Entering its third decade, Lexus’ IS series has never made any bones about its mission. Of course that was to battle the entry-level luxury entries from the Germans and other Europeans as well as the homegrown competition going after the same segment. On paper, what wasn’t to like: RWD (or AWD), a variety of engines, attractive pricing, and of course stellar reliability along with impeccable build quality. At one point a wagon and a hardtop convertible were also a part of the mix while the standard bearer was always a sedan. The U.S. launch model way back in 2000 even sported an inline-6 fercryinoutloud in case there was any doubt as to what the target was.
Now well into its third generation since that was launched back in 2013 with a refresh in 2016, it has been revised again, but more heavily this time with an eye to reclaiming some of the sales volume it has lost over the ensuing years. The top of the line IS happens to be the model we were able to sample last week; the current most powerful variant along with every option on offer thrown in for good measure just so we can’t complain about not getting the whole experience. The landscape though has changed a lot over the last few years.
Of course the physical changes to the shape are rather subtle to the untrained eye, perhaps too subtle to register to most. The biggest visible difference are the taillights, now more blocky as opposed to the previous pointy design and with a bridge spanning side to side.
The spindle grille is larger (!), and actually the dimensions of the entire car have grown as well, if slightly. The F Sport model here of course features various embellishments to the basic shape which wasn’t unattractive to start with, and ends up sitting as a moderately aggressive sculpture but without anything that looks overly immature. And the brightwork is toned down quite a bit too, including at the front, where its absence helps the grille blend in. Not that there was all that much brightwork to begin with but it only remains around the side windows now as a sort of highlight.
The (genuine) carbon-fiber spoiler on the trunklid is quite subtle and wouldn’t be out of place on a European car, here on this Sonic Chrome painted car it pretty much just blends in to the paint color. As an aside, I would not have guessed that the color is basically graphite gray based on the name, the color was not mentioned as an available option online when I checked so I had no idea what it would be before it arrived, I just had a copy of the window sticker with the color named on it.
With the rear diffuser, front winglets, side skirts, angular mirrors and bulging fenders it isn’t a shrinking violet either though, and with the palette of colors on offer there is the option to make it as mild or wild visually as you’d like. I though was happy to roll along in this more understated color, where for once I found the matte black staggered BBS wheels to complement the overall package rather than crying out for a lighter color on the wheels and looking like it’s trying too hard.
Inside it mostly carries over from the prior update, but by golly, since we’ve been on a bit of a sedan review trend as of the last few weeks, this one turned out to be sort of the Goldilocks. Visually quite low, the front doors open wide and entry was easy while still allowing an easy reach for the door handle to close it again. Once in the front seat, it felt as if molded around me; I don’t know about all of you, but if you’re lucky enough to be 6’1″ with a 32″ inseam and a bit of the apparently newly appreciated again “Dad bod”, then this will be heaven.
The sunroof was far enough away from my head. Everything was within easy reach. Sightlines in all directions were good. A very minor adjustment of the seat controls and lumbar support made them so perfectly adjusted that they didn’t get touched again all week and I frankly have forgotten what the controls actually felt like. Sorry, not sorry. I loved these seats, the heat and ventilation emanating from them at a touch of the console mounted buttons only added icing to the cake. Add heat to the steering wheel and Lexus really played my song.
That song, in this case, was audible through the 1,800 watt, 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system that had enough bass to shake fillings loose while the highs had dogs cocking their heads as I drove by. Usually I check out the audio and find it plenty satisfactory with far more of them to my liking than not, but this one really stood out on the positive side.
Anyway, back to the general interior. There are foibles here, it’s not all a love-fest. First, not only is there no wireless charging pad, there isn’t even a place to put the phone beyond either standing it up in a cupholder, dropping it in a door pocket or into the console bin or glove box, the cupholder being the only way to have it visible to the user. The console bin does have various charging and connection ports so at least there’s that.
