The new Lexus IS is upon us. You can’t have one.
Even before the C-19 pandemic swept away all previously held norms and nostrums, the motor industry had been undergoing something of a shakedown on a number of levels. Old orders were either tumbling or at the very least teetering on less than solid foundations, as customers voted, as they are prone to do, with their credit scores. Amid those sectors experiencing that unmistakable sensation of cold steel upon the nape of their necks was the upmarket-brand, rear-wheel-drive close-coupled sportive saloon.
In some respects, it’s something of a surprise that this market sector has managed to survive this long, since the cars themselves, not just bloated shadows of past glories, fall some way short of real-life viability when it comes to accessibility, space, and utility. Throw fashion into the mix and really, it’s amazing anyone bothers with them at all.
What’s more, the market has broadly decided that it only really wants these cars with the three pointed star of Baden-Württemberg or the propeller of München Milbertshofen upon their ever-broadening schnoozes. Therefore, despite the likes of Audi, Volvo, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus grubbing around the table for fallen scraps, the game is more or less up – unless of course you happen to be a disruptive EV interloper from Palo Alto.
Once upon a time, Lexus was spoken of in similar terms to that of Mr E. Musk’s fashionable perambulatory devices, but despite the Japanese luxury carmaker’s commitment to hybrid propulsion, the brand has been undergoing something of a crisis of confidence of late. Having met with early success, Lexus has never quite come to terms with the somewhat inevitable backlash that comes with it – especially in the US market, where the bulk of their sales success has stemmed.
Initially criticised for bland styling, the carmaker latterly adopted a highly stylised form, with probably the most unmistakable grille signature of any premium carmaker, yet to little real avail. Nowadays, critics complain of polarising looks – there really is no pleasing some people. Styling is of course a matter of personal taste, and as many mediocre cars have sold on style as good ones have not, based upon its deficit.
The outgoing 2013 (XE30-series) Lexus IS was a good looking car, notwithstanding some of its more outré styling flourishes. A good car as well, it would seem, Lexus proving themselves to be the logical choice of those who intend to keep their cars beyond the usual 2-3 year lease period. Nevertheless, take-up has not been stellar, the default German-brand hegemony proving irresistible to the majority of punters.
This week, following delays owing to the political volatility across the US and elsewhere, Toyota have officially announced a heavily revised version of the IS. Basically a reskin of the outgoing car, the new IS aims for a holding position rather than anything more ambitious. So weight has been cut, rigidity has been enhanced, as has overall length – albeit fractionally.
The body styling is broader across the hips, yet maintains a litheness which was one of its predecessor’s more attractive visual features. The body maintains its signature scoops and slashes, but emerges as a more mature stylistic product. Inside, changes are less obvious, but apart from the inevitable advancements which have taken place amid infotainment displays and the like, it appears rather refreshing in its lack of wall to wall tech.
None of which of course makes the slightest difference to those of us on this side of the world because the new IS will not be sold in Europe. The reason for this, say Lexus is that the paltry sales of the outgoing model can no longer warrant the costs incurred. In a declining market, and one the carmaker states where European customers are only interested in their crossover offerings, another nail has been hammered into the sector’s coffin. Given its likely fate in the US market (where crossover is king) it’s very difficult to see how Lexus can justify another once this one runs its course.
It may take a while yet, but it really is beginning to look as though this is a sector about to run out of road. Because if someone with the size and scale of Toyota cannot make it work, the auguries are not good. But while Lexus have other fish to fry, what of the sector leaders? I would suggest that if this announcement isn’t met with some sobriety amid German boardrooms, it perhaps ought to be.
13 thoughts on “Not For the Likes of You”
Good morning Eóin. Your requiem for the IS (for Europe, for now) prompted me to look back over the four generations. The original was an absolutely lovely piece of work:
Such an apparently simple, but perfectly realised design. It also came in this rather fetching five-door variant:
The second generation model was another handsome car, if a little slab-sided with a rather pinched DLO:
After that, it started to go wrong, with the spindle grille and random slashes to make it ‘more emotional’. I look forward to the day when a designer announces that they wanted to make their new model ‘less emotional’.
