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.
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