- What’s Good: Handsome, loaded with content, decent performance
- What’s Bad: Old platform, aging interior, unremarkable powertrain
It appears the compact Lexus IS sedan is in a holding pattern, which is both good and not so good.
I’ll get into the why shortly, but first an update on the current IS.
Introduced in late 2013, updated in 2016 and feeling a bit on the old side in 2019, the current IS feels a bit like dead man walking in a Lexus lineup where various models are gradually being modernized and remade on TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platforms, such as the flagship LS sedan and range-topping LC coupe.
Until the new TNGA variant arrives, however, the IS exists as a reliable seller (1,042 units sold through June 30) that is built on the aging Toyota New N platform shared with the GS sedan and RC coupe. Three models are available in Canada: IS 300 (2.0L turbo 4-cylinder, 8-speed automatic, RWD), IS 300 (3.5L V6, 6-speed automatic, AWD) and IS 350, which shares the same powertrain with the 300, but its V6 produces more power (311 hp / 280 lb-ft. versus 260 hp / 236 lb-ft.).
The focus of this review is the IS 350, which I drove recently thanks to Lexus Canada. I’m not going to dwell too much on the nitty-gritty of the car’s aesthetics and equipment list primarily because it hasn’t changed much since it was last updated for the 2017 model year and because I reviewed the 2018 IS 350 last year.
That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I will mention that my Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 ($650) tester is equipped with the F Sport Series 3 package ($3,850) which adds a laundry list of F Sport items, most of which are cosmetic. Among these are an F Sport steering wheel, seats, front grille, aero package, shift knob, and scuff plates. Other options of note include an adaptive variable suspension and 18-inch F Sport wheels.
Despite my lukewarm lede, I think there’s a lot to like about the IS, especially the 350.
Touching briefly on its looks, I think the IS 350 has aged well for a car that’s been around since late 2013, due mostly to a clean and contemporary design that has received smart styling updates. The F Sport package further enhances the appeal with 18-inch wheels and low-profile Bridgestone Turanza EL 400 rubber, as does the deep shade of Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0.
Inside, the IS 350 is comfortable, well finished and absolutely loaded with equipment. And it all works well. From the feel of the leather-wrapped seats, steering wheel and gear shift knob, to the logical placement of buttons and knobs, to the excellent visibility the car’s boxier proportions provide, the IS 350 delivers the type of luxury experience you’d expect for an executive sedan priced north of $50,000. The execution here is first rate, down to the way one sinks into the F Sport front seats, the excellent driving position and the decent amount of rear seat head and legroom.
Out with the old?
Despite these strong suits, the design aesthetic feels last gen, and for that reason I don’t think it’s going to be with us for much longer. An argument can be made that this interior feels a bit dated regarding dashboard design, materials and the general appearance of some of the controls and switches, particularly when many premium manufacturers are shifting towards shinier dash layouts with big touchscreens wrapped in lots of glossy, metallic trim.
Compared to those of the LS and LC, the interior of the IS looks a bit old, but I’m concerned that some of the great functionality the current car has will be lost once it’s replaced. Time will tell.
On the road, the IS 350 delivers a comfortable, quiet and well-sorted ride. Acceleration from the 3.5L V6 is robust, and while both it and the 6-speed automatic aren’t the most sophisticated in 2019, I can’t honestly say the performance feels lacking. The V6 isn’t the most powerful in the segment but considering the vast majority of IS 350s aren’t going to driven on racetracks, I think 311 hp / 280 lb-ft. is more than adequate. The 6-speed also has a manual mode and paddle shifters, along with spicier driving modes (sport, sport+) for those desiring a more spirited driving experience. Those modes don’t alter the IS 350’s driving character much based on my experience, but their presence is good for those wanting options.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the IS 350. On the one hand, I think it’s an attractive, well-equipped, finely built sedan that delivers solid performance and value at a reasonable price. But on the other, I can’t help but notice the signs of an aging platform, powertrain and interior that, despite its comfort and the logic of its layout, feels like it’s due to be replaced, and soon.
How Lexus advances the IS so that it remains competitive with those at the sharp end of the segment (Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, etc.), and retains its best attributes (ergonomics, content, style) figures to be daunting for the company’s designers, engineers and product planners.