When Lexus first introduced the IS series of small sedans to the USA in the year 2000, it really appealed most to the young car enthusiast crowd who had followed its Japanese cousin, the Altezza, with great interest. So heralded was this Japanese version that kids put Altezza ‘style’ clear tail lights on anything from Dodge pickups to Nissan Sentras. The appeal was a small, lightweight, nimble sedan with 6-cylinder power, rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission. The original was exciting for all the right reasons, but this latest version falls flat. Let’s dive in and figure out why.
First of all, the silky-smooth inline-six from the original model has given way to a not-as-smooth V-6 in the current model. At 3.5-Liters, it does pack a punch: 308hp and 277ft-lbs of torque, but because the automatic transmission has a fair bit of lag, it doesn’t feel as quick as it should. Long gone is the manual transmission option, something which would really save the appeal for enthusiasts. As it stands, the 8-speed automatic looks good on paper, but doesn’t really deliver. Not only is it fairly slow to engage, even in Sport mode, but the ratios seem a bit far apart considering how many of them there are. Our test car being an all-wheel-drive version didn’t help matters. Maybe the RWD version is a bit more exciting to drive?
As expected, the interior is quite nice – in places. There are some top-quality materials, but they are mixed with some cheaper ones. As discussed in the past, I’d settle for a slightly lower level of materials if I knew they were all consistent across the board. In particular, the lower-door panels feel really thin and are made of especially hard plastic. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a sedan that’s pushing $50k after options are added.
Technology wise, you can get it with a full suite of safety features – lane assist, collision mitigation, and blind-spot monitor. All the features you would expect. Unfortunately, things come off the rails a bit when it comes to the infotainment system. The very hard-to-control touchpad in the center console leaves you permanently frustrated trying to point to any features on the screen, and a lack of smartphone integration makes the system feel a bit dated. There are a lot of screens and apps and bells and whistles, but it fails in terms of usability. The Mark Levinson audio system equipped test car we had did give great performance.
The chassis lags just as much as the transmission, and lacks the direct feel of the original IS. Certainly that has something to do with the nearly 4000lbs it’s carrying around. Unfortunately, it’s just not that fun to drive. When you look at it, the aggressive bodywork promises something the car doesn’t deliver. If not a pure-performance car, does it deliver on luxury? The seats are certainly comfortable, but the wind noise is excessive for this price point. Overall, it misses on luxury as well.
We have noticed on several Lexus vehicles the central display becomes a Christmas tree of warning lights telling you that each of the safety systems are engaged. I’m not sure why it can’t just tell you if they are ‘off’ since most people will have them on all the time. It makes the otherwise refined LCD center dash look cluttered.
Overall, this Sedan just isn’t as small as it used to be. The extra power has been eclipsed by all the extra weight, making it less fun to drive than the original. The price has also ballooned to the point where the little Lexus is now comparable to its German counterparts. Yet, they are not at their level. The current version just doesn’t live up to either its price tag or its roots. For those reasons, we would look elsewhere for a small performance sedan.
Special thanks to Lexus Division of Toyota Motor Company for providing the 2017 Lexus IS 350 F Sport for review.