Which accounts for Lexus’ re-bopp of the IS series sport sedan. It’s a a little bigger now – closer to being a mid-sized sport sedan – and has a passenger-viable backseat.
Unlike, say, its most obvious direct competitor – the Mercedes-Benz CLA. Which is a gorgeous car with a medieval back seat (27.1 inches of legroom, almost five inches less than a Fiat 500’s backseats . . . and three inches less headroom, too).
The new IS has 32.2 inches of legroom in the second row.
That’s a difference of almost half a foot.
No small thing.
Here’s another: You can buy a big (and not turbo’d) six in the IS.
This type of engine is becoming uncommon in this class – and elsewhere, too. For placating-the-government reasons, the market is being strong-armed over to turbo fours (as in the new CLA, the the Audi A4 and Cadillac CTS) which use on-demand power enhancers (the turbocharger) to maintain performance while also delivering off-demand improvements in fuel efficiency. The downside here is the possibility that – down the road, when the warranty’s a memory – you could be looking at a ball-shriveling bill to replace a croaked turbo (or two) and it’s not out of the question (if history is precedent) that these smallish/high-stressed (because force-fed) engines will live shorter lives than bigger, somewhat thirstier, but less stressed engines like the IS’s not-force-fed sixes
And of course, the IS is a Lexus. Few cars can match the brand’s oh-so-gradual depreciation, the favorable re-sale figs. Many people won;t even consider another car, no matter its other merits.
So, that’s three.
Let’s see hat else can be said about the IS – good and bad.
The IS series is Lexus’ still nominally compact luxury-sport sedan, though the new model edges a bit closer to mid-sized. This gives it an advantage over still compact-sized competitors like the Benz CLA and Audi A3.
The IS comes in 250 and 350 version, the two cars being identical except for their drivetrains, roster of equipment – and sticker prices.
The IS250, in rear-wheel-drive form and powered by a 2.5 liter, 204 hp V-6, starts at $36,550.
With the optional all-whee-drive system, this climbs to $39,085.
An IS350 with the much more potent (306 hp) 3.5 liter V-6 and rear wheel-drive starts at $40,065.
With AWD, the sticker price is $42,300.
The IS was completely overhauled last year – new body, new (longer) chassis and updated interior.
Thus, few major changes for ’15 – other than a slight bump-up in MSRPs.
3.5 liter V-6 in F-Sport versions (which get a specially tuned intake and exhaust) bellows like a berserker; eight-speed automatic shifts like a Katana blade slicing watermelons.
A sharp looker.
F-18 looking dash layout (LCD chronometer tach that moves; more on that below).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
IS250’s 2.5 liter V-6 is outclassed by everything in this class. And several cars in lesser classes, too.
Both V-6s are thirsty.
Price is high relative to Benz CLA, Audi A3 and BMW 3.
F Sport package adds everything except more engine.
By the numbers, the base IS250’s 2.5 liter, 204 hp is competitive with the Mercedes CLA’s standard 2.0 liter, 208 hp turbo four.
Well, by some of the numbers.
Dig into it a little deeper and the milk begins to curdle.
Because though the output of the little six seems solid enough, relative to rivals, the IS itself is a larger – and much heavier – car than the CLA (3,593 lbs. vs 3,262 lbs., a difference of 331 lbs.). The 2.5 liter not-turbo’d V-6 is also torque deficient: just 185 ft.-lbs. at a comparatively high 4,800 RPM vs. 245 ft.-lbs. just off idle (1,250 RPM) for the torque-rich turbo’d Mercedes. Result? The under-engined IS250 needs an almost-Corolla 7.5 seconds to reach 60 MPH vs. 6.4 for the Mercedes.
Which might be ok . . . if the IS250 were spectacularly fuel-efficient.
But, it’s not.
The RWD version carries an EPA rating of 21 city, 30 highway – vs. 26 city, 38 highway for the much quicker (and lots cheaper) Mercedes.
The BMW 320i is also better on both counts – performance and economy – despite having a less powerful engine. Its 2.0 liter turbocharged four makes 180 hp, but manages to get the 3-Series to 60 in 7.3 seconds and pulls down 24 city, 36 highway, too.
Again, the reason why is the weight. The 3-Series is a much lighter car: 298 pounds lighter, in fact (3,295 vs. the IS 250’s 3,593 lbs.).
It comes standard with a husky 3.5 liter, 306 hp V-6 and so equipped, it easily out-accelerates the Mercedes CLA and BMW 320i and the Audi A3 – and runs roughly even with the 328i and A4 2.0 turbo.
The zero to 60 time is 5.5-5.6 seconds, depending on the version – with rear-drive versions being slightly quicker than all-wheel-drive versions, which by the way are equipped with the same six-speed automatic used in the previous generation IS. Rear-drive IS350s, on the other hand, get a new eight-speed automatic – which ups the rated mileage to 19 city, 28 highway (up from 19 city, 27 highway last year, with the six-speed automatic).