RIP the IS. We should have appreciated you more when you were in your prime.
The first generation IS looked marvellous from outside except for those horrible aftermarket fishbowl rear lights which looked like special offer items from a cheap accessory shop. The absolute deal breaker was the interior which was made from nasty materials and looked like it was meant to impress five year olds with its G-shock inspired instrument set.
Hi Dave. Yes, those tail lights were a bit aftermarket looking. I wonder if anyone offered a genuine aftermarket replacement that was more ‘OEM’ looking? In fairness, the rear is not helped by the additional rear foglamps in the boot lid, which weren’t fitted to JDM cars.
Regarding the interior, I remember one reviewer describing the speaker grilles in the front doors as looking like they had come from a 1980’s ghetto blaster.
I can still forgive these deficiencies because of the purity of the basic design.
Yes! Lots of different aftermarket items, some red, some smoked, all better than the chintzy originals. Here’s an example:
I think I was mistaken when I said that the JDM version, called the Toyota Altezza, didn’t have the rear foglamps. I thought I’d seen images of cars without them, but cut find any now.
That early ’00s fad of putting round graphics into rectangular or trapezoidal light units still doesn’t trigger any sense of nostalgia from my side. It’s also one of the reasons why I count the VW Phaeton’s facelift among the more successful of its kind (in sharp contrast to the Passat B5’s).
In general, did clear rear lights ever work on an aesthetic level? If I ever bump into him, I’ll certainly feel obliged to ask Uli Bez why on Earth he felt the wonderful early VH Astons needed those aftermarket rear light units…
It wasn’t just the speaker grilles that looked naff, the whole interior looked like a ghettoblaster with large areas of painted plastic
Had they used ‘normal’ partitions for the rear lights instead of the circular chrome sphere they wouldn’t have needed the foglights in the boot lid.
Bang on the money with this, Eóin. Pleasing people is often a difficult, unrewarding part of life. Lexus has to try something though but for me, I won’t be shedding tears of this version not heading for Europe. The last iteration oozed class but are seen so few and far between that they sadly become forgettable. This new take does seem to have a Germanic stance and appearance which, of they are to be sold stateside, may sell them a few. That side “tick” being particularly aggressive along with the back end which just doesn’t add up to me; Lexus should be more sober (barring Fuji-Sport versions) a conservative approach that once upon a time stood them well. I can’t this car making it to the facelift – but would we know, notice or care?
The Mk1 is superb: in the now rarely seen unadorned form. Around where we live are a handful that have been wrapped in garish hues, wearing over-aggressive wheels and growly exhaust, hideous beasties. Never seen the five door version though, nice one Daniel.
Lexus has always struck me as a confused, and thus confusing, brand. The name, so close to luxus, implies luxury; its first model, the LS400 carried off that brief extremely effectively, being squarely aimed at Mercedes. Then came the IS200, but that had the BMW 3 series in its sights -again, not a bad shot, but at a very different target. In between was the GS300 and that was, er, something in the middle. So what is a Lexus; a Mercedes rival, a BMW beater or just an upmarket Toyota Camry? I know that the sophisticates that people these pages like to think that we (for I am self-including on this one) are above the flim-flam of PR, branding and all that hogwash, but are we really? Everyone knows what a Jaguar or Rolls-Royce is (or a Citroen was), and something similar applied to a Merc or Beemer back in day when Lexus was conceived (I am not entirely convinced this will survive the A class/2 series/multiple Tonka model explosion of recent years, but as we head to electric pods who will care?). It seems to me Lexus is falling because it doesn’t actually stand for anything.
That said, were I the kind of man my head still thinks I should be (against a near lifetime of evidence to the contrary), ie one with a handsome and discreet villa in the south of France, the choice of getting there these days would likely be between a first class rail seat or an LS600.
Never mind the first generation interior, I still lust after an Altezza with the four-pot BEAMS engine, but as a pensioner I sadly couldn’t afford the running costs.
