When the new IS was unveiled last year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, mouths salivated at the sharp new styling and bold new direction of Lexus. No longer was it the Japanese brand of luxury for the older generation, Lexus was coming into its own as a marque of aggressive luxury that could also perform. The IS 350 F Sport is largely an appearance upgrade for the impressive 350 model, but it gives onlookers enough of an idea of the massive potential of this new German sports sedan challenger.
The styling enhancements are obviously the biggest draw for the latest IS. In the build-up to the 2013 SEMA show, Lexus opened the doors to auto designers, graphic artists and general enthusiasts to create their idea of the ultimate IS on DeviantART.com, which would be built and shown at SEMA. The competition was completely open to the public and surely, the automaker didn’t know what to expect. More than 500 submissions ranged from simple paint schemes to hand-drawn catastrophes, but thankfully the competition was filled with its fair share of skilled artists and experienced automotive designers who wanted to see their designs come to life.
The Lexus IS you see here is the winning design courtesy of Rob Evans, and arguably the boldest and most radical of the bunch. Ironically, it’s also one of the cleanest, carefully walking the tightrope of a monstrous wide-body design while staying true to Lexus’s identity.
To give you the Coles Notes version, Evans’ experience in design stretches far back, but his background is probably what you’d least expect. He took plenty of art classes growing up, even enrolling in courses throughout college, but he got his start as a designer for home and garden accessories, where he still puts in his 9-to-5.
His experience doesn't detract from this build in the least. In fact, it makes it that much more impressive. Evans always had an interest in automotive design, building scale models and even taking part in a Scion design competition years ago. He didn’t win, but it gave him the experience to know the type of quality required to get to the top. His work pushed him so far that he made the Lexus submission deadline with less than an hour remaining.
Initially the car sparked controversy, and it still does; some love it, some hate it. Maybe you’re a fan of the wide body, maybe you’re not. Some people have spoken out against the huge flares, the lack of working rear doors, even the one-off wheels have drawn criticism, to which we scratch our heads. But none of that overshadows the creative vision behind the design. And while it’s one thing to conceptualize it, putting together a build like this in an extremely short time frame is a whole different story.
Tasked with that challenge was Clark Ishihara and his crew at VIP Auto Salon. Ishihara was one of four judges on the Lexus panel to determine the winning car, along with Owen Peacock of Lexus, Nate Martinez from Motor Trend, and Alex Shen, head of the renowned Calty Design house in California, which is responsible for the Lexus LFA and the radical Toyota FT-HS and FT-1 concepts, to name a few.
“There were a lot of great submissions, but there was something about [Evans’] design that really spoke to us – or I should say, spoke to me in terms of a SEMA project to build,” Ishihara says. “When I was looking at the other submissions, a lot of these guys were altering the grille. And as you know, the front grill of a vehicle – that’s its marque – you don’t want to [change] that. Even though there were some radical designs, I had to shy away from them because the Lexus brand is embodied in that spindle grille. A lot of thought and planning went into the development of that, and to have it altered really changes the brand’s identity.”
In fact, the grille was much of the inspiration for the rest of Evans’ design. Along with a wickedly-aggressive front bumper and splitter, the low, wide-slung grille is accentuated by larger air inlets, a lower stance and one of the wildest wide bodies yet.
On the wheel end, a set of one-off Nutek forged three-pieces sit 20 inches round in the front and rear, wrapped in 285/30R20s up front and 345/25R20s in the back. The -59 and -30 offsets put this setup nearly eight inches out from the stock bodywork, and that’s where VIP’s skills were put to the test.
This isn’t any ordinary wide body, and because the team had just a month-and-a-half to build it, they employed some old-school foam and fiberglass techniques to get the IS 350 show floor ready in the nick of time.
“We basically hand-sculpted it with a small knife and sanding materials; layer by layer, just sculpting it, getting it to where it needed to be,” Ishihara recalls. “Typically, what you’d do is take the foam mold – basically the foam becomes the mold – and you take the reverse plug from that and that becomes your part. But we ran out of time, so we had to leave it as is. If we had more time, we would’ve used clay for all the parts, but that process takes a long time; for each layer of clay you put down it’s like a 24-hour dry time. So we fiberglassed over it, smoothed it out, then shot it with paint. We literally finished it a couple of days before SEMA.”
Extending at the front, the bodywork is draped over half of the wheel, leaving the back section open for a rear winglet that pushes air down the side of the car and into the side splitter. At the top, an engine cooling vent sits in front of the F Sport badge, which, combined with the seven-spindle Nutek wheels and massive six-piston 380 mm Brembo brakes, is nothing short of a masterpiece of shapes and contours.
Moving toward the rear quarter panel, the side splitter blends seamlessly into a giant rear duct in front of the wheel, which could easily be routed for brake cooling. A discerning eye might also notice the rear bodywork is built over the back doors rendering them useless, but given the time constraints to produce a finished product, it’s something that would have otherwise been accommodated, so we’ll give them a get-out-of-jail-free card here.
Where the design is most engaging with the original IS is at the tail end of the car. Evans intuitively played on the new, extended taillights to blend his wide-body and bumper lines for a quasi factory-finish look. His design language from the front wheel work also carries over to the back for a uniform finish. The redesigned two-tone bumper and rear diffuser completes a look that could have easily come from the Lexus concept studio.
A Universal Air Suspension with AccuAir I-Level control gives the car a nice, tight stance, but it’s even more impressive given that VIP was forced to build the car without the custom wheels, which were being built simultaneously with the car.
“The craziest part [of the build] was sculpting the body without the wheels because they are one-off customs,” Ishihara says. “But the measurements were pretty good. When you’re sculpting, there are a lot of measurements, so making sure everything was on par for the specifications of the entire build was important. We were going to do a 345 tire, but it came to the point when we weren’t able to test out too many tires, so we went the safe route to make sure we had a tire that was nice and stretched to fit.”
If time weren’t a factor, we’d undoubtedly see this IS rolling the streets. But Lexus and VIP Auto Salon took on a project few would dare to do: let the public design their dream car. It’s bold, controversial and the ultimate test for the builders who created some of the most talked about cars of SEMA in a quarter of the time a typical build takes – at the same time they were also building the Vossen CVT and Seibon Carbon IS 350s. For Evans, he walked away with a year lease for a 2014 IS 350 F Sport, a trip to the SEMA show, a cool $2,000 in his pocket and bragging rights few people will ever have. If anything, it showed us there is still plenty to uncover in the world of body kit design. So, until the next…
Owner: Lexus USA
Vehicle: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F SPORT RWD
Engine: Toyota 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6
Horsepower: 306 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Custom tip design by Rob Evans
8-speed automatic with paddle shift (stock)
Custom aero package by Rob Evans (fabricated by VIP Auto Salon)
BASF custom Glasurit Ultra White paint
Wheels / Tires / Brakes
Nutek 3-piece forged one-off concept wheels – 20x10.5 -59 (f), 20x13 -30 (r)
Nitto Invo tires (stretched) – 285/30 R20 (f), 345/25 R20 (r)
Brembo GT brake kit – 6-piston monoblock calipers, 15-in. 2-piece rotors (f), 4-piston monoblock calipers, 13.6-in. 2-piece rotors (r)
Universal Air Suspension with AccuAir I-Level control
Takata Racing (Drift Pro LE seats, Drift III ASM green harnesses)
Huper Optik ceramic-based window film (installed by STM)
Audio / Mobile Electronics