KBB Editors' Overview
By KBB.com Editors
The current "entry level" model for the Lexus sedan line, the IS consists of the IS 250 in rear-drive or all-wheel-drive variations and the more potent rear-drive IS 350 -- as well as a new-for-2008 high-performance version, the IS-F (reviewed separately). Visually reminiscent of the larger GS, the IS melds sporty looks, enthusiast flair, a generous roster of standard equipment and legendary Lexus quality into a premium four-door sedan specifically intended to steal buyers away from the gold standard of this segment, the BMW 3 Series. Other competitors include Acura TSX and Audi A4, both of which are marginally more spacious inside.
You'll Like This Car If...
Sporty handling, an engaging personality and multiple powertrain and packaging configurations make the Lexus IS well worth considering by anyone who believes that small is beautiful and that a car is much more than a mere transportation appliance.
You May Not Like This Car If...
Some purists might argue that the Lexus IS lacks the handling precision and crisp visual tailoring of BMW's 3 Series, which remains the benchmark in this category. Limited rear-seat room might also draw frowns from all but the most modestly-scaled passengers.
What's New for 2008
Both the IS 250 and IS 350 carry forward with only minor cosmetic detail enhancements. The sole change of note is that the IS 250 AWD's previously standard semi-aniline heated and ventilated leather seats are now optional, and are replaced by the baseline heated leather units that are fitted to the rear-drive models.
Underpinning the Lexus IS is an enthusiast-oriented suspension that delivers good overall control and effectively limits body pitch and roll motions during aggressive cornering maneuvers. The steering is slightly heavy on-center (the straight-ahead position) but merits good marks for being positive and linear. Powerful anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) on all IS models seamlessly interact with the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) on IS 250s and the even more advanced Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system of the IS 350. While the IS 350 is the clear prime mover of this family, even the IS 250 AWD feels fairly quick around town and easily copes with the cut-and-thrust of daily commuting as well as freeway passing moves. With its revised chassis settings and wheel and tire upgrade, the optional Sport Package endows either rear-wheel-drive model with an extra measure of handling responsiveness.
Paddle-Shift Automatic Transmission
Optional in a base IS 250 but standard on the IS 250 AWD and IS 350, this slick sequential six-speed allows you to use the fully-automatic mode or shift for yourself via either steering wheel-mounted paddles or an up or down push on the conventional console-mounted gear lever.
Optional Sport Package
While the well-tuned standard suspension will likely please most buyers, the Sport Package is firmer and includes an 18-inch wheel and tire upgrade that elevates any rear-drive IS model -- but especially the IS 350 -- to near-BMW 3 Series levels of agility and fun without detracting from the basic ride comfort.
Impressively finished and rich in soft-touch surfaces, the IS cabin is a relatively intimate space. Optitron electroluminescent gauges, user-friendly controls, a tilt and telescoping steering column and logically arrayed switches on the instrument panel's center stack emphasize its driver-friendly character, although bright sun can make the secondary readouts and navigation screen display difficult to read. Leather upholstery is standard in all versions, and optional wood accents can replace basic brushed aluminum across the line. Comfortable and supportive power front seats are a welcome home for those up to six feet tall, but modest head and leg room make the three-across fixed rear bench seat best suited for sub-adolescent passengers.
Sharing the Lexus "L-Finesse" design language that was introduced with the GS, the IS has a clean, muscular appearance with a slight wedge profile accentuated by blackout B-pillars that serve to integrate the side glass into a single visual element. Other keys to its aggressive character include a power bulge on the hood, prominent shoulder ridges, well-defined fender flares and sculpted lower door sills. Finishing the look are 17-inch alloy wheels with V-rated 225/45 all-season tires on the IS 250 AWD and 225/45 front with 245/45 rear tires on the other two models. Rear-drive models also can be fitted with 18-inch wheels and tires as an upgrade.
Notable Standard Equipment
Even the baseline IS 250 with 204 horsepower and six-speed manual transmission (or optional six-speed paddle-shifted automatic) has a comprehensive array of standard equipment that includes numerous power assists -- including 10-way power driver's and passenger's seats -- plus dual-zone automatic climate control, power moonroof, SmartAccess remote keyless entry and start, a 194-watt 13-speaker audio system with six-disc CD changer, trip computer, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and anti-lock disc brakes. The IS 250 AWD adds a sophisticated all-wheel drive system and an automatic transmission as standard equipment, while the 306-horsepower IS 350 is available with the automatic only and has the Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management (VDIM) package and upgraded, larger brakes. All IS variants are fitted with front, front-side and front and rear side-curtain airbags.
Notable Optional Equipment
Key IS upgrades include the Premium Package (perforated-leather upholstery, wood trim and heated and ventilated seats) and the Luxury Package (which adds corner-following bi-xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, power tilt and telescoping steering column, seat memory and more). Rear-drive IS models also offer a Sport Package (the features of the Luxury Package, plus sportier suspension tuning, high-performance wheels and tires and other features) and the X Package (the Sport Package suspension and wheels, and a front spoiler, but without the Luxury Package features). Another option combines Voice-activated DVD Navigation, with backup camera and Bluetooth, and a Mark Levinson 14-speaker 300-watt Premium Surround Sound Audio System. The navigation system is also available as a stand-alone option, as are the bi-xenon adaptive headlights, SIRIUS or XM Satellite Radio, an impact-mitigating Pre-Collision System and Dynamic Cruise Control and several other worthwhile items.
Under the Hood
Two technology-intensive, all-aluminum V6 engines provide clean and comparatively fuel-efficient motivation for the IS line. The 2.5-liter version uses dual Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i) and direct-to-cylinder fuel injection to develop 204 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to take a rear-drive IS 250 from zero to 60 miles per hour in a bit under eight seconds with either transmission, and to send the IS 250 AWD to that speed in about 8.5 seconds. The 3.5-liter V6 in the IS 350 adds secondary port injection and cranks out 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Backed with the mandatory paddle-shifted multi-mode (Normal/Sport/Snow) automatic, it propels the fleetest member of the IS family to the 60-mph benchmark in less than six seconds.
204 horsepower @ 6400 rpm
185 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4800 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 18/26 (manual), 21/29 (automatic), 20/26 (AWD automatic)
306 horsepower @ 6400 rpm
277 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4800 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 18/25
The Lexus IS has a fairly attractive Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) schedule that begins with an IS 250 with manual transmission at around $31,000, the IS 250 AWD at closer to $35,000 and the IS 350 starting just below $37,000. Those figures fall right into line with vehicles from Acura and Audi that most closely match the IS in size, drivetrain and features, and serve to counter any base-price advantages held by four-cylinder models, such as the Acura TSX and Audi A4 2.0, compared to prices of V6-powered choices like the larger and/or costlier Acura TL and Audi A4 3.2. Be sure to check the Fair Purchase Price to see what customers in your area are paying for the IS 250 and IS 350. All models of the IS line also enjoy a significant price advantage when compared to the BMW 3 Series, both in initial cost and with respect to residual values. While the IS 250 and IS 250 AWD rank above average in that critical area, the IS 350 is projected to have the best long-term numbers.