Lexus positions the IS series as a BMW 3-Series fighter, and while it certainly is on paper, it doesn't quite make that point in person. At least until this year, when Lexus introduced the V-8-powered, 416-horsepower IS F, the first time this model has had a genuine performance version to rally around.
Likely Lexus is hoping the electricity from the limited-edition IS F rubs off a little on the rest of the IS lineup, like the test car, a 2008 IS 250, meaning it has a 2.5-liter V-6 engine. The IS 350 has a 3.5-liter V-6. The IS is the entry-level Lexus, though many people think of the ES as the least expensive model. The front-wheel-drive ES 350 is essentially a deluxe version of the Toyota Camry, targeted at a more mature demographic than the IS. The rear-wheel-drive IS really doesn't have a platform counterpart in the U.S. Toyota lineup. The test IS 250, while the least expensive model in the family, is hardly a stripped-down model: Standard equipment includes leather upholstery, a power moon roof, a 13-speaker sound system and most all the safety equipment presently offered, including stability control, anti-lock disc brakes with brakeforce distribution and brake assist; side and side-curtain air bags, and even knee air bags for the front seats. And, very BMW-like, there's a first-aid kit, and a tool kit.
Base price on the test car was $31,625, and that's with a six-speed automatic transmission. The IS 250 is offered for slightly less with a manual transmission, but few Lexus buyers have shown much interest in shifting for themselves.
That's fine: The six-speed automatic, with steering wheel-mounted shifter paddles should you be in the mood to shift, works very well, which is good, since the little 2.5-liter, 204-horsepower V-6 needs all the help it can get. It's a very good engine, just taxed a bit with a fairly heavy car. Since the V-6 engine in the Toyota Camry has 268 horsepower, the 204-horse engine in the premium Lexus is not exactly a selling point. That said, fuel mileage isn't bad, at an EPA-rated 21 mpg city, 29 mpg highway.
Inside, the IS 250 is comfortable up front, a little cramped in the rear. Instruments and controls are thoughtfully designed, and the navigation system is very easy to use, one of the best offered.
On the road, the IS 250 is quick and sure-footed, aided in this case by larger 18-inch tires and wheels, an $830 option over the standard 17-inchers. Also optional: That navigation system with a rear back-up camera ($2,550), a premium package with upgraded leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats and wood trim ($1,290), and upgraded lighting ($875). Shipping and a few smaller options raised the list price to $38,254.
The IS 250's 2.5-liter V-6 is adequate in every situation, but the IS 350's 306-horsepower engine more befits a luxury brand. That engine adds more than $4,000 to the price and gets worse fuel mileage.The Lexus IS series are all excellent cars, but there are a lot of excellent cars in this class, including the aforementioned BMW 3-Series, the Audi A4 and the Infiniti G35. It's tough to go wrong in this category.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com.