Sometimes, it’s refreshing to visit with old friends.
It’s been a few years since I last got behind the wheel of a Lexus IS, and very little that’s ground-shaking has changed about it since then. In the meantime, smartphones have been integrated into cars and new competitors have launched packed with glitz and glamour and gizmos and gadgets, while the poor IS would be quite content with a facelift just to bring its appearance in line with the more modern products in the Lexus line-up.
The thing is, though, those who give this car a fair shake will find that everything that involves actual driving – cars still do that, right? – is most enjoyable, probably to the point of being among the top in its segment. We’re not talking F car levels here, but were someone to tell me that IS stands for “incredibly spirited,” I’d certainly find it plausible. (In case you just became curious, as I did: apparently, IS actually stands for Intelligent Sports
I should state at this point that the model I drove around town this week was the IS 350. I even took my own advice and headed out for an afternoon of autumn driving and apple picking
, which this is an ideal car given that it's designed for just that sort of driving enjoyment. I can’t comment on the two 300 models, the base in rear-wheel drive and the mid-level trim with all-wheel drive, but it’s a fair guess that at 241 hp and 260 hp respectively they might not come off as being quite so energetic.
The 311 hp that comes out of the 3.5-litre V6 certainly is, though, and it sounds good doing it. You’ve got to appreciate Lexus’s commitment to naturally aspirated engines. And yet, the 277 lb-ft of torque on offer here comes fully available at 4,800 rpm – not exactly within typical grocery-getting range like its turbocharged contemporaries, but just right for digging in on a winding country road.
Add in the long list of the IS 350’s excellent go-bits – a lightning-quick six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, front double-wishbone suspension, gas shock absorbers on all four corners, front and rear stabilizer bars, needle-sharp electronic power steering, and 18-inch alloy wheels – and the IS’s nimble handling and agile character make it a real treat to drive.
The one complaint I can foresee is that between the vehicle stability control system, traction control system, vehicle dynamics integrated management system, and brake assist, the whole thing could come off as being over-engineered. In some cars, like the RC F
, it can be overbearing; in a daily driver like this, it makes being better behind the wheel easier with less effort. In my view, that’s a good thing.
It’s not that the outside of the IS is horribly out of line with other Lexus cars, exactly. It’s just that the Lexus look has been nicely massaged on more recent products, and a few legacy design cues continue to hang on here like the deeply sculpted hood and the LED checkmark-shaped running lights that are separate from the headlamp assembly (which always gave me the impression that the car looks like it has bags under its eyes). The more recent treatments that pull the hood longer and integrate that same visual treatment into the headlamps are, to my eye, much more attractive. On the IS, this small update would work wonders.
A similar problem exists inside: newer Lexus cars have dynamic, sweeping dashboard lines and larger high-resolution screens, while the IS’s interior feels cramped and dated. This is mostly a subjective judgment, of course – that is, until you get to the back seat, which even my (admittedly tall) seven-year-old found tight and more difficult than average to access. She also had nowhere to put stuff since the rear doors don’t have pockets and the only cupholders are the push-button type integrated into the centre armrest that are quite flimsy. Clearly, the back seat wasn’t designed with regular occupation in mind.
Speaking of access, the front seats are very comfortable and supportive once you’re there, and the IS’s all-around visibility is relatively good from down there as well. However, getting into and out of the front row takes a bit of work. This problem isn’t unique to the IS, though – and, sadly, seems to be behind the ongoing industry-wide slaughter of sedans as our population ages.
I will give it this: the 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound audio system’s output is high-quality. But that’s where my praise for anything to do with this infotainment system ends. In a time when other cars have us connecting our phones to them directly and interacting with them via apps and touchscreens, it’s downright painful to have a predetermined list of text message responses and a fiddly little touch knob that’s difficult to be precise with while driving.
Toyota knows all of this, though, and the features that people are asking for are slowly making their way into Toyota and Lexus products. It will be quite some time before any of it lands in the IS, though, which is a shame. This is the single biggest hurdle this car will have in appealing to younger, more tech-savvy buyers.
Lexus Safety System+
Any conversation about Toyota or Lexus needs to factor in the suite of safety systems that now comes standard on nearly all of the companies’ new vehicles. The Lexus IS comes with Lexus Safety System+ as standard on all trims, which includes pre-collision, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and automatic high beams.
Like every Lexus, the IS is a driver’s car first and foremost, and it succeeds in that regard. But its inability to compete with the looks, innovative tech features, and, frankly, the badge of some of its key competitors makes it a hard sell with the younger buyers this car is intended to attract.