Used Car Test Drive: 2014 Lexus IS250 – Beakzilla vs. King Maw, Part 2

Behold King Maw.  We turn away in fear–or perhaps disgust–from his oversized visage, fearing ruin and destruction, for what else could follow?  How could this have happened to conservative Lexus?  Shame on us for even asking. How harshly we judge him, and how little we recognize our role in his formation.  You see, years of enduring the sting of enthusiast rebuke will do that to anyone:  “Lexus is so boring, so vanilla”.  “Just tarted-up Camries, that’s all”.    The resulting overcompensation and emotional breakdown could have been seen a mile away.  Now Lexus is clinging to the upper parapet and swatting at airplanes. 

Take a step back instead of shoving the camera up its nose, and I think this actually works.  Image credit: Autotrader

The IS wears one of the more restrained King Maw spindle fascias, and even then it is pushing boundaries. Why anyone thought it could be stretched across the giant faces of their SUV lineup is anyone’s guess.   The grill on this IS suggests an engine with massive airflow needs, and the contoured metal evokes rapid motion even when parked, but this sedan is neither as loud or furious as it appears.  Nor as quick.  In Part 1, I concluded that the TL was a good rapid family hauler, but flawed enough that I’d rather have a few other cars. This Lexus isn’t one of them. The first digit in the alphanumeric model name will already tell you what the problem is here.  The 306 hp IS350 hadn’t depreciated much by this time, but base IS250s with the 204 hp 2.5L V6 were notably less expensive.  I wanted to see if maybe, just maybe the well-regarded chassis and cabin could erase the on-paper power deficit.

The looks of this car have grown on me.  Image credit: Autotrader

First impressions were quite good.  The car looks better in person than in photos, particularly in this non-FSport trim with the calmer grill. It’s a low and angular little sedan that looks distinctive and expensive.  I normally prefer conservative styling and haven’t warmed up to a lot of Toyota/Lexus designs, but this one somehow works for me. Unlike the 328i, the doors don’t conjure the bank vault analogy, but the front seats are exceptional.  The bottom cushions are long and the tall backrests provide gentle and consistent support all the way to your shoulders. In a sensation of brilliantly engineered luxury, you sink half an inch into cushy foam before settling on a firmer foundation.  And these are the base seats.  I see some silver-painted plastic that has no business on the dashboard of a car in this price range, but from the comfort of these seats I simply don’t care.

The seats do not appear special until you sit in them

The rest of the interior is very good.  The dash is a bit tall for my tastes, but the architecture is unique and interesting.  It simply doesn’t look like anything currently in production and that is refreshing in an era where design themes are converging into homogeneous formulas repeated by multiple manufacturers.  The materials you are likely to contact feel expensive, including nice touches like the padded and stitched panel running along the center console to shelter your knee.  The twin tuning and volume knobs on the minimalist stereo face have a tactile real-metal feel reminiscent of those high quality home reel-to-reel decks from the 1970s. I could do without the painted plastic and the hard panels on the lower doors, but on the whole I think this easily trounces the 328, G37, TL, and GTI.  Good news for those who injured themselves trying to get into the back of the last IS: the backseat is now usable in this car.  As a six-footer I can sit behind myself without my knees touching the seatback.

Infotainment aficionados will expect me to complain about the system in the IS.  They all hate the Lexus mouse controller and screen graphics, but I’m not going to go there because this is a car and not a smart phone.  I’ve had enough with this tech-obsession.  It has already ruined our attention spans and social etiquette and now it’s ruining our cars because people want a screen that happens to take them on errands rather than an automobile that happens to have a screen.  I’m only going to say this: the HVAC and volume/tune in the IS don’t need to be operated through the digital interface, so reviewer gripes are a non-issue for me.  Infotainment is so far down on my priority list that I could never professionally review cars in this decade.

This is a cockpit, not a living room, but a very comfortable and interesting one. Digital Trends

The engine is pure silk upon start-up.  The car moves with refinement. It is heavy–surprisingly so given its size–but I feel it hides the mass better than the Acura while providing a better sense of solidity and nimbleness.  It is quiet, the ride quality is firm without harshness, there are no little tremors or vibrations, and the steering wheel keeps road surface feedback from troubling your hands. That last point is not a positive one for me.  Around town the steering feels artificial and detached despite its responsiveness and accuracy. Car and Driver must have been on to something when they wrote the IS “can feel remote and lazy when insufficiently challenged”.  They then challenged the car but I did not. The closest was a quick pass through an empty narrow-radius offramp, quicker than I’d dare take in my Sportwagen, and it felt effortless.   The car just popped out on the other side of the curve with no sense of drama. I think there’s a lot of capability beneath that refined surface, I just wish it exhibited a bit more of that personality lower in the performance envelope.

