In 2006, Lexus took direct aim at BMW’s 3 Series, with the launch of the IS compact sport sedan.
The IS offered a pair of excellent engines, but its cramped interior and lackluster handling limited it to also-ran status, where it has remained.
But, for 2014, the IS finally delivers on its original promise. A thoroughly revised platform begets a roomier, more comfortable cabin and large ride-and-handling gains. There’s an all-new front suspension and, on certain trims, a new eight-speed automatic.
The new platform extends the IS wheelbase by 2.7 inches and overall length by 3.4 inches. About 1.2 of those new inches are devoted to rear-seat legroom. The front seatbacks are sculpted to create additional knee room.
The rear seatbacks are now split 60/40 and fold to increase cargo space.
Up front, the dashboard and center console are redesigned. Switchgear and materials are of the highest quality and fit-and-finish shows incredible attention to detail. Thick, dense padding covers armrests, steering wheel, center console and the upper dash.
Larger folk might find the front seats fit a bit tight; otherwise, they are supportive and well bolstered to keep bodies in check during hard cornering.
Audio and climate controls are well organized and angled to reduce glare. New touch-sensitive capacitive-switches control cabin temperature. Only the Remote Touch control interface that comes with the optional navigation system falls short; like a touch-screen system, it demands too much eye-time.
There are two flavors of IS, based on engine size. The 204-horsepower IS 250 ($36,845, including destination) and 306-hp IS 350 ($40,360). Both engines are V-6s.
Both 250 and 350 models are available in rear- or all-wheel-drive. Either can be ordered with an optional $3,000 F-Sport package which adds a sport-tuned suspension (adaptive on the 350),18-inch wheels, LED headlamps, heated sport seats and unique instrumentation.
All trims but the rear-drive IS 350, which gets a new eight-speed automatic, use last year’s six-speed automatic. Three drive modes— Eco, Sport and Normal — tighten up the steering, improve throttle response, and firm up the suspension. Both transmissions feature paddle shifters and match revs on the downshift.
The IS 350 F-Sport adds a Sport Plus mode, which incorporates Lexus’s “G-Force Artificial intelligence” that locks the torque converter to hold a gear during high-speed cornering.
Lexus uses structural bracing, advanced welding techniques and body adhesives to dramatically improve body rigidity. Safety, suspension tuning and cabin comfort all benefit.
But does the IS best the 3, or even Cadillac’s new ATS, which may boast the best chassis in the segment? The absence of a manual transmission — or even an automated manual — will queer the deal for enthusiasts, and those with a finely honed feel will find the IS a bit less athletic than either the Bimmer or the Caddy.
Regardless, the new IS twins are a lovely and deserving twosome. Given the company’s renewed interest in performance, BMW may soon have another contender on its hands.
Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2014 Lexus IS 250/350
Vehicle price range: $36,845-$51,320
Various models were tested:
IS 250 RWD: 21 city/30 highway
IS 250 AWD: 20 city/27 highway
IS 350 RWD: 19 city/28 highway
IS 350 AWD: 19 city/26 highway
Regular unleaded fuel specified