KBB Editors' Overview
By KBB.com Editors - Updated Date: 11/7/2011
Roughly 10 years after its initial launch, Lexus' IS still struggles – at least in many markets – for its footing in the sport-sedan segment. And although it is in the seventh year of its second generation, and while offering V6 and V8 powertrains, capable suspension and a niche-oriented hardtop convertible, the IS rarely gets a mention when the media or public discusses sport sedans. In most metro markets, the 3 Series BMW, A4 Audi and, to a lesser extent, the Infiniti G37 are ubiquitous, while the Lexus IS (in any variant) goes about its business almost anonymously. That shouldn't deter the sport-sedan prospect, however, from test driving an IS 250, IS 350 or IS F. Performance is crisp, styling is attractive and long-term reliability is well ahead of the German competition.
You'll Like This Car If...
If, in a sport sedan, you find a level of refinement fully appropriate to your transportation mission, the 2012 Lexus IS 250 or IS 350 delivers that refinement in spades. It may lack the ferocity of a BMW 3 Series (unless opting for the IS F), and falls short of the Audi A4 in high-tech cool but the Lexus goes about its business both quickly and oh-so-capably, and can do so long after its warranty has expired.
You May Not Like This Car If...
If you, like the segment, are moving into the ranks of "mid-size," you may find the accommodation offered by the Lexus IS models too small, especially in the rear seat. And while many buy a Lexus for its Four Seasons-level retail experience, others will find that environment sleep-inducing, along with most of the model lineup.
What's New for 2012
Having received several upgrades in 2011, including revised front and rear styling, minor interior updates, the addition of an all-wheel-drive option to the IS 350 and an F Sport package for both IS 250 and IS 350, Lexus gives it a rest in 2012. There are two new colors in 2012.
If BMW's 3 Series serves as the definition of "sport sedan," then the Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 might be seen as the "Grand Tourers" of the category. With a nimble chassis and responsive powertrains the lineup remains recreational, but all iterations of the Lexus IS provide a level of compliant composure the Germans rarely deliver – at least in this size category. Of course, what's under the hood will determine, in large part, where you peg the smile meter. Opt for the IS 250 with automatic and you have the perfect vehicle for the sorority parking lot. Grab it, however, with the available manual (figure on ordering it, as most dealers won't stock it) and you have a nimble and involving 4-door sportster. The Lexus IS 350 borders on the visceral, while the V8-equipped IS F can make a credible run at BMW's M3, and do it at 170 mph! Given its mission, the hardtop convertible – with either available powertrain – is little more than a boulevard cruiser.
In a segment offering all-wheel drive as an all-season prerogative, Lexus' approach delivers 70 percent of the engine power to the rear wheels under normal operating conditions. With that proportional distribution, little of the sport orientation is lost on dry pavement, while capability is increased on wet or slickened pavement.
Optional F Sport Package
While the well-tuned standard suspension will please most buyers, Lexus' F Sport Package is firmer and includes an 18-inch wheel-and-tire upgrade that elevates any rear-drive IS model – but especially the Lexus IS 350 – to near-BMW 3 Series levels of agility and fun. And it does this without detracting from the basic ride comfort or overall level of refinement.
As BMW and Audi interiors continue to gravitate toward mid-size, the small Lexus remains, well, small. The driver and front-seat passenger are well accommodated, and all seating positions are well appointed, but this is best regarded as a "personal" 4-door sport sedan, one which will never be confused with a family hauler. Of course, if you're in a Lexus showroom shopping for the family, the dealer has roughly a dozen better choices from which to choose. And luxury touches abound on the IS 250 and IS 350, beginning with standard leather, black metallic-finish interior trim, electroluminescent instrumentation and dual-zone climate control. We like the personal feel of the IS, and the convertible hardtop offers unlimited headroom.
The Lexus IS 250/350 body shell shown in March, 2005 was remarkable for its utter lack of adornment or distraction. A softened wedge profile, short overhangs, and raked windshield created a sporting four door that was almost coupelike in its integration. Thankfully, despite updates to the front and rear fascias in 2011 its stylistic integrity hasn't been diminished; this remains a very tasteful execution of an established formula. Opt for the IS F (or F Sport package) and things get a bit nasty, but only after hours. The IS C hardtop convertible strikes, to these eyes, the only discordant note; to accommodate the folding hardtop its back end looks slightly pregnant, and that's too bad.
Notable Standard Equipment
At least one Lexus dealer keeps the inventory process relatively simply: Do you want navigation – or do you not want navigation? Beyond that, the decisions are already made, with little to add to an already well-equipped platform. Dual-zone automatic climate control, power tilt-and-telescopic steering column, Lexus Memory System for driver and front-passenger seating, leather-trimmed interior, Lexus Premium Sound with SiriusXM satellite radio and electroluminescent instrumentation are among the high points of a standard-spec IS. And let's not forget the IS 250's 6-speed manual transmission; try one, then buy one.
Notable Optional Equipment
For those wanting to underscore "sport" in sport sedan, the F Sport Package should do it. Available on either Lexus IS 250 or IS 350 with rear-wheel drive, the F Sport ups the visual and functional ante with 18-inch alloys finished in Dark Graphite; an F Sport suspension coupled with a more aggressively tuned power-steering unit; front lip spoiler, upper and lower grille inserts and rear spoiler; F Sport front seats, and a host of interior modifications. For those more interested in "audio" than "audacious," opt for the Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package, with more adapted technology than the first moon landing.
Under the Hood
Two technology-intensive, all-aluminum V6 engines provide clean and comparatively fuel-efficient motivation for the IS line. Both powertrains use dual Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i) and direct fuel injection. The 2.5 liter develops 204 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque, sufficient to take a rear-drive IS 250 from zero to 60 mph in under eight seconds with either transmission (6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic), 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 lb-ft of torque. Backed with the mandatory paddle-shifted multi-mode (Normal/Sport/Snow) automatic, it propels the fleetest member of the standard IS family to the 60-mph benchmark in about 5.5 seconds. If a 0-60 time of under six seconds isn't quite quick enough, consider the IS F's 5.0-liter V8, and then go cruising for pink slips. With an 11.8:1 compression ratio, the all-aluminum eight cylinder produces 416 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque, and is capable of launching the IS F from 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and achieve a top track speed (don't tell the wife) of 170! All engines require premium unleaded.
204 horsepower @ 6,400 rpm
185 lb-ft of torque @ 4,800 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 19/28 (manual), 21/30 (automatic), 20/27 (AWD automatic)
306 horsepower @ 6,400 rpm
277 lb-ft of torque @ 4,800 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 19/27 (rear-wheel drive), 18/26 (AWD)
5.0 liter V8
416 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm
371 lb-ft of torque @ 5,200 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 16/23
The Lexus franchise began, more than 20 years ago, with a value mandate. Offering German performance, quasi-American comfort and Asian attention to detail, the small Lexus lineup was launched at price points guaranteed to make the American consumer take notice. And while in some segments those price gaps have narrowed, the IS 250 and 350 continue to offer a value argument against their German competition. With very modest price hikes (some models had no price increase; the IS F was about 1 percent) the IS 250 6-speed starts at a well-equipped base of just over $34,000, while an automatic adds roughly $1,200 – and the automatic transmission with AWD is just over $38,000. The IS 350 runs approximately $5,500 more than a comparably equipped IS 250, and convertibles start at $42,000. Opt for the IS F and you'll be spending upward of $62,000. Lexus resale values are historically high, supported by a reputation for both high initial quality and long-term reliability. Be sure to check the Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price to determine what customers are paying in your market area.