2014 Lexus IS 250

April 2, 2013

The redesigned 2014 Lexus IS boasts a number of practical improvements — and that, rather than the hit-and-miss drivability, is what might appeal most to sport-sedan shoppers.

With its redesigned third-generation IS sedan, Lexus throws down a familiar gauntlet: It wants to build the most fun-to-drive sport sedan in its segment. Yeah, but so does everyone else — and every major luxury brand, from Acura to Volvo, has a gladiator in this arena. The IS has its moments, but Lexus doesn't drub the class on the fun-to-drive scale. The car's strengths extend beyond that, however.

The 2014 IS 250 and IS 350 sedans go on sale this summer. As before, either car comes with rear- or all-wheel drive, with sportier F-Sport packages optional for either car. At a press preview in Austin, Texas, I drove various rear-drive configurations of the IS 250 and IS 350.

Molten Styling

The IS' headlights steal attention from Lexus' spindle grille, which now graces almost every car in the brand's lineup. The headlights sort of melt into the front bumper, with a swoosh of LED daytime running lights strung a few inches ahead. Get the F-Sport Package and the melting spreads. The grille swaps straight crossbars for a hulking mesh abyss, and the whole of it swims in a droopier front bumper. I prefer the styling on the standard IS; Dorothy threw water on this one.

Standard dual tailpipes are a nice touch — some competitors have single pipes with their base engines — and an interesting cutline sweeps from the rocker panel through the rear taillights. Overall length is up 3.4 inches, and wheelbase increases 2.7 inches. Despite the extra size, overall curb weight stays about the same. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, with 18s optional.

Cabin Quality

The cabin features overlapping layers and splashes of upscale stitched vinyl here and there — a welcome improvement over the Toyota Camry-grade molded faux stitching in the Lexus ES. Materials are decent, with consistent graining toward the center console and optional real wood trim. Even the F-Sport's fake carbon fiber has a convincing 3-D pattern. The shoe drops on materials below knee level, but the IS has eye candy where you see it.

Atop the dash, a standard 7-inch display governs the CD stereo, which includes HD radio, USB/iPod integration plus Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Lexus' available Enform system integrates various apps — Bing, Facebook Places, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora and Yelp — from compatible smartphones. Skip the optional Mark Levinson stereo, however; it sounds no better than the last IS' lackluster Levinson system.

Lexus' NuLuxe vinyl upholstery is standard, with leather seating optional. Most sport sedans have gone that way for years, though the Audi A4 and Acura TL beat the norm with standard leather. Lexus fakes it well. Minus the faint smell of cowhide, the NuLuxe looks and feels like its pricier counterpart. Eight-way power seats are standard, with a longer adjustment range this year. They should suit drivers of all sizes; my 6-foot 6-inch co-driver even said he had enough room.

Overall cabin volume is now 90.2 cubic feet; that's up a significant 4.5 cubic feet versus the last IS. Lexus cites a full inch of extra headroom and 1.5 inches of extra shoulder room up front, plus 1.6 inches of additional rear legroom. Adults should find backseat legroom fine. That's a big change from the last IS, which we named one of seven backseats to avoid (read it here).

A standard 60/40-split folding backseat replaces last year's fixed seat — a welcome addition given competitors like the Acura TL still have a fixed seatback. It's a high point for an otherwise diminished cargo situation. Trunk room measures 10.8 cubic feet, which is down from last year's 13 cubic feet and near the bottom of the segment. Worse still, the IS' arm hinges now swing into the trunk space versus the last IS' hinges — and the ones in every major competitor — that tuck into separate channels.

The F-Sport Package has high-bolster sport seats that are supportive and comfortable. Citing leather as too slippery for performance driving, Lexus offers them only in NuLuxe. Slippage be damned; Lexus should offer leather in the F-Sport. Other differences include a unique steering wheel, more faux-metal accents and an LCD gauge cluster inspired by Lexus' short-lived $375,000 LFA. Check out the photos to see the gauges in action.

Same Engines

The segment has largely moved toward turbocharged four-cylinder engines, as in the A4, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3 Series. There's something to be said for a normally aspirated V-6, even a small one. The 204- horsepower IS 250 has linear, if modest, power delivery. It's pokier than the torque-rich competition, but you always know what you're getting with the V-6; some turbo fours deliver peaky, uneven power. (I'm looking at you, Mercedes.) The IS 250's six-speed automatic has to work harder to keep up the pace; it's sometimes hunting gears to make the most of the engine's modest 185 pounds-feet of torque.

Lexus says the rear-drive IS 250 hits 60 mph in 7.7 seconds (8.3 seconds with all-wheel drive). Any way you cut it, that's slow — particularly in a group whose quickest four-cylinder players hit the mark in the 5- and 6-second range. The sluggishness doesn't pay off much in fuel efficiency: Lexus expects the IS 250 to attain 21/30/24 mpg (city/highway/combined), which matches the old car; all-wheel drive sacrifices 1 mpg overall. Several turbo-four competitors rate 1 to 2 mpg higher in combined EPA figures. All drivetrains require premium fuel — a disadvantage over competitors like the 3 Series and Audi A4, which merely recommend it.

