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Lexus IS rises, again, to challenge BMW 3 Series

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Forget Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Think Wyatt Earp: Zombie Slayer.

Spare a thought for the beleaguered BMW 3 Series, which leads an existence resembling a classic Western film crossed with a contemporary zombie flick. 

Consider that, as the reigning compact luxury sedan, every upstart that moseys into frame thinks it can earn a name by merely besting the BMW. Yet every time the 3 Series smites these pretenders, they claw their way out of the ground to challenge it anew. Repeat, for roughly 25 years. It must be exhausting.

Joining the recharged ranks of the undead at the Detroit auto show on 15 January was the 2014 Lexus IS sports sedan, which goes on sale in the US in June, with Asian and European markets to follow. It will offer a choice of V6 gasoling engines: a 2.5-litre unit or a 3.5-litre motor generating north of 300 horsepower. Other de rigeur dynamic equipment includes rear or all-wheel drive, as well as an available 8-speed automatic transmission.

The new IS stretches over a longer wheelbase than the outgoing model, affording rear passengers more legroom, and features a larger trunk with a split folding rear seat. Though that enlarged pass-through between trunk and cabin can reduce chassis stiffness, Lexus engineers used new welding and bonding (engineer-speak for "glueing") techniques to make the IS even stiffer than before. That yields improved steering response and better ride control.

The 2014 IS borrows its multi-link rear suspension from the midsize GS sport sedan, for improved ride and handling. It also features a Drive Mode Select system with settings for Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus – for the higher-speed, higher-priced IS350 only –that let the driver optimise vehicle systems such as shock absorber stiffness, transmission shifting and throttle response to suit the driver's preference for fuel economy, comfort, performance and handling.

Inside, the cockpit is "LFA-inspired", said Lexus general manager Mark Templin during the car’s introduction – a reference to the $400,000 limited-production hypercar Lexus just concluded building

The IS250 and IS350 are joined in the US by the F Sport model, distinguished by an "exclusive spindle grille that incorporates a bolder design insert", according to a Lexus media release, which is the polite way to say it is really ostentatious. Manufacturer estimates about the car’s performance, pricing and fuel economy were not released. 

Regarding the last point, a hybrid IS300h will be available in Japan, Europe and other international markets, a break from recent strategy for Lexus, whose hybrids have found legions of willing adopters in the US. As a result of its sub-100g/CO2/km carbon output, that car is expected to account for 80% of IS sales volume in Europe.

Will the IS prevail in its showdown with the 3 series? No other car ever has, but the IS will surely survive to fight another day – undead or alive.

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