The Lexus IS might be called a sport compact luxury sedan, because it pretty much covers all those bases. It’s rear-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available on the V6 models. For 2017 the bumpers are tweaked, but it’s scarcely noticeable.
The Lexus IS Turbo, the model formerly known as 200T, comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 241 horsepower, about the same as its competition from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. It’s mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission.
The IS 300 model uses a 3.5-liter V6 making 255 horsepower and comes standard with the 8-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
The IS 350 model uses a 3.5-liter V6 making 306 horsepower, same transmission pairing as the IS 300, with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
There’s an F Sport package for each model, that makes the appearance, handling, throttle and transmission tuning more aggressive.
The IS hasn’t been crash tested, but it has safety systems that many competitors don’t have. Forward collision warning, lane departure alert with active lane control, and automatic high beams are standard. Which makes it all the more shocking to us that a rearview camera is not; it’s a $350 option.
The rear-wheel-drive Lexus IS Turbo ($37,825) comes with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. The IS 300 ($40,200) comes with the 255-hp V6, while the IS 350 ($41,370) is equipped with the 306-hp V6. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
The IS Turbo comes standard with leatherette upholstery, massive infotainment with a 7.0-inch screen, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless ignition, moonroof, LED headlamps, steering-wheel audio and phone controls, Siri Eyes Free for Apple iPhones, and 17-inch wheels.
The IS 350 adds 18-inch wheels.
Options include blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alerts; navigation with a 10.3-inch infotainment screen, 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, real leather, and heated steering wheel.
The F Sport package includes adjustable dampers (IS 350 only), power adjustable front seats, aluminum pedals, upgraded instrument cluster, 18-inch wheels, silver interior accents, unique front and rear bumpers, and a sound composer for interior engine noises.
The trademark Lexus spindle grille is large and expressive, as they all are. The stance of the IS model is purposeful. Angular lines wrap around the front end, and continue in lean and graceful curves down the sides and around to the rear deck.
The Lexus IS is a tidy size for a luxury car, so the cabin is tight, not cramped, but far from spacious. Its upscale design is its strength, along with the quality of the materials and the fit and finish. The plastic, rubber, and leatherette feel durable. The cabin has the visual effect of making it feel like it came from a car costing two or three times the forty grand price of the IS. Maybe it’s the analog clock.
And never mind that the climate control instruments feel like they came from a car of 20 years ago.
The 7.0-inch infotainment screen contains the Lexus app suite, which they call Enform. The inverted mouse used for navigating the infotainment has plenty of critics.
The IS is actually as wide as its two main competitors, the Mercedes C-Class and BMW 3-Series. The IS was stretched a few years ago, to a 102-inch wheelbase, still a bit less than the Benz and Beemer. That’s reflected in the rear legroom, which is about three inches less than those two, at 32.2 inches. The IS technically seats five, but three adults in the rear isn’t going to happen for very long.
The large tunnel that surrounds the mechanicals of the all-wheel-drive models cuts into the front footwells. The standard front seats are comfortable enough for road trips. The F Sport seats could use more bolstering.
The trunk is 13.8 cubic feet, more than the C-Class but less than the 3-Series.
From zero to sixty, the IS Turbo with 241 horsepower takes about a half second longer than the Mercedes and BMW with their very similar four-cylinder engines. It’s a bit heavier. The 8-speed automatic doesn’t help, as it’s not a good combination with the engine. Without using the paddle shifters, even with 258 pound-feet of torque, it lags. There were also some transmission stutters going up hills; the transmission hunted for gears, forcing us to use the paddle shifters to find them.
The V6 engine in the IS 300 makes just 14 more horsepower, at 255. So it seems the main reason to upgrade would be to get all-wheel drive, which comes with a 6-speed automatic we found smooth and functional.
If you’re looking at the 306-horsepower IS 350 because it’s the performance sedan, with rear-wheel drive and the 8-speed, you should know that it’s no Mercedes C43, BMW 340i, or Audi S4. Not with its modest 277 pound-feet of torque, nor even with the F Sport package, which it needs to be considered a sports sedan. It’ll do zero to sixty in less than six seconds.
Beyond the cosmetic things, the F Sport brings an adjustable suspension and a sharper throttle and transmission in its Sport+ mode. It unlocks the car’s potential, and makes the eight-speed shift smoother and quicker.
The main thing the Lexus IS has going for it is its tidy size, and its upscale cabin; although the back seat is small, so it’s a dubious family sedan. The turbo four and V6 engines are smooth, but the 8-speed automatic is sometimes stubborn to upshift on its own.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.