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(AP) - The compact, entry-level Lexus IS sedan is redesigned for 2014 with an edgy attitude.
From styling that includes deep strakes at the door sills to an interior brimming with technology and new, electrostatic climate controls that adjust with the swipe of a driver's finger, the 2014 IS exhibits a modern, aggressive flair.
It's more than appearance or gimmicks. The IS, which carries the lowest starting retail price of any Lexus, has a more rigid body than before plus revamped suspension and steering for a sportier ride. A new, eight-speed automatic transmission makes gear shifts based in part on g-forces that the car encounters during spirited driving.
Longer and tad wider than its predecessor, the 2014 IS also has 1.6 more inches of rear-seat legroom and improved trunk space.
And the 2014 IS, with 10 standard air bags, earned a top, five-out-of-five-stars safety rating from the federal government. Last year's IS earned four stars overall.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $36,860 for a base, 2014 IS 250 with the 204-horsepower, 2.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive. The lowest starting retail price for an all-wheel drive, 2014 IS is $39,395 and this includes the 2.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic.
The eight-speed tranny, with paddle shifters so drivers can shift forward gears without a clutch pedal, comes only with the uplevel, 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6.
A rear-wheel drive, 2014 IS 350 with this engine and transmission has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $40,375.
No four-cylinder engine and no manual transmission are offered.
But the main competitive target for the IS _ the BMW 3-Series sedan _ continues to be offered with fuel-thrifty four cylinder and manual shifter. Starting retail price for a base, rear-wheel drive, 2014 BMW 320i with 180-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder and manual transmission is $33,675. The lowest starting retail price for a rear-wheel drive, 2014 BMW 335i with 300-horsepower, turbocharged, inline six cylinder and eight-speed automatic is $44,325.
Meanwhile, the rear-wheel drive, 2014 Cadillac ATS compact sedan with 321-horsepower V-6 and six-speed automatic has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $54,625. The ATS also is available with lower-powered four cylinder.
The 2014 model year marks the third-generation IS, but the V-6s are carried over from the previous year.
The power they produce is competitive for the luxury sport sedan segment. But more memorable is the smoothness with which the power is delivered.
Power came on forthrightly and with nary a shift point being felt from the eight-speed automatic in the test, 2014 IS 350 AWD sedan. Whether merging onto highways or steering deftly through congested traffic, the test IS 350 moved easily and with poise.
Engine sounds from the direct- and port-injection V-6 were strong and confident, and there was just a bit of coasting when the driver let up on the accelerator.
Torque from the 3.5-liter V-6 peaks at 277 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm. This compares with 300 foot-pounds of torque starting at a low 1,300 rpm for a punchier feel in BMW's 335i sedan with turbo six cylinder.
Fuel economy for the IS 350 AWD was adequate, averaging 22.9 mpg in combined city/highway travel. This was enough to travel nearly 400 miles on a single, 17.4-gallon tank. Lexus says premium unleaded gasoline is required, so a tankful can cost more than $62 at today's prices.
The federal government's best IS mileage rating is for a 2014 IS 250 RWD model: 21 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway. But this is less than the 22/32 mpg rating for the more powerful, 2014 BMW 335i with automatic. The IS ratings are, however, better than the 18/28-mpg rating for a six-cylinder-powered Cadillac ATS.
Of course, handling is key in the luxury sport sedan segment, and the IS 350 tester exhibits strong body control in curves and turns.
Brakes worked fast and strongly and response to brake pedal pressure was pleasing.
The electronically controlled Drive Mode Select feature allows drivers to choose whether to drive in Eco, Normal or Sport mode, and, in F Sport trim models, in a more aggressive Sport-plus mode. All-wheel drive models also have a Snow mode.
Shift points were immediately quicker in Sport modewhile steering feel had more "play" in Normal mode and throttle response was lessened in Eco mode.
Adding to the driver's comfort is a compactly sized, sport steering wheel with a thick, smooth rim and a cockpit-like interior tailored to the driver.
The power lumbar support for the IS driver seat gave an impressive amount of push and support to the lower-mid back.
But some people may be turned off by the new IS styling that includes dramatic front spindle grille and sharp-cut daytime, light-emitting diode running lights.
Riders sit rather low compared with seat positions in some other cars, so it's not uncommon to be at eye level with the taillights of a full-size pickup.
In addition, some more heavy-set drivers and passengers may fuss with the form-fitting front seats.
The IS back seat is best for only two as the middle person has a large hump in the floor to contend with. Even a 5-foot-4 passenger in an outboard back seat had just a couple inches of clearance from the ceiling.
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