Lexus has been known for luxury, sure, but it’s mostly synonymous with boring luxury. That’s not a big problem as there’s a huge market out there for those types of vehicles, but something strange has been happening at Toyota and Lexus lately where the brand is being infused with sportiness and confidence, and it all started with the IS. The first generation IS started production in 1999 and, at the time, was the only Lexus I’d really consider buying. Fast forward to 2005 where they brought out the second generation with more curves and a much more sporty stance, and I found myself actually lusting after the car. Everything really started heating up when they decided to let some lonely engineers drop a screaming V8 into the car and create the IS-F. This was the first real attempt by Lexus at breaking into the luxury sports market, and today they are working on introducing an F-Sport into every model.
This car is really sharp looking, but the design has been around for some time now. Eight years is quite awhile for one design to linger around, especially when the rest of the product line is evolving around you. Luckily, we’ve recently seen the all new 2014 Lexus IS and it looks spectacular. Back to our 2013 model though, not much has changed in the past few years.
Inside is much the same. The seats are comfortable and plush with great looking and feeling leather. All the controls are laid out in a fairly unifying fashion. One update they’ve made for 2013 over the prior year is in the navigation system, which now includes HD radio with iTunes tagging and a smartphone app suite. This helps bring the infotainment system into the modern age a bit.
We’ve reviewed the IS C 350, which is the hardtop-convertible coupe in the IS line, but this year we’re looking at the IS 350 awd sedan. As you’d expect, the two cars, even being separated by a few years, are extremely close to being identical inside. Of course, outside we have a few more doors.
One gripe I had during my week of driving the car was the interior space. The interior seems much tighter than it should be. The cabin feels downright cramped at some points. Whether you’re cruising or driving aggressively, the transmission tunnel protrudes way to far into your foot space making it uncomfortable to drive. I asked some friends that I know have driven the IS recently about this as I don’t remember it being an issue with the IS C and they reported no discomfort, but after sitting in the drivers seat and having it pointed out to them, they could feel what I was talking about. It may just be a bigger foot thing, not sure, but it was definitely uncomfortable to me.
Something that helped us overlook our discomfort was the fun factor. Our tester was the IS 350 which housed a 3.5-liter V6 pushing 306-horsepower and 277-lb. ft. of torque. The power delivery of this engine was aggressive and refreshing considering all the 4-cylinder sedans we’ve driven recently. Matched up with this V6 engine was a 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. Unfortunately, I’d describe this system as everything that’s wrong with paddle shifting transmissions in sports cars. You give your suggestion on what gear you want to be in and the computer decides if it likes your choice or not. You can put it in a high gear and it will downshift without your consent. You can put it in a low gear and it will shift up without your consent or even being close to redline. No matter what setting you have the transmission set to, including Sport, it just doesn’t work. I was thoroughly disappointed.
I was even more disappointed in the transmission when the roads became twisty and it was time to start driving the IS aggressively. The steering feel in this car is among the better in its class. Carving up some back country roads in Texas is made easy with the ride and feel of this car, but be prepared to be annoyed when the transmission decides it doesn’t like your gear selection.
What about cost? This car has many great competitors including the always spectacular BMW 3-Series. The 3-Series really is where it’s at when you want a sporty sedan, but be prepared to pony up a little more cash. Our tester had an MSRP of $46,165 which is a lot, but still competitively priced. You may also be looking at the C-Class Mercedes-Benz if you’re cross shopping the IS. Comparably, the Lexus feels a little more sporty, but the C300 is one great sedan as well. Another competitor, and one of my favorite looking cars in this class, is the Audi A4. You can actually pick up an A4 for a few grand cheaper than the Lexus and you’re not really sacrificing in luxury, but you will be sacrificing in cylinders, displacement, and horsepower.
After a full week with the car, I’m left a little indifferent. I like the looks, I like the power, and I like the sporty feel you get while driving the car. I’m not too happy with the interior space and I’m utterly disappointed in the transmission. I’m actually really looking forward to driving the 2014 model though as I’m hoping they’ll be able to move beyond these small issues. We drove the all new Lexus GS 350 F-Sport a few months back and really loved that car so hopefully the new IS will really shine.