Lexus hovers over the IS lineup like a helicopter parent, lavishing attention to its smallest sedan, making sure that it never feels neglected or left out. Case in point: last year, Lexus bestowed upon the IS a new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder as the standard engine. This year adds subtle but noteworthy upgrades to the exterior and interior styling, plus the addition of new standard technology that's guaranteed to excite safety-tech enthusiasts, if there is such a thing.

First the obvious: the design. Except that it's more subtle than obvious. The grille is bigger, the headlights are reshaped and now standard LED, and there are big, jowly looking air intakes at the outside of the lower bumper that give the 2017 IS a slight chipmunk-with-full-cheeks appearance from some angles. Considering the mixed reaction the Lexus "spindle" grille has received, the fact the company is doubling down on it indicates that at least Lexus is happy with the design. In back the changes are limited to rearranging what's amber and what's red on the taillights.

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New infotainment screen

Interior changes are only slightly more noticeable, but maybe have a larger day-to-day impact. The 10.3-inch infotainment screen is new, but in the same enclosure as before, meaning it loses the weird letterbox effect it used to have. The climate controls are better integrated into the center stack, and the stitching on the gauge hood is also slightly different. Taken together, the exterior and interior style changes are noteworthy, even if there's no single big "hey look at that" difference.

You might notice some new icons on the steering wheel though, and that's because every new 2017 Lexus IS model now comes with the Lexus Safety System+ as standard equipment. That means you won't pay extra for a pre-collision system, lane departure warning and steering assist, or high-speed active cruise control. Blind spot warning is still optional, and it includes cross traffic alert. In our drive, we were grateful to have active cruise -- it makes commuting in Southern California's freeway traffic much easier -- but still disappointed that it was only active above 25 mph. Still, as a standard feature, it's definitely nice to have.

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Smooth operator

As for the rest of the car, it drives like we've come to expect from the little Lexus sedan, which is to say, quite well. Acceleration from the 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder isn't what we'd call epic, but it gets the car to speed without drama. The 241-horsepower engine never feels strained, but it doesn't sound particularly luxurious either. The 8-speed automatic transmission is well behaved and responds well to the paddles on the steering wheel. Yet it's sometimes reluctant to downshift on its own, especially if it's in a high gear, and the downshift requires several steps down, say, from 8th to 4th. However, the steering and chassis dynamics are right on, and fans of sporty, relatively affordable luxury sedans would do themselves a huge service by getting behind the wheel.

We can't say the exterior styling changes will mitigate complaints by some that the Lexus IS is overstyled, although park the earlier version next to the new one and the changes to the headlights do seem to tone it down a smidge. We do like the interior changes though, which help clean up the appearance, and there's no question that the standard safety gear is much appreciated in this day when you just can't be too careful.  The good news is that the new styling, features, and other stuff don't come at a huge price. While the IS 200t -- and the rest of the IS lineup for that matter -- is about $500 more than last year, that's hardly a big jump. More features and better styling without a big price increase? Sounds good to us.


 

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