Notable features: For more solid body construction, Lexus uses adhesive bonding and laser screw welding -- not just spot welds -- at the bases of the doors, in the wheel wells and in the front headliner. Five more underbody braces increase torsional rigidity.
The suspension design is mostly a carryover, but the rear multilink springs are now inboard of the shock towers rather than incorporated into them. Lexus says that gives better lateral control while cornering.
As for styling, the headlights and taillights sweep more forcefully away to the flanks of the car, and the subliminal language of the headlights is more of a scowl than a squint. The hoodline is more solid than the current tapered version. The shoulder creases are crisper and continue to rise into the rear deck after the C-pillar rather than tapering toward the back. The base of the rear door cut sweeps upward before the rear wheel arch rather than intersecting with it.
On the track, the Lexus IS 350 felt more precise and settled in Sport and Sport-Plus modes than the Mercedes C350 Sport. But the BMW 335i feels more confident and connected than the Lexus. While the exhaust note of the IS is improved, it lacks the throaty grumble of the Bimmer under hard acceleration.
Inside, the driver's hip point is about an inch lower than in the outgoing IS. The leather seats are supportive, but may be too narrow for heavy-set occupants. The electrostatic climate control adjustments are far more precise than those in the Cadillac ATS. With the F Sport models, the instrument cluster is borrowed from the LFA supercar -- putting the car into Sport mode causes the tachometer to slide to the right and open a new digital display of instruments.
Standard features include a moonroof, fog lamps, Bluetooth, SmartKey, heated mirrors, 17-inch wheels, a 60-40 folding rear seat, a 7-inch telematics screen with weather and traffic information from high-definition radio, high-intensity discharge headlamps and light-emitting diode brake, taillamp and daytime running lights. The F Sport has NuLuxe faux leather seats. Foam is injected inside the seat material rather than the leather being wrapped around a seat form.
Safety features include lane-departure alert, blind-spot monitoring, precollision system, radar cruise control and backup camera with cross-traffic alert.
What Lexus says: "My goal was to make the IS the most fun-to-drive vehicle in its class," said Naoki Kobayashi, Lexus IS assistant chief engineer. "Body rigidity was an early focus. We performed 1 million miles of testing."
Shortcomings and compromises: The IS C hardtop convertible and IS F sedan do not get updated yet and remain with the old body style. Europe and Japan get a hybrid version, but the United States does not. The mouse control for the telematics system's cursor is erratic and distracting.
Although the IS gains 3 inches in wheelbase and length over its predecessor, a 6-foot-tall passenger is squished in the back seat if a 6-footer at the wheel is in a comfortable seating position. The elegant spread of the instrument panel in the sibling GS and ES looks crammed in the narrower IS cabin. Even in Sport Plus mode, the paddle-shifting algorithms are too conservative on downshifts compared with BMW and Audi. There is no manual transmission option.
The market: Lexus hopes to sell about 40,000 units a year. That's well short of the almost 100,000 that BMW manages with the 3 series. But when IS sales are combined with those of the ES sedan and CT hatchback, Lexus is neck and neck with BMW. The sales split of previous IS sedans was nearly 90 percent for the base engine, but Lexus hopes to bump the IS 350 to about 20 percent of sales. Pricing will be announced closer to the time the redesigned IS arrives in showrooms in midsummer.
The skinny: The new IS has more design personality than its predecessor, but that likely won't dissuade BMW fans. Still, it's a dogfight for second place, and the IS compares well against the Mercedes C class, Audi A4 and Cadillac ATS.