Note that this is almost as good as the mileage managed by the 2.5 liter V-6, notwithstanding a 100-plus horsepower difference (and nearly two seconds’ difference, 0-60) between the two.
I averaged 24.7 MPG during my weeklong test drive – and that was hammering it most of the time.
This is actually better than Lexus’ estimated 22 MPG average for the IS350.
The IS is an interesting counterpoint/alternative in this segment because it’s pretty much the last man standing as far as coming with six rather than four cylinders and relying on displacement rather than turbocharging to hustle when called upon.
This has its pros – and its cons (see the gas mileage figures previously mentioned; it takes more to feed six cylinders all of the time than a four on boost some of the time).
The pros include not just robust acceleration (with the 3.5 liter V-6) but also the robust sounds that come along for the ride. The turbo fours in the CLA, 3 Series and Audi A3/A4 are peppy (and punchy) but lacking in the auditory aesthetics department. They don’t sound bad – they just don’t sound like much at all. They deliver their power quietly – and notably, without turbo whistle. Or wastegate snap(excluding AMG tuned versions, in the case of the Benz; but that’s another animal). Mercedes, et al, have gone to great lengths to mask the sounds of turbocharging – the object of the exercise apparently being to give the driver the feel of a larger (and naturally aspirated) six with the fuel economy of a four.
But, something’s gone missing.
And the IS has found it.
Or rather, never lost it.
You’ve heard the term, loud pedal? The IS350’s is exactly that. The big V-6 literally booms when you floor it – in part because it’s strong, in part because of modifications Lexus engineers made to the air-intake system to increase the roar. It’s like back in the ’60s, when some muscle cars had exhaust cut-outs that bypassed the mufflers when you floored it. Only this time, it’s the intake sounds that are enhanced. But unlike the muscle cars of the ’60s, the IS is not an obnoxious Borat of a car the rest of the time. It behaves properly – and quietly . . . until you ask it not to.
If you ordered the $3,180 F Sort package you’ll also get an additional Sport S+ setting for the driver-selectable transmission modes (in addition to Normal and Eco; there’s also a Snow mode, engaged by pushing another button on the console) and snappier throttle tip-in and firmed up suspension settings when Sport S+ setting is engaged. Also included with the package: sport bike-style “big tach” gauge cluster, F-Sport heated/bolstered sport seats, mesh spindle grille and more aggressive LF supercar-inspired front fascia, LED headlights and staggered size high-performance tires (225/4018s up front and 255/3518s out back) mounted on F-Sport specific 5-spoke powder-coated rims.
The rated output of the 3.5 V-6 is the same in F Sport IS 350s as it is in regular IS 350s; though I suspect that the F Sport intake and exhaust upgrades add more than just a lustier sound. But, in terms of what Lexus will publicly admit to, the only driveline difference between a regular IS350 and an IS350 F Sport is an electronic difference – the more aggressive Sport S+ setting described above.
I think the package would be a stronger sell – especially relative to the BMW 3 (and the muscular Infiniti Q50, another possible cross-shop) if it included another 20 rated hp – or whatever it took to put the IS350 to the top of the performance pile in this segment. Actually as well as publicly acknowledged.
As it stands, a CLA 45 AMG – equipped with a 355 hp version of the turbo 2.0 engine in the regular CLA – easily trounces the IS350’s 0-60 time with its scorched earth run of 4.6 seconds. At $47,450 the Benz might actually cost you less than an IS350 F-Sport (my test car, with AWD, Nav system and the excellent 15-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio, stickered for $49,615). A BMW 335i – equipped with a turbo inline six of 3 liters’ displacement – is likewise both quicker (5.2 seconds to 60) and less expensive than an IS 350 equipped with the F Sport package.
Some reviewers maintain the IS still can’t cut the proverbial rug with the perfect syncopation of a BMW 3; that its responses to your inputs aren’t mind-meld perfection, intuiting your desires and making them so.
Well, here’s the deal:
The steering is very precise, but the car takes a brief moment to catch up. This is the chief “seat of the pants” difference between the IS and the BMW 3.
You can, however, lean on the IS – hard – and it will not fold on you. It might slide some, but it happens in a predictable arc that makes the car plenty capable once you get used to its quirks and adjust to them. The stability control intercedes at times, but does so unobtrusively. Unless you’re looking for the little light on the dash – which flashes briefly when the system steps in – you will likely not even notice the computer’s subtle course corrections.
This is commendable in a car of this type.
What isn’t commendable is the Corolla-esque traction control system – which cannot be disabled unless you first come to a complete stop. And which will then insolently turn itself back on regardless once the car reaches 30 MPH. Such nannyish overseeing is fine in a Corolla – or a Camry. They are grocery getters.
The IS isn’t – and it deserves better.