The instrument panel too was a bit meager at initial glance but with a twist. I fondly recall the original IS300 with its extremely interesting chronograph-looking gauges, that’s long gone. If that was Omega or Tag Heuer, then this really is more Timex with maybe a dash of Swatch, or perhaps Casio. Perfectly usable of course, and quite readable, but a bit boring. One solitary dial with markings for the tach with the speed a digital display in the middle of it.
That combo instrument is flanked by a gas gauge and temperature gauge and lots of blank space on either side for warning lights, or so it appears at first glance. And in the center a display for whatever information such as fuel economy or trip computer readouts might be of interest as you toggle through the steering wheel buttons. But it does have a party trick which is kind of a gimmick, the whole gauge can move to the side of the display area and then there is more information such as a G-meter and a few other things of interest that can be called up, it’s sort of an homage to the LFA supercar of a few years back. I’d prefer just two traditional large gauges or at least representations thereof as the default.
The steering wheel itself was more enjoyable to look at and use, with the upper portion made of open pore black ash wood as were the door panel inserts that held the power controls. The rest of the wheel was covered in sections of solid and perforated leather and a delight to hold. The buttons on it, while numerous, were logically arranged and almost second nature by the end of my week with it. This one also still featured the old-style and generally beloved corporate cruise control stalk at the lower right with the adaptive settings for it on the wheel itself.
The central screen here was of the uprated 10.3 inch variety as part of the audio package. At least now it’s a touch screen although Lexus still insists on having its haptic touch pad aft of the shifter as the intended main control point. Even though I’m well used to that and don’t have issues using it, it can be mostly just ignored and the screen touched instead, as it’s well within reach and easy to figure out, I expect in the next iteration the touch pad will go away entirely, probably for the better. As usual the screen controls the navigation, audio, every imaginable setting for the vehicle and more. It’s quite good, even if again the camera quality could be improved a bit, although things are still clearly identifiable when displayed.
Below that are the HVAC controls, here the odd bits are the temperature sliders, kind of a rubbery-feeling haptic feedback linear item on each side of the button bank. Heat is up, cool is down, you can either put a finger on it at any point and tap once for each degree change that is desired or slide a finger up or down to effect rapid change, sort of like a flat stationary thumbwheel I suppose.
I tested it by not looking at what I was doing, just by feel, and found that the temperature display changed both in the HVAC module and also right up at the top of the touch screen, putting the temperature readout in my peripheral vision, a well thought out detail. A knob would work just as well (or better), but might not be different enough to pass muster these days with the tech crowd.
And finally, below everything is where you’d expect the aforementioned cubby for a phone but it’s blocked by the audio system which surprisingly even contains a CD player, something I for one thought I would miss terribly when they started disappearing a few years ago but in reality don’t miss at all, having mastered the very unskilled art of Bluetooth wizardry and listening to streaming or archived music from my phone. Old dog, new tricks. Yes, I’m aware that the CD will likely be rendered far more faithfully by this audio system than anything stored in my phone which is likely why it was included but it was good enough for my battered ears.
Don’t change it though, Lexus, having the option is nice and if I owned the car long term I surely would have some of my large CD collection in the car. The two main knobs (see, this has knobs!), are solid bits of milled metal covered with a slightly gritty coating that made it difficult to keep my hands off of, they felt too good with a very sharp and defined edge to their faces.
The gear lever is a traditional easy to use sort and while lots of that same console real estate is taken up by the now redundant haptic control pad, there is also room for two cupholders (phone holders?) and the drive mode dial. Choosing between Eco, Normal, Custom (user programmable), Sport S and Sport S+ is simple and while it makes various changes none of them were anywhere near as significant as what for example Alfa Romeo does with just three modes. In fact, I had it in the most extreme Sport S+ mode most of the time and found it perfectly comfortable and usable.
