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As a former U.S. president once asked, what is “IS”? In this particular instance, the subject at hand has nothing to do with illicit relations, but rather with automobiles. For 2006, Lexus launches the second generation of its entry-luxury IS sedan, and perhaps the biggest challenge the automaker faces is giving potential buyers a clear idea of what the ’06 model is meant to represent.
First introduced five years ago, the original Lexus IS was billed as a hip, sporty and affordable alternative to the Japanese luxury maker’s flagship LS 430. The smaller sedan did draw in some of the young, trend-setting buyers that otherwise ignored Lexus showrooms, but their numbers were small, the IS series failing to pose a serious challenge to the segment benchmark, BMW’s best-selling 3-Series.
So Lexus is trying again, with an all-new sedan that starts out with a stiff and solid platform onto which it bolts a variety of high-tech features unexpected in this reasonably low-price segment. The result is a slick and sophisticated vehicle intended to attract a phalanx of new buyers and, in turn, to add more zip to the overall Lexus image.
To see if the new IS lives up to those lofty expectations, we headed to Willow Springs Raceway, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. With its long straights and sweeping corners, Willow Springs likes to bill itself as “the fastest road in the West.” The day we wound up in the parched brown Antelope Valley, it was certainly the hottest, the 109-degree heat baking the track like a convection oven.
The very idea of taking track time in a Lexus might seem anathema to the image of Toyota’s top-line brand. The defining LS430 is the ultimate freeway cruiser, lavish, smooth, and uncannily quiet — but also the antithesis of a driver’s machine. The IS is intended as a sort of antidote for such somnambulant products. While Lexus is, on the whole, an aspirational brand for millions of Baby Boomers — the brand’s median owner is 59 years old — the typical IS owner is just 29.