Lexus expects just one in five IS buyers to choose the 306-hp IS 350. That's a shame. It's a capable car with strong acceleration and overall EPA mileage just 2 mpg worse than the IS 250. All-wheel-drive IS 350s have a six-speed automatic, and the rear-drive IS 350 now gets an eight-speed auto. The engine employs both direct and port fuel injection — two injectors per cylinder — and the result lends strong, muscular acceleration through the eight-speed's short middle gears.

Despite the new transmission, the IS 350 matches its predecessor's 5.6-second zero-to-60 time, Lexus says. All-wheel drive has little effect (5.7 seconds). Citing scant demand in the prior generation, Lexus says it has no plans to offer a manual transmission with either engine. Bah. Less than 2 percent of all 3 Series, ATS and TL sedans in Cars.com inventory have stick shifts, but each nameplate reaps untold credibility with performance enthusiasts simply for offering it.

Ride & Handling

Suspension changes should have liberated the third-gen IS from its predecessor's choppy ride, but I question whether they did. Driving the new Lexus and its predecessor back to back, I observed no clear differentiation. Damping in the 2014 IS is firm but controlled, with a similar character among all three suspension options: the base setup, the IS 250 F-Sport's sport-tuned suspension or the IS 350 F-Sport's new adaptive suspension . The C-Class and softer versions of the 3 Series ride better, and the cruising-oriented Volvo S60 beats the whole crowd.

But Lexus shines in rapid elevation changes, staying poised in up-and-down pavement where some float. I drove the IS 350 F-Sport and a few competitors at Driveway Austin Motorsports, a technical road course with replicas of world-famous racetrack sections that include Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca's infamous corkscrew. Challenge the IS with such off-camber fare and it hunkers down and barrels through. The IS 350 F-Sport's variable-ratio steering feels deliberate — almost heavy — and dials in precise angles, but the nose pushes earlier than the 3 Series, which stands as the drift king of this class. (Fixed-ratio steering is standard.) Even at its firmest setting, the IS 350 F-Sport's adaptive suspension allows a touch too much body roll for such maneuvers, and with either steering system, sliding the tail out takes practice.

All IS models get Lexus' Drive Mode Select system with Eco, Normal and Sport modes that affect power-steering response, drivetrain sensitivity and, in the case of Eco, air conditioning. (EPA ratings were not calculated using Eco mode, Lexus says, and the brand has no internal estimates of the mode's fuel-efficiency benefits, if any.) Sport mode's alleged reduction in power-steering assist feels minimal, but it holds lower gears longer and downshifts sooner — both appreciated, especially in the IS 250. The real magic comes from the IS 350 F-Sport, which dispenses Sport mode for "Sport S" and "Sport S+" modes. The latter puts all systems at full boil. Drive the car hard and it's a reliable ally. The accelerator responds instantly; the eight-speed automatic downshifts aggressively when entering corners and keeps the engine at power-spewing revs when coming out.

The front disc brakes measure just 11.7 inches in the rear-drive IS 250, which is tiny for this crowd. The IS 350 has larger discs — 13.2 inches up front — and all F-Sport cars get high-friction brake pads, which shave off speed with linear pedal action and strong overall stopping power, a relative weakness by contrast in the C-Class and TL.

Safety, Features & Pricing

The IS has not yet been crash-tested. Ten standard airbags include a twin-chamber front passenger airbag, which aims to reduce facial contact. The required electronic stability system and antilock brakes are also standard. Safety options run the luxury gamut. Blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam headlights and lane departure warning are optional. So is adaptive cruise control with a forward collision warning system and automatic braking at the point of no return. Like all such systems, it aims to mitigate — not necessarily prevent — collisions.

Lexus will release pricing closer to the IS' on-sale date this summer. Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, keyless access with push-button start, a moonroof, power front seats with NuLuxe vinyl upholstery and a USB/iPod-compatible stereo with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Leather, heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel with power tilt/telescoping adjustments, a backup camera, front parking sensors, a navigation system and the aforementioned safety tech are optional.