I think the best thing about it was that it did not cause the transmission to run in a lower gear than normal which seems to be the most obvious and annoying thing that most every other “sport” mode does at most makers. What it does do is it tightens up the adjustable suspension, shifts quicker, holds gears with excellent intuitiveness while automatically downshifting when needed while slowing, and of course changes the way that single instrument dial looks from a plain black face to having a black and white mixture to also incorporating various degrees of red to the display depending on the setting. Oh, and when really on it and accelerating hard the gauge turns sort of orange too as the revs climb and then even more red, perhaps to approximate the onset of red mist in the driver.
If you wish to accommodate a passenger, the other side of the car laterally from the driver is just as nice an environment, with pretty much all of the dash and the upper door panel nicely soft, and even the harder plastic pieces looking and feeling good.
In the back seat, well, hopefully the kids are small as it certainly wasn’t made for me (and I accept that, Lexus makes various larger models too, step right this way, sir, and all that..). My legs and head were firmly held in place by the surrounding furniture due to my stature but it was a pleasant place to be otherwise.
Please select Page 2 below to continue…
Pages: 1 2
Once again Jim, your review has drawn me into reading about a car that I couldn’t care less about. Very informative, and I must day that if I were interested in purchasing one, all the things that would concern me have been addressed! Styling is highly subjective and I’m not particularly enamored with this car. My dislikes: the front grille, even though it is toned down here, the instrument/gauge panel, and I detest black wheels. Since I’m 6’4″/36 inseam; I generally prefer 2 door cars, as generally no one can sit comfortably behind me, but this sedan appears to roomy enough for persons of lesser height, and a good choice for a sedan. For me, the CD player would be an absolute plus! Thanks again for all your insights! 🙂
Thank You! An even darker color and with the wheels in a bright silver might be my own personal choice, having the wheels be matte black instead of glossy though went a long way toward neutralizing my own thoughts on the matter.
As always a very formative review. The only thing was when i first clicked on it I thought I had read it before from looking at the picture. Then I realized that was your Mazda 3 article I was thinking of.
Great mistake to make if you are driving a 3. Not so cool if you just shelled out extra bucks for a Lexus
Dark Gray with Black wheels might be the new Silver… 🙂
Until the end of November I was leasing a 2019 IS300 and this car has a lot of familiarity to that, pre-refreshed, car. The interior specifically does not change between the 300 and 350. One of the things I didn’t like, and don’t like, was the haptic slider for the temperature controls. However, I probably used it twice in the year and 9 months that I had it. The lack of places to put a phone, and the poor quality of the magnet I put on the dash vent, meant I had difficulty being connected when I wanted to use GPS. My car was a base model without the little mouse or touchpad. And prior to this year, it didn’t come with CarPlay or Andriod Auto which was the biggest gripe I had about the car. Otherwise, I really liked the car, it did everything really well. And a little more power in the 350 might not have a bad thing, but I found the 300 to be plenty adequate.
I sold the car to Vroom.com because working from home meant I was not driving it enough to justify paying for it and car values are no longer based on reality.
The salesguy at the dealer called me on Friday trying to get me to come look at the new IS350 and I said I’ll be waiting for the IS500. We’re heading back to work part time in July so I may find myself in the market coming up.
Good review, Jim. This car is in a difficult position as you recognized in your wrap-up.
Lexus has been criticized as being incapable of producing a serious BMW 3-series contender, but I think some of us forget both how close they came several times and how much the 3-series (and compact sport sedan segment as a whole) have changed and diminished over the years. The original inline-six IS300 was well received by car magazines as a genuinely sharp driver’s instrument and the 2013 IS350 that this current one is based on defeated the turbo-six 3-series in several comparison tests.
But, brands carry stigmas, the mainstream sports sedan buyer wants an automatic turbo-four with electric steering, and the enthusiast voices on the web holler and brag about the acceleration stats on the upper-level German turbo sledgehammers, without regard to the overall driving feel and engagement that seems to have been snuffed out of them by weight and technology over the years. No wonder E30s are selling at such a hot price at auction–no one makes anything like that anymore.