That aside, it’s lively and capable – and most of all, different. Keep in mind that – with the exception of the BMW 3 and the Infiniti Q – the more directly comparable cars in this general class are based on front-wheel-drive layouts and typically have little turbo fours under their hoods, not large caliber sixes. There is nothing wrong with the FWD-based layout of the Mercedes CLA or the Audi A3/4. Nor with their excellent – and fuel efficient – turbo fours.
But the experience is different, both viscerally and audibly.
If you prefer a six in a smaller package – well, here it is.
Having grown almost 3 inches (lengthwise as well as wheelbase-wise) the IS now almost-mid-sized. In fact, it’s slightly larger overall now than the BMW 3 – which is 182.5 inches long vs. 183.7 for the IS. And it’s a lot larger than a true compact luxury-sport sedan like the new Audi A3 – which is 8.3 inches shorter overall (175.4 inches bumper to bumper).
It is also more space-efficient than the otherwise out-of-the-park Mercedes CLA, the appeal of which is somewhat gimped by its clown-car back seats. Though the IS is only slightly bigger on the outside (1.4 inches longer overall) it has 5.1 inches more legroom for the back seaters than the Benz does.
On the other hand, the IS is not quite as roomy as either the A3 – which is a much smaller car – or the A4, which is larger. The real estate disparity is not surprising, vis-a-vis the A4; one expects the bigger car to be the roomier car. But the A3 surprises – and delights – with nearly three inches more backseat legroom, despite being 8.3 inches shorter overall than the Lexus.
Still, it’s a big improvement over last year’s IS – which had 30.6 inches of second row legroom. It must also be mentioned that the new IS has more front row legroom than anything else in its class. How’s 44.8 inches grab you? That’s 4.6 inches more than in the Benz CLA, 3.5 inches more than the A4 (and 3.6 inches more than in the A3) and 2.8 inches more than in the BMW 3. Even the also- longer/larger (by about 5 inches) Infiniti Q’s got less space up front (44.5 inches)
But it may be the new metal above all else that’s apt to tingle prospective buyers’ car lust. For generally conservative Lexus, the latest IS comes across like a patched-in member of the Sons of Anarchy. Or rather, what one of the Sons might keep tucked away in the garage for those days when a Harley chopper (and a wife-beater T) simply won’t do.
The new car appears to sit much lower than the old IS – an effect created by the snake-eye slit headlights that seem to bleed in toward the enormous “double spindle” cowcatcher grille that sweeps outward to meet up with dummy brake cooler intakes on either side(F Sport versions). Radiused power bulges flow over the wheel-wells, in which are housed (F Sports) stagger-sized rims and tires – larger in back than up front.
The hood appears to bulge, too – though it doesn’t actually – due to the downward arcing pleats on either side that bleed back to the base of the A pillars at the windshield. Both front and rear headlights have LED “Ls” – laid down on their sides – to remind everyone this is a Lexus.
Standard models get a conventional analog main cluster with speedo and tach, but if you order the F Sport, your IS will get a sport bike-style LED tachometer that color-shifts depending on the drive mode you’ve engaged and which also slides right on command to reveal an LED driver information cluster. This is more than just a gimmick. It keeps data such as GPS map position, the radio station you’re listening to, etc. – in the driver’s line of sight.
Vertically situated on either side of the steeply angled center stack are the best “haptic” finger touch/slide controls that I’ve tested to date. The touch sensitive scales you use to adjust the temperature settings are actually touch sensitive – but not too sensitive. No maddening double backing/correcting/tapping/swiping again.
Just once – and it’s done.
Some reviewers don’t like the (optional) Remote Touch mouse input that’s used to control the audio/infotainment and navigation systems. I disagree with them. Uniquely – and ergonomically – the Lexus has a form-fitting pad for your palm to rest on. The “mouse” is actually a toggle – with just the right amount of drag built into it. Like the finger-swipe controls for the temperature settings, the action of the input is precise and controllable. Slide/scroll to what you want to engage, then click to engage.
I’m normally gizmo-averse but in this case, the gizmo works better than old-style punch buttons and knobs.
The seat heaters suck. A sickly, barely noticeable warmth emanates from them – and that’s on the highest setting. And even that does not last, as the timer automatically dials it down, at which point no meaningful heat is noticeable.
This is a common failing in Japanese cars, generally. For unknown reasons (it gets cold in Japan).
You want seat heaters that actually heat?
THE BOTTOM LINE
The chief beef most buyers will likely have with this car is its price tag. Especially the price tag of the under-engined, under-performing IS 250. It starts out about $5k higher than the very appealing (though back seat constricted) CLA, and about $7k more than the new A3, which is a damned fine car.
The IS250’s performance-to-fuel-economy ratio is also not cutting the mustard.
But with the big six (and the F Sport enhancements) this Lexus is a goer, especially if you prefer to get going with a sizable six rather than a teensy (if turbo’d) four.
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