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Executive wheels: The trickle effect from blah to triumph

Toyota-Lexus leaves the “wow” to Lexus

Jeff Rundles //April 28, 2017//

Executive wheels: The trickle effect from blah to triumph

Toyota-Lexus leaves the “wow” to Lexus

Jeff Rundles //April 28, 2017//

Toyota, and its luxury division Lexus, are considered the standard of excellence in the car world – and for good reason. The company makes highly reliable vehicles, copied by nearly every auto maker on the planet; they last forever, and in nearly ever category – sedan, SUV, minivan, pickup truck, hybrid – there is simply not another manufacturer so competitive across the board.

That may be the trouble. Since Toyota/Lexus occupies such a lofty position of envy in the car world it is easy for the company to rest on its laurels.

My experience is that innovation is expensive and difficult to maintain an across-the-board investment, so my observation is that Toyota is making its expenditures on Lexus and letting Toyota glide. I suppose it’s the trickle-down theory – the innovation expended in Lexus will find its way quickly to Toyota, but they better hurry: Toyota has gone blah.

These three cars are cases in point.

Oh, yeah, they are all worthy vehicles, above average, all excellent examples of car-making, and there is nothing wrong with any of them. Any buyer, I am sure, would be happy that they made a good car buying decision. But the Lexus IS350 has the “WOW” factor, and the Camry Hybrid and Corolla are, well, boring and just left me wondering when some of the Lexus magic will trickle down.

I’ll deal with the mundane first. The Corolla – a venerable mainstay in the Toyota lineup, introduced 51 years ago – features a 1.6 liter 4-banger with 132 horsepower, and that is clearly not enough. Indeed, its main competitors – the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze – each feature more than 20 more hp.

My notes from driving it say “slow, sluggish engine,” and further that the transmission, one of those continuously variable, or CVT, jobs, is simply “weird; it felt like it stayed in first gear forever.”  It wasn’t so much continuously variable as continuously un-variable. Plus, I noted to myself, the engine sounds like a muffled lawn mower. It’s like driving a John Deere without the utilitarian value. I starred this note: “Makes a lot of noise like it will do something, but it doesn’t. All hat and no cattle.”

All the stuff is here, of course: Power sunroof, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high beams (unreal, really; they will light up the route and flick off at the slightest hint of oncoming traffic), Bluetooth, all the apps and hookups – which are basically ubiquitous now. But the interior is very plastic-y, very boring.

The Corolla XSE – top-of-the-line in the Corolla trim offerings – carries a base price of $22,680, then they added on a ton of technology in the Toyota Entune Audio system, for $525, and a few other superfluous things to get to a bottom line of $26,101. I just don’t see it.

The Camry Hybrid XLE features a 2.5 liter 4 banger plus the Hybrid Synergy Drive system that Toyota pioneered, is rated at 178 hp and, frankly, feels more powerful. The mileage is awesome: 40 mpg city/37 mpg highway. Hybrids, for the most part, have a lot of torque in the electric powerplants, so they come across as zippy, and this one is no exception. This top-of-the-line Camry, pricewise at least, is a very quiet car, very comfortable, a car that drives wonderfully and hits the highway with aplomb. But I felt like a librarian driving it, as if I had made the smart, safe choice, a good investment that will last forever, and that everyone who saw me driving it thought, “Now, there’s a nice, boring guy. Maybe I should ask him about the Dewey Decimal System.”

Everything is here –the tech, the safety equipment, all the near-luxury, plenty of room (the trunk is smaller than normal owing to the hybrid battery system, but still adequate), yadda, yadda, yadda.  But what stands out in my notes are these comments: “Good, sober car, but could use some pizzazz. E.g. the coin slot left of the steering wheel is as cheap as it could be. The cubby cover is very lightweight and cheap. The rest is just so-so.”

For the record, this Camry Hybrid XLE is top-of-the-line in the Camry offerings and carries a base price of $30,140. They added a ton of high tech and safety equipment (e.g. lane departure, blind spot, pre-collision, etc.) and a few exotics (e.g. remote start, glass breakage sensor), and the bottom line is $37,492. That is actually a great price for all you get here, and overall this is a wonderful car. Just bland.

The Lexus IS350 AWD Sedan, on the other hand, is far from bland. I first noticed the look – this is a beautiful, smallish sports sedan, with wonderful lines – sculpted, really – and an aggressive grill that just makes the car look fast. Then you get inside, and the driving position feels like you’re in a fighter jet (I know, I have been in one, in the second seat [yes, I lost my cookies]), with a very luxurious, snug cockpit that feels like it is hugging you in a caring, warm embrace.

So, I was already equipped for excitement – I just didn’t know how much.

Here Lexus has placed a 3.5 liter 6-cylinder engine, featuring 306 horsepower that comes across as about 500 hp. One of my first notes was that this IS350 is a “pocket rocket.” The engine, coupled with a 6-speed auto transmission, is smooth as silk, but mean in a menacing, just-try-me way, and can accelerate as if it was a missile. I felt the whole week as though I was being watched – first by car enthusiasts who saw the stance of the car, and of course noticed the speed; they looked on me enviously; and, second, by police who noticed the car amid all the pretenders on the road, and looked covetously for a possible rapid form of municipal revenue. That second part bugged me, so often I felt like a caged animal who wanted to just run but couldn’t. Ah, but there were a few times – down Colorado Boulevard late at night, out on I-25 and I-225, when I let ‘er rip, if only in brief spurts. All I can tell you was that it gave me heart palpitations. I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car this fun to drive in some time.

Interestingly, I should note that this particular IS350 is but a part of the IS lineup, which includes the IS Turbo, the IS Turbo F Sport, the IS 300, the IS 300 F Sport, and the IS 350 F Sport. I bring this up because the one I drove isn’t even the most performance-oriented of the bunch, which kind of scares me. I am already wowed. I did one of those comparable car things on the Lexus website, this car versus the BMW 340i XDrive and they compare very favorably for horsepower, torque, equipment, etc., but this Lexus has it beat in one important category: price: the base price of the IS350 with all-wheel drive is $43,535, while the BMW, also with AWD, begins at $49,900. BMW may call itself the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” and its products are very nice, but this Lexus IS350 shows that Bimer hasn’t got the patent on ultimate driving. By the way, they added on a few things to my test-drive vehicle – the F Sport package most prominently – and the bottom line is $51,515. Trust me, one test drive behind the wheel and you will think that is a major bargain.

I won’t go into all of the details. This Lexus IS 350 AWD is luxury, all the time, and has technology and creature comforts you’d expect. The difference here is that Lexus has long been known for luxury, innovation and all that – but here in the IS350 what really stands out is the performance. This is a driving machine: power, handling, feel – it’s all there.

The bottom line to the story of these three cars is this: Lexus, and in particular the IS350, proves that the Toyota motorcar company is capable of sheer excitement and leadership. But they had better get some of the excitement into the Toyota line – and quick. I was going to say that competitors like Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Honda are beginning to steal Toyota’s thunder, but there isn’t much thunder in these two Toyota models.