This IS is suffering from all of this. There’s no market for chassis dynamics, as sales of the IS have proven. The powertrains are now simply not competitive. The 241hp turbo four is far off the performance mark of the 250hp Audi and BMW turbo fours. The 3.5L V6 can keep up with those at a similar price point, but is down on low-end punch and fuel economy and it’s been the top engine for years…even though you can get it in a faded blue 2007 Camry V6 for about 5 grand on the used market.
I don’t know. This vehicle segment has lost a lot of its appeal to me, and the current IS is remarkable within it only because it’ll likely be durable over the long haul. If leasing, I’d take a chance on an Alfa Romeo Giulia or G70 3.3T.
Yup, what’s interesting is how the 3-series has sort of evolved its way out of its own segment – or at least split that segment up with seemingly endless variations, bafflingly even renaming some of them as 4-series cars now and others being sort of quasi-CUVs like the GT model. Doesn’t seem like a great move to me but I’m not in charge. To me though it has diluted what the clear target was at one time. You knew exactly what you were getting with an E30 whether it was a 2 door, 4 door, cabrio, wagon, or the M model without even looking at it. Now? Eh, not really sure anymore.
This probably makes it harder to compete with it as well though and as you mentioned the segment seems to have even grown (over here at least) in regard to the number of offerings.
A very good, through, and thoughtful review. I did have to laugh at one thing though – not at the author, or at the car, but life in America in the 21st Century…
“ Anyway, back to the general interior. There are foibles here, it’s not all a love-fest. First, not only is there no wireless charging pad, there isn’t even a place to put the phone…”
It’s not a bad life when your biggest problem with your car is that there is no wireless charging pad for your phone.
Back when – I – was a young lad …..
Your conclusion is of course spot-on. The Tesla M3 has made a disproportional impact on this segment and type of buyer. I realize that where I live this is somewhat exaggerated, but in the neighborhoods where I used to see new BMWs and its ilk there are no new ones to be seen, with a few exceptions, invariably an X model or such.
This segment of the market is fading fast, at least out here.
Thanks for a very clear and insightful review. You’re really forcing me-in a good way- to stay informed on cars that have lost a lot of relevance to me otherwise.
We see the same thing here, and I’m sure most people that live in medium to large towns or suburban areas do as well. It may just result in longer life cycles of products in order to amortize the development, but some will surely be consigned to the dustbin of history sooner rather than later.
Here in Vancouver, the M3 has basically wiped out BWM, Audi and Lexus’s near luxury models. Dealers are screaming for EVs and their ETA is not soon.
Excellent review Jim, and really fantastic photography.
Unfortunately, the IS seems like a niche offering in a niche category with strong competition from Tesla, BMW and Audi. A bit too boy-racerish for my tastes, but I’m glad that Lexus and others are providing options.
I love choice, and hope that Lexus finds enough buyers to keep the line open.
Thank you, and thanks! It’s not always easy when trying to not re-use locations…Thankfully we have good backdrops where we live, right?
Interesting writeup, I think I followed an earlier edition of this car recently, Ive taken to using secondary roads when commuting to where I keep my classic its much better driving on twisty roads than gliding along a motorway thats clogged with other traffic I pulled up behind a IS Lexus at an intersection, once moving again it was an interesting car to follow the driver was obviously having fun throwing their vehicle into corners and since they were going at a good clip I just fell in behind overtaking is virtually impossible anyway so it was nice to see something in front of me that didnt have the brakelights on most of the time, I wish more people knew how to drive not just steer, Cars with great dynamics are exactly what I like but I have one already, it seems I might be a minority.
I want one. Not in the market, can’t afford it, and don’t really need one, but the IS has been at the top of my list since the original. This (excellent) review just cemented it once again. It’s pretty much everything I like a car to be. The very evocative description of entering and settling into the driver’s seat had me reeled in. I’m glad to hear there’s still some hope for this kind of car.
As a former owner of a previous-generation IS, your analysis here is spot in, Jim.
Lexus has a pretty fine needle to thread here (or really anyone competing with the German triumvirate of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes): You need to closely follow the template set by the Germans because your buyers expect it. But you also need to differentiate yourself somehow, otherwise why would people buy your product instead of just getting the real deal?
