Late last year, the company pared down its selection of these cars from four to two, claiming that the reason behind it all was because these days luxury vehicle customers are looking for multiple levels of specification.
So it reduced the IS250 fleet, to the extent there is now a base version that retails for $69,990, and a Limited version that retails for $85,890.
But here's where that theory about the multiple levels of specification kicks in.
At the same time, Lexus NZ has expanded the range of options on offer. There are now six option packages available for the IS250 so a customer can create a vehicle to suit a particular need such as safety, comfort, entertainment and style.
POWER PLANT: 2.5-litre DOHC 24-valve V6 petrol engine with intelligent variable valve timing, 153 kW at 6400 rpm, 252 Nm at 4800 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Rear-wheel drive. Six-speed automatic transmission with manual over- ride, via Tiptronic-style shifter or steering wheel paddles. Double wishbone front suspension, multi-link set-up at rear. Electric power steering. Full suite of stability control and traction aids.
HOW BIG: Length 4575mm, width 1800mm, height 1425mm, wheelbase 2730mm.
HOW MUCH: $69,990.
WHAT'S GOOD: Athletic looks, excellent ride and handling, magnificent build quality, plenty of optioning choices.
WHAT'S NOT: Rear boot space a little lacking, 16-inch wheels make the car look under-tyred, particularly at the rear.
OUR VERDICT: I think this Japanese car used to beat the Germans at their own game - but now it has lost ground to arch-rival the BMW 3-Series.
And that means that if I owned an entry-model IS250, I could do all sorts of things with it.
I could replace the 16-inch alloys with 17-inch versions for $2000, or install a leather power seating package for $4200, or option in satellite navigation and a Mark Levinson 14-speaker premium audio system for $10,000, or for $3500 install an advanced safety package that includes radar cruise control, a pre-crash system and front and rear parking sensors.
Or, I could forget about all of that and install an F Sport package that costs $16,200 and which includes a sporty steering wheel, sporty leather and power- operated front seats, sports suspension, 18-inch wheels, spoilers and other exterior 'fruit', and various other bits and pieces.
All of which, if you do the numbers, can put the price of the entry-level IS250 up to virtually the same price as the Limited.
It's all a good idea, really.
When Lexus NZ rationalised the number of vehicles in the IS line, the least expensive version was a manual Elect model which retailed for $71,250, which means that this new-age model does broaden the opportunity for more people to get into the Lexus brand.
But all of this does beg an obvious question: If someone simply went out an purchased the bare-bones $69,990 model with none of the optional extras, what would it be like?
I've just spent a week driving one, and I've got to say that it's great.
My only minor issue with the vehicle is that it is shod with 16-inch wheels which make it look seriously under-tyred. I mean it's nowhere near as bad as those cars that you sometimes see with the yellow space-saver wheels on them, but considering this is supposed to be a medium- sized luxury sedan with performance credentials, it just doesn't look right.
So I'd immediately increase the purchase price by $2000 or more by asking for 17-inch or even 18-inch alloys.
But I don't think I'd bother with anything else, because this IS250 appeals for its unadulterated sporting nature. It has a lovely chassis, and a responsive 2.5-litre V6 petrol engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission which includes big paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
I've got a favourite route that I like to use for some spirited driving - it's out in the country, and it's a lovely combination of fast open roading and more involving winding bits. The IS250 handled it beautifully, to the extent that I did the circuit twice.
The engine is an all-alloy direct injection quad-cam unit that delivers maximum power of 153 kilowatts, while the top torque is 252 newton metres. It is nicely connected to the auto transmission with the paddles – the downshift paddle is on the left of the steering wheel and the upshift version is on the right, and they are in the perfect location to be operated with the fingers no matter what the steering position.
There haven't been any major changes made to the vehicle since it received a mid-life facelift about a year ago. In fact, the only difference with this latest model is that it now has a USB input jack which allows those aboard to play music files directly from a portable MP3 player or memory stick.
But that's all. It means the modifications made to shock absorbers, stabiliser bars, suspension bushings, coil springs and the electric power steering, which were all in the interests of improved steering feel and ride comfort, remain.
And that's great. The IS continues to be a lovely sedan to drive – its combination of nice balance, rear-wheel drive and shortish wheelbase means the car offers sharp handling, and the power steering system gives a nice sense of feel.
But here's an important point.
If I owned one of these Lexus sedans and made it look just a little better via the 17-inch alloy wheels, it would make it just $3760 less than one of the very best cars I've driven this year, the turbo diesel-engined BMW 320d.
It's interesting to note that when the IS line was introduced by Lexus, its rear-drive straight- six design was so it could be a direct competitor to the 3-Series. So even now we have to assume that the Beemer is the vehicle that the IS250 should be judged against.
This latest-generation 3-Series - particularly that lovely 2.0-litre diesel model - is classy product that is making full and impressive use of latest technology. The IS250, despite its facelift, is now starting to show its age a little.
It all begs an obvious question: If there was a choice, which car would one buy? I know what I'd purchase, and as good a car as it is, it wouldn't be the Lexus - at least until an entirely new version arrives on the scene.
- © Fairfax NZ News