Battling the enemy within the Lexus IS

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The trademark "spindle'' grille has been re-profiled and a set of narrower headlights and new-shape daytime running lights bring it up to speed with the latest look.Photo: Toyota NZ

Selling fewer sedans than its German rivals is one issue Lexus hopes to remedy, and selling fewer sedans than SUV crossovers is a no-less challenging situation the brand also aims to alleviate.

At a media preview of the midlife refresh of the IS four-door car, which introduces styling changes and more tech for minimal $400 to $1000 price increases depending on the model, Lexus management admitted that the obvious Germans rivals _ Audi A4, BMW 3-Series and Mercedes' C-Class _ are not its only foes.

The enemy is also within: keeping sedans relevant in the face of ever-softening popularity is a challenge for almost all car brands, but Lexus seems particularly afflicted.

Last year 73% of the 720 new models Lexus registered were crossovers. It's an accelerating trend, increasingly obvious over the past three years.

The trend means the NX, RX and LX models are going well. On the other hand, some variants of Lexus' famous four _ the IS, ES, GS and LS (the car that started it all back in 1989) _ didn't appear to achieve so much as a single sale.

High time, then, for a review, perhaps even a cull on the sedan side of the showroom? Remarkably, no.

Lexus says even the most sluggish seller (the ES, in case you wondered) is going to be retained and the replacement unveiled at the recent Detroit motor show is also assured a place when it sets up in right-hand drive, probably in 2019.

"All of the sedan range suffers from bias towards SUVs, but we have no intention of dropping any of those [cars],'' says Toyota and Lexus new product guru Steve Prangnell. ``They are still relevant to us.''

If the booted models are to get kicked out, then surely the IS will be the last to leave. Even though just 82 were registered here in 2016, it's still the brand's strongest selling sedan.

The key change now is that safety technology that was an extra on some versions is now standard across the range. Previously, the IS was only available with radar cruise control, but the entire line-up has been updated with Lexus' Safety System Plus bundle, which adds active lane departure, emergency city braking and automatic high beam to an improved radar/camera cruise control system.

All versions have 10 airbags, reversing and surround sonar, rear view camera with rear guide assist, heated and power-folding mirrors, daytime running lamps, automatic windscreen wipers, paddle-shifters, digital radio, LCD multi-information display, a touch controller, satellite navigation, heated and ventilated front seats, voice-controlled infotainment and a tyre pressure monitor.

There are also styling revisions _ not so much the exterior more the lamp shapes and trim. Reshaped air vents on the front bar mimic those on the front of the RC; such is their prominence they lengthen the car by 15mm.

The trademark "spindle'' grille has been re-profiled and a set of narrower headlights and new-shape daytime running lights bring it up to speed with the latest look. It has new LED tail-lights, new exhaust tips on the IS350 and new alloy rims, plus there are some fresh paint colours.

The interior makeover is dominated by the addition of a 10.3-inch infotainment screen, replacing a 7.0-inch unit. There are 15 other small changes inside. Can you pick them? They include the clock, thicker knee pads, heater control and audio panel, steering-wheel switches, shift lever, inside door handles and cupholders (now better-shaped for phone stowage and different cup types).

The driving experience? Two hours' road-driving around Taupo and equal time on Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park suggest it maintains a tight, assertive feel, though understeer still remains an issue for both engine variants. It's not that different to before, but neither should it be. Aside from the front suspension having been revised, with a stiffer upper mount and a new alloy lower control arm and different bushing, there's not been a lot of dabbling.

Likewise with the powerplants. On the pure petrol side, that's a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the IS200t and a 3.5-litre V6 in the IS350, in each instance in marriage to an eight-speed automatic with a quasi-manual shift. Unlike the opposition, there's a hybrid that maintains a 2AR-FSE Atkinson-cycle petrol engine in conjunction with a 105kW electric motor.

The V6 is a jewel, the hybrid potentially makes best sense to those who primarily maintain an urban beat but it's easy to understand why the 200t is the favoured option. It's not an especially power-packed engine, but has beautifully zesty manners and interacts well with the transmission, not least in the F-Sport edition with its additional Sport-Plus feature.

Meantime, Lexus is looking to keep customers in orthodox cars by steering them in another direction.

Newly-installed senior general manager Paul Carroll, a Toyota New Zealand long-timer who has come home after five years in Singapore as an executive vice president of Lexus Asia Pacific, says the impending LC full-sized coupe, due here in July, will be great to drive, too.

Battling the enemy within the Lexus IS
At a Glance

Price: $74,300 (IS200T) to $107,900 (IS350 F Sport)
Engines: 1998cc 16 valve four-cylinder turbocharged DOHC petrol, maximum power 180kW@5800rpm,
maximum torque 350Nm@1650-4400rpm; 3456cc 24-valve DOHC V6, maximum power 233kW@6400rpm, 378Nm@4800rpm; 2494cc 16 valve four-cylinder DOHC with electric assist, maximum power 164kW combined@6000rpm, maximum torque N/A
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic (IS200T, IS350), constantly variable transmission (IS300h)
Brakes and stability systems: Disc/disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD, VSC, TRC, HAC
Safety rating:  Five-star ANCAP
Wheels, tyres: 215/55 R17 IS200T/IS300h; 225/40 R18 IS350
Fuel and economy: 4.9 (IS300h), 7.5 (IS200T) 9.7 (IS350) litres per 100km on ADR combined cycle, capacity 66 litres
Emissions: CO2 113 (IS300h), 175 (IS250) 225 (IS350) g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4680mm, width 2027mm, height 1430mm