The Lexus play here seems to be towards left-brain German intenders, who want a luxury sport sedan, but are otherwise concerned about the reliability, maintenance costs, or depreciation of the German product. Come to think of it, that is probably why I originally bought my IS250 back in 2006.
Thank you. You’re likely correct with your last paragraph, and of course that was exactly the intention of Lexus with the original offering, right? It’s all worked out better than they likely expected over the years with a few small hiccups along the way but overall has had a huge effect on the whole industry.
Every time you write about a car in this segment, I scratch my head and wonder what would be important to me if I were looking for a car of this type. Maybe it is because this niche is just not one that scratches anywhere I itch, so it becomes a sort of theoretical exercise for me.
I like things like size (either very big or very small), simplicity, brute durability, style, utility, comfort, speed, handling, and of course a low price. Cars of this segment have some of these things but not enough of them that I would spend this kind of money for one. Really, I don’t know what I would go looking for if I had $50k to spend on a new car.
I am still kind of amazed to live in a world where metallic gray paint costs extra.
You’d very likely end up with two new cars totalling $50k. 🙂
I didn’t really think about it earlier, the Kia Stinger sort of plays in this same space now, as does the Genesis G70, neither (currently) has the brand appeal to many that cross shop this segment but it’s interesting that the choices in the segment are increasing…but as a result the pie is getting cut in ever smaller slices for everyone.
In 1970 when I was at university I took a night school course in Auto Body at the high school. My goal was to repair some of the rust on my Austin 1800, which did not happen. Instead I learnt that there is never just a little rust. I did however learn something about automobile paint. The instructor mentioned that light blue paint was the cheapest paint, and that red was expensive because it was very hard to stabilize. I had never thought about it, but it made sense to me that cost might vary by colour. My only experience with paint was going to the hardware store for house paint, and it was all the same price, no matter what the colour. I don’t know how much the cost varies, or if it actually has any relation to how much they charge.
I test drove an IS awhile back and I came away disappointed. It felt cramped inside, mostly because of the large center console. Also I thought the AC vents were odd with the square ones in the center and the rounds one on the side. I don’t know why such a minor thing bugged me but it did. Even the traditional dial clock in the center seemed out of place. I went with a used Audi A3 which also showed I wasn’t really ready to pay the new price for these entry level luxury cars.
Great review, Jim. I like this car and could see it, configured somewhat differently than your tester, as a worthy replacement for my G37 sedan. I too am glad the market can still support a car like this – especially one as reliable as Lexus routinely produces. The seats sound terrific.
Because of tight garage and driveway space, I always need to know length, width, and turning radius of the car under discussion. Would you consider adding this information to your reviews? I realize that few testers do anymore, and even Consumer Reports doesn’t routinely include this information as in the past. You sometimes have to scramble to find it.
Also, other reviewers continue to complain about an intrusive hump next to the driver’s leg on the AWD versions of this car. Did you not find it to be a problem?
I had no issues with any kind of intrusion, that’s interesting. The driver’s compartment was snug but not cramped, i.e. I didn’t feel constricted in any dimension and everything fell to hand very well, very comfortable but no wasted space. No issues with where or how my leg(s) rested (which is in fact bothersome on some cars but often driver height/shape dependent). I’ll see what I can do with the other info, I don’t usually get any info beyond the sticker for the car itself so look up various bits of info myself as well from the manufacturer’s website. For some reason the trunk volume for example was handy this time so that’s why it’s in there – and I would have guessed a higher number based on what I fit in it without really trying and space left over.
And yes, the G37 is/was clearly one of the competitors in the segment!
A friend just bought an off lease IS250 Type F and she absolutely loves it. Dealer had a hard time unloading it because the internet reviews of that model were not good, “Under-powered, harsh ride, poor mileage”. Coming out of a 2000 Camaro, she was not your typical luxury brand import buyer. She wanted a stone reliable sporty car, and it beats her old car in every category.