Lexus Makes IS Sharper

By Derek Price

Driving enthusiasts appear on the verge of extinction.
Buyers who prefer practicality and roominess are snapping up bulbous crossover vehicles as fast as car companies can make them. But people who actually enjoy driving for the visceral thrill of it prefer something like this: the Lexus IS sports sedan.
Fun-to-drive cars like this — with rear-wheel drive, rip-roaring power and sleek looks — are struggling to grow sales in a market that seems obsessed with the mundane. Lexus has responded by heavily refreshing the IS in an attempt to make it more thrilling for the 2021 model year.
Did they succeed? Yes and no.
I just spent a week driving a pre-production prototype of the new IS, and it definitely feels better from the driver’s seat. The whole car seems firmed up with a newfound tightness in the steering and suspension that the old one lacked.
I call it “tighter.” The manufacturer has a fancier phrase for it, “Lexus Driving Signature,” and this is the first car to get it. The new IS was developed from the outset to deliver predictable, noticeable road sensations to the driver that were honed on a test track in Japan.

The 2021 IS sports sedan is the first vehicle to be designed with Lexus Driving Signature, the brand’s method of developing cars that deliver linear, predictable feedback to drivers.

This car does what you tell it to do — and quickly. Steering, braking and suspension travel all feel fluid and linear, without any jerks or surprises, even when driving aggressively and intentionally trying to throw it off balance. It always seems poised and controlled.
It looks better, too, especially from the side profile where a noticeable crease rises up to meet the rear fender. Narrower headlights and a neat twist on the brand’s signature spindle grille freshen the style up front.
Inside, the latest IS is built with the predictable perfection of a Lexus. Everything feels solid, supple and thoughtfully designed, including a new touchscreen that’s conveniently easy to reach. An 8-inch touchscreen comes standard, while cars that are upgraded with either a navigation system or the spectacular Mark Levinson premium sound system get a bigger 10.3-inch screen.
Where the new IS falls flat, though, is raw excitement.
My tester was the V6-powered F Sport version, which ought to be the one that delivers heart palpitations. Instead, the car was so quiet and floated so softly over bumps that it felt more serene than thrilling most of the time.

An optional 10.1-inch touchscreen is available in the new Lexus IS. An 8-inch screen comes standard.

Depending on what you’re looking for, that could be a great thing. It’s an excellent highway car for people who want to have fun on winding roads but also enjoy a silky, silent ride on long trips.
More power would help, too. The 311 horsepower on tap in the V6 powered IS 350 is more than enough on paper but doesn’t feel excessive in real life, again, perhaps because the sound insulation is so darn effective.
You also can get it with a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine in the IS 300. This engine makes 241 horsepower.
Interestingly, Lexus is changing its strategy for F Sport models, which have sportier styling touches and a stiffer suspension. All V6 cars are automatically given the F Sport treatment in the IS lineup for 2021, which means there is no such thing as a four-cylinder F Sport nor a V6-powered version without the sport suspension.
An optional adaptive suspension provides some control over the damping.
Pricing starts at $39,000 for the IS 300 with rear-wheel drive, or $42,900 for the IS 350 F Sport. All-wheel drive adds an extra $2,000 on either version.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport ($44,900). Price as tested (including $1,025 destination charge): $45,925
Wheelbase: 110.2 in.
Length: 185.4 in.
Width: 72.4 in.
Height: 56.7 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (311 hp, 280 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Estimated fuel economy: 19 city, 26 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 6
Price: 8
Handling: 8
Ride: 9
Comfort: 7
Quality: 10
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
The IS is noticeably sharper for 2021 after a major update. Its handling is linear and precise without sacrificing a smooth highway ride, and its fresh styling is more eye-catching than ever.

Posted in Lexus

A Mountain of an SUV

By Derek Price

It’s been more than a decade since the current generation Lexus LX debuted, and you can sense it.
That’s a downside in some ways, including its lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It also has a paucity of driving-assistance features that make today’s high-end cars practically drive themselves on the highway.
Despite its starting price over $90,000, you can’t get it with the Lane Tracing Assist that comes standard on a base Toyota Corolla, for example.
In other ways, the LX’s existence as a rolling relic is a great thing.
Consider its venerable V8 engine. At one time the meaty heart of any luxury car worth indulging in, today the V-shaped, eight-cylinder layout is almost entirely extinct. It’s been replaced by smaller engines with turbochargers, electric motors and other innovations designed for daintily sipping fuel.

A new Sport appearance package updates the look of Lexus’ premium off-roader, the massive LX 570, for the 2020 model year.

There’s nothing dainty about the V8 under the LX’s hood, though. When you mash the gas pedal, it snorts, rumbles and smoothly pulls this massive vehicle up to highway speed in no time. Sure, it burns through lots of fuel in the process, but it’s satisfying and effortless in a way the high-pitched, turbocharged and hybridized engines simply aren’t.
The same thing applies to the structure of this SUV, which feels as if it’s made from polished marble. Freshly designed vehicles, even expensive ones, don’t match the carved-from-rock solidity you sense in every aspect of the LX, from its vault-like doors to its brachiosaurus-bone underpinnings. It’s the definition of sturdy.
That solidity is more than a feeling. The LX, like its Toyota-branded cousin, the Land Cruiser, has a reputation for being almost indestructible, even on extreme off-road excursions.
At its core, that’s what this SUV is all about: having the ability to ford water and climb mountains, all while being coddled by the soft embrace of Lexus leather and civilized amenities, including a chilled box in the center console to keep your drinks perfectly refrigerated while you cross a desert or traverse a jungle.