IS 250, IS 350 in the Market

Lexus claims the IS has younger customers than the 3 Series, A4 or C-Class. That should play well into the model mix, where the brand expects 80 percent of shoppers to choose the IS 250. The car's practical improvements should boost its appeal to that crowd, which may weigh the drivability aspects less. Lexus won't conquer the segment with the new IS, but the results should still find enough new buyers.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Lexus' spindle grille — more of a fat hourglass — finds its latest car in the new IS. The sedan measures 3.4 inches longer than its predecessor, and most of the length benefits cabin room. Fog lights come on IS sedans without the F-Sport Package.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The F-Sport Package loses the fog lights for smaller cutouts; the brake-cooling ducts move inboard, now flanking the spindle's lower air intake, and all the elements droop downward. Turn down the heat lamp, Lexus; this F-Sport is melting.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Lexus split off the LED daytime running lights, which now sit along the top edge of the bumper. Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights (1) are standard. Full-LED headlights (2), headlight washers and automatic high beams are optional.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The IS, like its larger GS sibling, has arcing taillights that drape the rear corners, but it feels derivative of cars as far back as the mid-2000s Acura TSX. By contrast, the upward kick that traces from the lower rocker panel to the taillight edge is a creative touch. Dual tailpipes are standard.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The IS 250 gets a 204-hp, 2.5-liter V-6 (1) while the IS 350 has a 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 (2). Both engines employ direct injection and carry over with minimal changes from the prior-generation IS. The gearhead in me likes that Lexus removed some of the engine bay's plastic covering versus the last car (3).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The IS 250 and all-wheel-drive IS 350 have carryover six-speed automatics (1). Rear-wheel-drive IS 350s get a new eight-speed auto; all transmissions include paddle shifters, which is not true of all competitors. Lexus' standard Drive Mode Select (2) has Eco, Normal and Sport modes that alter drivetrain response, electric power-steering assist and, in the case of Eco mode, air-conditioning response. The IS 350 F-Sport, meanwhile, has Eco, Normal, Sport S and Sport S+ modes.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Lexus' layered dashboard routine has hits and misses. An interesting silver vein runs below the highest layer, but below it, the passenger-side section feels bulgy. Interior colors include brown, gray, tan or black; the F-Sport swaps the brown option for bright red.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The standard dual-zone climate control adopts capacitive temperature buttons — a feature we've criticized in the past. Lexus executes the concept better than most. Like in the Avalon from Lexus' parent, Toyota, the IS' touch-temperature controls respond immediately, with tactile rails to guide your swipes.

Photo Courtesy of Lexus

Lexus' standard audio system uses a basic knob (3) to control the action on a 7-inch dashboard screen. Step up to the optional navigation system (1) and you get the automaker's Remote Touch Display (2). It works like a computer mouse — intuitive, but some may find it too free form for a car.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

A tilt/telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel is standard; power tilt/telescoping adjustments are optional. The wipers have a rain-sensing mode that still allows override swipes — a small convenience that BMW but few others include. A couple annoyances: The turn-signal ticker is so quiet you forget it's on, and the optional heated wheel warms only the 3- and 9-o'clock areas.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Models with the F-Sport Package swap out the standard backlit gauges and 4.2-inch display for an 8-inch screen tailored after the one in Lexus' limited-production LFA supercar. A simulated tachometer sits underneath a physical ring (1), which can motor to the right (2) to show more details on its left.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Power front seats are standard. Lexus' NuLuxe vinyl seats are standard, with genuine leather optional; either upholstery offers heating and ventilation. It's hard to tell the difference in look or comfort; see the next photo for more. One small convenience: A liner between the seats and center console catches coins, smartphones and other items that would otherwise fall.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Lexus ditched last year's standard leather for its NuLuxe material (1), but apart from the missing faint cowhide smell, NuLuxe looks and feels the same as the optional leather (2). Nice. Not so with the seatback finish, whose zippers with either upholstery evoke aftermarket seat covers (3). It's the sort of look you'd find in commuter-car leather seats.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

F-Sport versions have sculpted sport seats, which are supportive but comfortable. All F-Sport packages have heated seats with power adjusters.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Uplevel packages include imitation-leather-trimmed kneepads (1). They're worth the investment, given how the wide center console intrudes on knee space. Without them, your knees clunk against hard plastic panels (2).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Adults should find enough room in the backseat, which gets 1.6 inches' more legroom in the redesign. As expected for a rear-wheel-drive car, there's a considerable center floor hump.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The stitched imitation leather atop the instruments beats the Camry-grade, mold-in stitching in the Lexus ES by a mile (1). So does the center console's low-gloss finish, which stays consistent with the upper dash (2). Unfortunately, the lower door panels degrade to cheaper, high-gloss plastics (3) — an area where the last IS kept quality high — and the silver trim looks nothing like real metal (4).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

Perched beside the center console, the cupholders sit too far back to reach easily (2). Lexus also needs to ditch the fixed sun visors for extenders that reach the B-pillars; most affordable cars have these (1).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The center console is narrow but reasonably deep, as this class goes (1). The glove compartment has enough storage space (2).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The IS' rear window could be larger (2), but at least the rear head restraints stay out of the view, and the side mirrors are large (1).

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The smallish opening sits low, with arm hinges that intrude on cargo space if you pile your luggage to the brim. You might need to, given total cargo room is just 10.8 cubic feet, or 2.2 cubic feet less than both a BMW 3 Series and the last IS. Both cars — and every other major competitor — tuck their hinges into separate channels, not your luggage.

Photo Courtesy of Kelsey Mays

The IS finally gains a 60/40-split folding backseat as standard equipment. It's a welcome addition. The last IS had a fixed rear seat, as do a few competitors. The seat takes the center seat belt with it to facilitate easier cargo maneuvering, but a significant ledge exists between the folded seatback and the trunk floor.

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