Eat your heart out, BMW 328i.  Well, until the light turns green. Image credit TruckTrend

The power-to-weight ratio is the real problem with this car, and a frustrating one considering the effort that went into the chassis and interior.  I could overlook the benign everyday steering given its considerable other virtues, but not this. The little 2.5-liter V6 is a gem, a peach, a model of refinement and aural character compared to the turbo-four 328i, but it is smothered by 3700 pounds of car.  This engine would shine in a 3000 pound compact.  Here, it labors.

Where the chassis gods giveth, the powertrain gods taketh away.

The 7 second run to 60 is a pretty good statistic for only 200 hp moving around this much weight, but what this hides is the peakiness of the naturally-aspirated powerband and how that affects everyday driving. There isn’t much to work with low in the rev range, so it feels a bit breathless until a multi-gear downshift gets the engine toward 4000 rpm.  The transmission is very responsive and obliges readily, but the gas pedal then becomes a binary switch. Part throttle gives you little, so you dig deep for a big downshift, reach the speed you want, throttle back and the transmission upshifts out of the power band.  Then you repeat. On-off, on-off.

The same uphill onramp more powerful cars conquered effortlessly was a high-revving affair for the IS250.  Customers wanting smooth and adequate power will be satisfied. I, however, am an impatient oaf behind the wheel and prone to rapid starts from the stoplight just for the momentary joy of being freed from the prison of traffic, so I really would prefer more-than-adequate power. And this was the RWD model; the AWD I’d need for our winters adds more weight, more friction, and is slower than a Honda CR-V. That, I will argue, simply isn’t right.

Do not provoke Granny in her Q-ship. Why do IS buyers need to spend $42,000 for this engine?

A manual transmission and a lower price point would make the IS250 a far more compelling car.  But what we have instead is an expensive slushbox sports sedan that looks quick but will be humiliated by a 10-year old Camry with the corporate V6 that should have been standard in the IS but isn’t because Lexus doesn’t have an upgrade engine option the way the Germans do, but still wants to maintain the German’s profitable pricing hierarchy.  So they hobble the base car to create a performance delta with the Camry-engined IS350 and charge a premium for that one.  BMW isn’t the only one with a cynical pricing strategy.

25 years ago, this chunky little catfish could match the current BMW 340i to 60mph.  Toyota’s holding back on us.

It’s an annoying pay-more-for-less model to ape, and they’re not aping it that well on either end. The 3.5 is a great engine, but not a great top-tier engine for this class. Twenty years ago Toyota had one that could be: the 3-liter inline twin-turbo six that could nearly compete with today’s 340i and C400, and justify the existence of a $60K IS400 to those who grew up wanting the Supra Turbo and are now capable of affording one.  So where is the modernized 2JZ?  Sure, it was an overbuilt iron-block quarter-ton beast that doesn’t mesh with the industry as it is now, but couldn’t two decades of engineering have provided a lighter and more efficient version with the same power output?

The Wikipedia blurb on the more powerful 3.0-liter 3GR V6.  Why use the 2.5 if this was around?

Similarly, this 2.5L is not a great entry-level engine for this class.  It is the smallest member of the broad Toyota GR V6 engine family, with the lowest output.  Fuel economy is rather poor despite the direct-injection, and it lacks the D4-S dual injection of the 3.5, so earlier model years suffered from carbon buildup.  It’s a curious choice since Toyota had a 3.0L port-injected GR V6 with ~230 hp and 220 lb-ft in their stable that would have slotted nicely under the 3.5L. It was installed in the 2007 IS300 sold in Japan and the Middle East, and was mysteriously short-lived in the Toyota universe.  I’d love to know why that engine was so rarely used.

A six-cylinder lineup of IS300, IS350, and IS400 ranging from $36-60K seems like a rather prestigious way to chase the Germans in this country while maintaining Lexus refinement and quality, but what do I know.  I’m a lowly used-car shopper interested in this segment only because of depreciation’s magic exponential curve. They do not and probably should not care what I think of the matter. Toyota is a money-making machine and is employing a left-brain strategy.  Apparently, this involves making the ceiling low and the floor even lower for this car.  Everything I’ve read about the IS200T that replaced this IS250 suggests that low floor hasn’t really been raised by their new 2-liter turbo.

Why would you hobble a car that looks this good? Image credit: Carvana

So I find myself in agreement with the auto journalists on this one and I feel kind of dirty as a result. The IS250 feels very well made and far more athletic and driver-oriented than the brand’s reputation, but is let down by the perplexingly modest engine.  This is, after all, a sports sedan and the appeal of that genre is tactility and performance that exceed mainstream offerings.  The IS250 gets so close here but stumbles on a critical factor.   I understand and generally agree with the argument for a well-balanced total-package car that doesn’t prioritize engine power, but this is taking it too far.  Far enough, in fact, that I might be happier in the overstyled Acura.  Maybe.  I’m not sure.  That I even have to think about it should wake some people up at Lexus, though.  King Maw, like Beakzilla, has fallen.  There is but one more who can take the fight to the GTI, and the next installment will compare it to the VW.