After the successful launch of the IS F, Lexus management is viewing, with great alarm, how the company is losing momentum in the struggle to quickly produce a sequel to expand upon the buzz generated by the first "F"-badged performance Lexus. Technical glitches surrounding its innovative carbon fiber-intensive construction techniques have already delayed the production version of the LF-A supercar by a year or so from the originally-intended 2009 date, and the long-rumored GS-F may either be <A HREF="http://www.lexusf.com/forums/showthread.php?t=83">held back until a year after the fourth-generation GS's launch</A> or cancelled outright, done in by ever-tightening fuel economy rules. Lexus, undaunted, has launched a secret crash program to quickly bring to market a second "F" model.
ES and IS: the twain start to meet.
Although the heart, soul and centerpiece of Toyota's Flagship One/Circle-F project to launch a separate luxury brand was always the large sedan that came to market as the first Lexus LS400, the company soon realized that it needed a less expensive companion model. Thus, the Japanese Domestic Market Toyota Vista, itself a badge-engineered, gussied-up variant of the Toyota Camry, was pressed into service as the Lexus ES250.
During Lexus' first decade, three generations of ES models, always Toyota Camry-derived plush cruisers, served as the marque's sole entry-level model. As Toyota harbored ambitions to stretch the brand in Europe, however, it soon realized that a fancier Camry simply wouldn't do as competition for European sports sedans such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Thus, the sporty, rear-wheel-drive Toyota Altezza was sent to do battle in the Old World as the Lexus IS200.
Seeing that European sports sedans were a growing market in North America as well, Lexus then decided on a novel strategy whereby they would offer two distinct entry-luxury sedans: the rear-wheel-drive IS sports sedan and SportCross wagon to compete against the Europeans, and the front-wheel-drive ES grandpa-mobile sedan to compete against Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Chryslers.
During the first half of the current decade, the strategy served Lexus quite well, as the 1st-generation IS and 4th-generation ES sold side-by-side with negligible cross-shopping and overlap between the two.
Alas, when their successors were revealed in the middle of the current decade, they were drawn noticeably closer to each other. Most changed was the IS, which, while remaining rear-wheel-drive, was more conservative in appearance and lost such distinctive touches as the chronograph-styled instrumentation, yellow fog lights and "Altezza" taillights. Quite surprisingly, its then range-topping IS350 variant was (and is) unavailable with a manual transmission, and its traction/stability control remains quite intrusive. The IS's Eurocentric bent also resulted in an entry-level IS250 whose smaller engine, coupled with larger size and porkier curb weight versus its IS300 predecessor, resulted in a 1-second-slower 0-60 time for the newer model. Yet, the new IS achieved its stated goal of closing the gap between its sales numbers and those of its archrival BMW 3-Series.
More surprising was the 5th-generation Lexus ES's slightly sportier bent, from its sweeping roofline to manumatic +/- transmission gate to its stronger 3.5-liter engine and 6-speed (versus its predecessor's 5-speed) automatic. While Lexus officially claims a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds and a quarter mile time of 15 seconds, some publications have managed a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds and a quarter mile time of 14.6 seconds at almost 100 mph. Compare that to the IS250's official 0-60 mph time of 7.9 seconds and ¼-mile time of 16 seconds, and publications' 0-60 mph time of 7.1 seconds and quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds at 90 mph, and you have an old-fogey-mobile that's faster than the sprightly sports sedan.
Lexus has now blurred the lines between the ES and the IS.
Australia's mighty TRD Aurion
As much as the 5th-generation ES, the ES350, has nudged towards a more enthusiastic driving experience, it is, by no means, the sportiest Camry-platform vehicle ever. That distinction goes to the Australian-built Toyota TRD Aurion. Built to do battle against the myriad mid-sized sports sedans built by GM and Ford's Australian divisions, the Aurion TRD is a current-generation Camry with revised nose and tail, sports suspension and the first production application of the Eaton TVS (Twin Vortices Series) Supercharger. As applied to the Camry V6/Lexus ES350's 2GR-FE non-direct injection V6, it produces over 323 horsepower and a torque peak of 296 lb-ft.
Its Achilles' heel, of course, is the fact that it sends all that power exclusively to the front wheels. Fortunately, the Toyota Camry/Lexus ES350 platform, in the guise of the Toyota Highlander and Sienna, as well as the Lexus RX, is available with all-wheel drive. And, while the all-wheel-drive was seemingly deemed too expensive for the Toyota Aurion TRD, Lexus' greater demands for refinement, not to mention higher price points and greater profit margins, mean that Lexus engineers are now hard at work combining the Toyota Aurion TRD supercharged engine with all-wheel-drive under the Lexus ES. Expected launch date: exactly a year from today, on April 1, 2009.