Editor's note: This review was written in July 2011 about the 2011 Lexus IS 350. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
For more than 10 years, Lexus has presented luxury shoppers an unlikely offering in the IS, a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan from a brand best known for cushy comfort. The gamble worked: The IS drives better than most of its Lexus siblings. It does not, however, get there without a penalty.
While the Lexus IS sedan performs well, it makes drivers give up ride comfort and roominess in ways that its competitors don't.
Lexus restyled a few elements on the IS for 2011, which you can compare with the 2010 model here. The car comes in IS 250 or IS 350 form, representing the size of each one's V-6 engine. Both are also available as a convertible, denoted by "C" in the model name. Compare them here. The lineup's high-performance IS-F sedan is covered separately on Cars.com. All-wheel drive is optional on the IS 250 and 350 sedans; in previous years, it was optional only on the IS 250.
We evaluated two cars: a rear-wheel-drive IS 250C convertible and an all-wheel-drive IS 350 sedan.
Quick, or Not So Much
Even carrying an extra 176 pounds of driveline, the all-wheel-drive IS 350 moves out. Lexus' direct-injection V-6 feels on par with the powerhouse six-cylinders in the BMW 335i and Infiniti G37. It pulls strongly, sounds muscular and can generally overtake slower traffic whenever your right foot desires. Aided by a quick-shifting six-speed automatic, the 306-horsepower IS 350 is a confident beast. One editor thought the automatic shifted a bit harshly sometimes, but most agreed it's a responsive gearbox — not the usual pedigree from parent company Toyota. Still, I wish the IS 350 had a manual transmission. Most competing sedans offer one with their larger engines. Manuals might not sell well, but having one available would make the IS more attractive to performance enthusiasts.
The 204-hp IS 250 does offer a stick, and you'll probably need it to wring the most out of the engine. Our test car's pint-sized V-6 felt two cylinders short. It reminded me of a Mercedes-Benz C240 — the cheapest six-cylinder Mercedes of its time, discontinued in 2006. Like the old Benz, the IS 250's oomph from a stop is modest, though it's better in the drivetrain's Power mode — activated by a dashboard switch — which noticeably hastens accelerator and transmission response (at some cost to fuel efficiency). With three people inside, our convertible needed the drivetrain's full reserves to reach highway speed.
Lexus quotes a zero-to-60 time of 8.4 seconds for the 250 convertible, which is pokey for a luxury car. Weighing 375 pounds less, the rear-drive IS 250 sedan hits the mark in 7.9 seconds, Lexus says. (Incidentally, that's not far off the C240, which hit the mark in about 8.2 seconds.) Among today's entry-level sport sedans, the BMW 328i is quicker, and the turbocharged Audi A4 beats both. Lexus has some catching up to do.
Ride & Handling
As a group, sport sedans ride firmly, but the IS sedan takes things to an extreme that could turn off many shoppers. Wearing 17-inch wheels and P225/45R17 tires, our IS 350 sedan picked up all sorts of bumps, from slight expansion joints to sizable potholes. Our editors agreed it's uncomfortable, and that's a sacrifice you don't necessarily have to make. The 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class ride decidedly better. Believe it or not, you could probably get the IS to ride even worse: Options include 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires, as well as a performance-tuned F-Sport suspension.
Thanks to distinct suspension tuning, the convertible rides blessedly softer. Our IS 250C, which had the same 17-inch wheels, isolated road imperfections the sedan played up harshly. On the flip side, it didn't have the most rigid structure. With the top down, the windshield frame shuddered a bit over broken pavement, but that's a common characteristic in four-seat convertibles.
Some may want more power steering assist at low speeds, in the vein of the A4 or C-Class, but the IS exhibits better feedback than either of those cars. The nose pushes a bit at first when barreling into sweeping curves, but the car settles on its rear nicely on the way out, proving nearly as drift-happy as a 3 Series or G37. My only gripe involves body roll, which was noticeable in both our cars.
The cabin's businesslike tones and low-gloss textures are typical Lexus traits, but our test cars' faux metal trim and rubberized dash contours drew criticism. The door and center armrests felt short on padding. The A4 and G have better cabins, and just about every competitor is roomier. The IS' cramped dimensions are apparent no matter where you're sitting. Two editors bemoaned tight headroom in the sedan, and several noted the cabin's narrowness, in part due to a wide center console that encroaches on hip and knee room.
The power-adjustable front seats are supportive and generally comfortable, and their long adjustment range should accommodate adults up to the low-6-foot range — backseat space be damned. And damned it is; legroom is as miserable there as in the 3 Series sedan, and headroom is tenable only because the seat sits low to the floor. Adults' knees will either be raised in the air or digging into the front seatbacks, or both. Indeed, with 86 cubic feet of cabin volume, the IS sedan is among the smallest cars in its class. By the EPA's standards, it's a subcompact car. Similar money can get you a car one or two sizes larger, in the G37 or A4, and the Acura TL is even roomier. It's 2011, and a sport sedan need not be this cramped.
Lexus offers the usual gamut of luxury options, from heated and ventilated front seats to a power rear sunshade. The optional Mark Levinson stereo, however, is worth skipping. We don't often get deep into audiophile territory, but three editors remarked on their strong lack of love for the Levinson. No matter our adjustments, the treble was crashy and distorted, and the bass was a muddled mess. In a league with such aural standouts as the TL's ELS stereo or the A4's Bang & Olufsen system, Lexus disappoints.
Safety, Features & Pricing
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the IS sedan earned the top score, Good, in frontal and side impacts. However, rear and roof-strength ratings were just Acceptable — one rung down from Good. It's important to note these scores don't translate to the IS convertible, which hasn't been tested. Standard features include chest and knee airbags, plus seat-mounted side-impact airbags and two-row side curtain airbags in the sedan. The IS convertible has no curtain airbags, but its side-impact airbags include head extensions. Click here for a full list of features. On automatic convertibles, a collision warning system comes with the optional adaptive cruise control.
Reliability for the IS sedan has been good, but the convertible has performed below average. The stick-shift IS 250 starts at $33,295. That's not bad given its generous list of standard features: an iPod/USB-compatible stereo, eight-way power front seats with power lumbar, dual-zone automatic climate control, a moonroof and leather upholstery. Options include heated and ventilated front seats, a power rear sunshade, a navigation system, the Mark Levinson audio system and a backup camera. The IS 350 starts at $39,720 but comes standard with the automatic transmission. So do all-wheel-drive variants, which add $2,460 to $3,630 to the price tag, depending on the engine. Load up an all-wheel-drive IS 350, and the price nears $50,000. The IS convertible tops out near $57,000.
IS in the Market
The IS has never put much of a dent in 3 Series sales. It's been as popular as Audi's A4 and S4, which are distant second-tier players in the heady entry-level luxury class. Lexus, however, looks to be on the verge of a product renaissance, in the vein of what happened to the brand mid-decade. Here's hoping the IS' coming makeover solves its practical issues — but doesn't water down what's good.
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