Top-notch materials, including real wood and supple leather, along with tight construction make the LX’s cabin worthy of its place atop Lexus’ SUV lineup.

You can even look better while doing it this year.
Lexus has done a good job updating the LX’s squared-off, rugged-looking body to somewhat fit in with the ever-evolving, giant-grilled cars it shares space with in dealer showrooms. To my eyes, the Lexus brand’s gaping front end makes for a better and more believable face on this aggressive off-roading SUV than it does on a smaller sedan.
A new Sport Package takes the look even further. Only available on models with three rows of seats — a two-row version with a giant cargo area debuted last year — the Sport adds an exclusive look with chrome accents, a lower rear valence and sportier grille and fascia up front.
The built-in drink cooler is now a standalone option for $170.
Several upgrades pushed the price of my tester over the $100,000 milestone, including a Mark Levinson premium audio system ($2,350) and DVD player with two screens in back ($2,005).

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Lexus LX 570 ($91,380). Options: Wireless charger ($75), cool box ($170), 21-inch wheels ($745), head-up display ($900), luxury package ($1,190), Mark Levinson audio system ($2,350), dual-screen DVD system ($2,005), sport package ($2,510), heated steering wheel ($150), roof rack cross bars ($450), carpet cargo mat ($110). Price as tested (including $1,295 destination charge): $103,330
Wheelbase: 112.2 in.
Length: 200 in.
Width: 78 in.
Height: 75.2 in.
Engine: 5.7-liter V8 (383 hp, 403 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 12 city, 16 highway

Style: 6
Performance: 8
Price: 4
Handling: 6
Ride: 9
Comfort: 8
Quality: 10
Overall: 7

Why buy it?
It’s a sturdy, tested off-road machine with a luxurious, leather-filled cabin and creature comforts.

Posted in Lexus

Spunky, Packed With Value

By Derek Price

One strange side effect of this year’s pandemic is its impact on used-car prices. If you haven’t looked lately, they’re through the roof.
That makes new cars like this — the small Hyundai Kona crossover that starts right around $20,000 — even more appealing.
The Kona is among a fast-growing class of vehicles that combines the best attributes of a seemingly incompatible pair: SUVs and compact cars.
With a choice of two four-cylinder engines obviously designed with fuel economy in mind, along with that close-to-used-car pricing, the Kona fills the need for basic transportation that once drove buyers into tiny sedans and coupes for commuter duty. But because of its SUV-style shape and fold-down seats, it looks and functions better for families.
In my week behind the wheel of the slightly changed 2020 Kona, I was pleasantly surprised at how nimble it feels. My tester was the Ultimate trim, which includes a tiny, 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and dual-clutch automatic transmission for snappier, quicker shifts. The base version comes with a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine and traditional six-speed automatic for a smoother sensation.

The Hyundai Kona eschews the cookie-cutter styling common on small crossover vehicles. It stands out with a massive grille and narrow accent lights on the front end.

One nice addition for 2020 is adaptive cruise control on the Ultimate trim. It does a good job adjusting the car’s speed to the traffic in front of you. Hyundai also adds a bigger, 4.2-inch display and wireless charging to the SEL Plus and higher trim levels this year.
As I see it, though, the best thing about the Kona is how well-equipped the lower trim levels are. Even the base SE comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay for smartphone connectivity, plus sensors and intervention to avoid front collisions, lane keeping assist and a driver attention warning.
Visually, the Kona makes a big statement for a small vehicle. It looks larger than it actually is, both in photos and reality, with eye-catching creases, aggressively slanted accent lights and an oversized grille up front. Whether that’s attractive or not is up for debate, but it certainly fits the aesthetic of modern crossovers.
A low seating position combines with a fairly small back seat and cargo area to make it feel more like a compact car inside. Ample use of hard plastics shatters any illusions of grandeur, but the layout is impressively straightforward and easy to operate.

Bright colored accents in the Kona’s cabin add visual interest to its straightforward, logical layout.

The same applies to its technology. Hyundai’s touchscreen interface is one of the simplest to use and fastest to respond to input, a weak point on many of its competitors.
Another thing I enjoyed about the Kona is harder to describe. It just feels spunky.
Whether it’s because of the refreshingly original and polarizing body, the snappy drivetrain on my tester or the taut suspension that was more enjoyable than the average crossover, something about the Kona makes me smile. It delivered a more emotional reaction than I was expecting — not in the way a sports car for driving enthusiasts would, but in a way that seems warm and happy. Good Volkswagens and Mazdas do the same thing, but it’s rare to experience that in a Korean car.
With front-wheel drive, pricing starts at $20,300 for the SE and ranges up to $27,750 for the Ultimate. All-wheel-drive versions start at $21,700 and peak at $29,350.

At A Glance

What was tested? 2020 Hyundai Kona Ultimate FWD ($27,750). Options: Carpeted floor mats ($135). Price as tested (including $1,095 destination charge): $28,980
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Length: 164 in.
Width: 70.9 in.
Height: 61.6 in.
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four cylinder (175 hp, 195 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 28 city, 32 highway

Style: 7
Performance: 6
Price: 8
Handling: 8
Ride: 6
Comfort: 7
Quality: 6
Overall: 7

Why buy it?
With eye-catching looks, good fuel economy and a lot of content for the money, the Kona aims for the heart of value shoppers.

Posted in Uncategorized