After the hoopla of the past three weeks with selected teaser shots and hyperbolic promises of improbable greatness, out pops an IS that is nothing beyond yet another update of the basic IS, a small-interiored car sent to chase the BMW 3 series of 1999. Ooh look, they’ve welded in a few gussets here and there, set a load of junior designers at the side-sculpting with ‘orrible results, and fiddled with the overall styling a bit. The mechanical specs are unchanged and the AWD version still has a hump in the floor for the transfer clutch. Underwhelming doesn’t begin to describe the result. RWD suits California and the southern US, but everyone else wants AWD and the Camry V6, not the popcorn Lexus 2.0t which isn’t close to the Germans, if they consider an IS at all. $60K with a few options. 2019 versions (let alone 2020 and this “new” one) are offered on the Lexus Canada website with minor discounts.
The real Lexus franchise is the RX350/350L Comfy Utility Vehicle with Camry V6, 35% of all sales, the ES (Camry/Avalon) sedan at 15%, and the NX chugger version of the RAV4 at 20%, now with the last generation chassis. All sorts of this and that bric-a-brac, some 15 or so models, vies for the remaining 30%. The LS500 has no V8 any more, but either a twin turbo Camry V6 or Atkinson Camry V6 and hybrid drive – both sell in handfuls. All of these poor brutes face the world with grilles only suitable for a Las Vegas bordello hallway decoration next to the stuffed elk heads.
Lexus is a brand that offers excellent quality, great dealer service experience for the types who expect servants to hop to it, and a version of a ridiculous grille someone dreamt up in a nightmare. Most of them are re-purposed Toyotas with better interiors except LS, RCF and LC models. It’s enough to flog 300,000 vehicles a year in the US to various people, most of whom wouldn’t know and don’t care about automotive engineering pedigree. Of the 2000s era the really decent one was the GS V8 and even Doc Martin worked that out in the middle series, Before Beak. No more V8 these days though.
Yawn, it is what it is. Toyota’s not panicking and suffering wonderment at the lack of a unifying corporate engineering ethos. They’re just product SKUs. The IS is a dawg not even in the hunt against A4, 3 series or C-Class, and the Tesla Model 3 wipes the floor sales-wise against even the Germans in this market segment. Makes you wonder why Lexus bothers, but it’s no doubt very cheap to make with paid-off production machinery and Camry V6 engines made by the hundreds of thousands, cheap as chips but very smooth and no turbos to worry about. That’s all she wrote.
“Grilles only suitable for for a Las Vegas bordello hallway decoration next to the stuffed elk heads.” You have exceeded yourself, Bill! My putative LS600 would have been pre-bordello, obviously, as a man of taste.
If this is the beginning of the end for the compact 4 door sports saloon / sedan, we should all be upset. These cars are genuinely useful, pragmatic, and efficient, but the market has been fooled into thinking that an SUV is required family transport these days – or even just suburban transport for the aspirational.
Autocar ran a feature recently imploring the need for cars to shed the weight. These cars are of course generally lighter than the equivalent SUV, as well as more aerodynamic. Unfortunately, Autocar commissioned Matt Saunders to write the article, and he could turn even the most thrilling news into turgid prose, so it will have no wider impact.
Quattroruote did some excellent journalism on this subject back in 2016. I don’t have a link to the original article handy, but here is a precis:
“They first selected a bunch of vehicles where exactly the same engine is installed in a car and an SUV (or MPV). Each pair was fitted with test equipment and put through the same three custom-designed driving cycles, duplicating typical average driving on city streets, arterial roads and motorways. The aim was to precisely measure how much more the SUVs burn than cars with exactly the same engine.
“Worst of all was the Mercedes-Benz GLC 220d, which overall used 23 percent more than the C220d sedan.
“The Jaguar F-Pace 2.0d was better. It consumed 14 percent more than the XE sedan with the same Ingenium diesel.
“The differences discovered by the Italians were much reduced at the small end of the spectrum – Mazda 2 v CX-3 and Renault Clio v Captur – but in every single case the taller, heavier vehicle consumed more fuel, and therefore emitted more CO2.”