New & Used Lexus IS: In Depth
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The Lexus IS is the Japanese luxury brand's entry-level sport sedan. It's an intender in the class that also counts the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class -- not to mention the Cadillac ATS.
The IS is new as of the 2014 model year, when it was transformed into a much more extroverted sedan shorn of its two-door coupe models.
MORE: Read our 2015 Lexus IS review
The IS was first introduced for 2001, then a rebadged lightly reconfigured version of the Toyota Altezza, a performance model sold in Japan. With a 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, and a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, the IS 300 was taken seriously by U.S. enthusiasts almost right away and seen as a rival to the BMW 3-Series.
Though the IS didn't quite have the handling and near-perfect balance of the BMW 3-Series, it offered strong performance, with its rating of 215 hp allowing 0-60 sprints in less than 7.5 seconds, and it had a number of appearance cues—like the chronograph-style gauge cluster—that were sportier than anything else in the Lexus lineup.
The first-generation IS 300 was also offered in a sport-wagon variant. Called the IS 300 SportCross, this wagon sold poorly when new but has since become sought-after on the used-car market.
While the original IS models drove well from an enthusiast standpoint and were extremely well put-together as well as reliable, they had quite basic interior appointments—as well as quite noisy interiors—that were more in line with vehicles in the Toyota line than those with the Lexus badge.
The IS was completely redesigned for 2006, adopting underpinnings that were based in part on the larger GS sport sedan. Eventually, the lineup was expanded to include IS 250 and IS 350 models, with the IS 250 available with all-wheel drive.
The 204-hp 2.5-liter engine in the IS 250 produced just enough power to be enjoyable with the standard six-speed manual, but was too taxed with all-wheel drive or the automatic transmission. The better pick of the two was the confident IS 350, which had a completely different character thanks to its 306 hp and more accessible low-rpm torque.
The two models both handled quite well, but the Lexus IS never quite gained the "underground" tuner following that the earlier 2001-2005 models enjoyed. The newer models were far more civil and enjoyable for day-to-day driving and passenger comfort. Backseat space was always been very tight in the IS, though.
Lexus tried to stoke enthusiast interest in the IS with both the introduction of a 417-hp, V-8-powered IS-F performance model, as well as a line of dealer-installed F-Sport accessories that brought a much more aggressive appearance as well as suspension, braking, and exhaust upgrades.
The 2010 model year marked the introduction of an all-new IS C convertible—offered in IS 250C and IS 350C models, both with rear-wheel drive. With an excellent retractable hardtop, good ride quality, and reasonably good cargo space, with a small but modest back seat to boot, the IS C was a nice alternative to the BMW 3-Series Convertible at a competitive price.
Through 2013, the IS sedan lineup carried over mostly unchanged, although for 2013 Lexus updated audio systems with HD Radio and iTunes tagging, and bundled Lexus Enform with AppSuite with the navigation system.
The new Lexus IS
The new 2014 Lexus IS sedan brings with it the same powertrains as 2013, but updated features and equipment, along with a stiffer yet lighter-weight structure, double-wishbone front suspension, and new eight-speed automatic transmissions.
The model lineup includes the IS 250 and IS 350 sedans, with an option for all-wheel drive. F Sport models offer an LFA-inspired digital gauge cluster and improved on-track dynamics through improved suspension tuning and some new digital wizardry, while standard Lexus IS models benefit from improvements to the chassis and interior, as well as the dramatic new styling found across the range.
As yet, Lexus hasn't confirmed the return of the IS F sedan. However, the two-door models have now been spun off into the new Lexus RC range--and that coupe body style does get a new and significantly more powerful RC F variant for 2015.