New & Used Lexus IS: In Depth
The Lexus IS is the Japanese luxury brand's entry-level sport sedan. The IS lineup has at times included a sportback wagon, a two-door coupe, and a hardtop convertible, but as of the 2016 model year, it's been pared down to just a sedan.
The IS' rivals include the Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, as well as the Cadillac ATS.
The new Lexus IS
When it was new in 2014, the Lexus IS sedan carried over the base powertrains from the 2013 model. Everything else was new, including updated features and equipment, better packaging in a stiffer yet lighter-weight structure, a double-wishbone front suspension, and a new eight-speed automatic transmissions.
In the first two model years, Lexus offered two V-6 engine options for the IS, a 2.5-liter in the IS 250 and a 3.5-liter in the IS 350. Both used automatic transmissions and were available with optional all-wheel drive, with rear-drive standard.
MORE: Read our 2016 Lexus IS review
For 2016, the powertrain lined has been reconfigured. The new entry-level IS 200t is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 241 horsepower. It comes only with rear-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters and three drive modes: Eco, Normal, and Sport--though cars with the F Sport package gain an extra Sport S+ mode.
A new all-wheel-drive IS 300 is powered by a 255-horsepower version of Lexus's 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The top IS 350 carries over with a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 306 horsepower; it's available with rear-wheel drive and an eight-speed transmission, or all-wheel drive and a six-speed transmission
There's also an F Sport package available for any IS, which adds a sportier suspension tune, summer tires, some aesthetic differences, and a neat LFA-inspired gauge cluster.
All IS models share improved interiors and the bold new styling of the current generation. Part of the interior improvement includes a new Lexus Enform infotainment system. It features a finicky mouse-like control, although other Lexus models are already moving to a trackpad-style input device that works much better, and we expect it to arrive for the IS soon. Like the larger GS, the IS's cabin is driver-focused, with sweeping lines and nice materials.
There's no official confirmation yet of a successor to the V-8-powered IS F sedan that was offered in the last generation. That said, Lexus launched an F variant of its RC coupe lineup, which is a new two-door version of the IS.
Lexus IS history
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.
In 2010, Lexus added the first IS-based convertible, the IS C. It was sold with either the 2.5-liter or 3.5-liter engine and only with rear-wheel drive. Unlike most of its competitors, the droptop IS used a retractable hardtop, providing better top-up stiffness, a quiet ride, and more of a refuge in bad weather. Because of its metal roof, the IS C competed most directly with BMW's 3-Series Convertible, but at a slightly lower price point.
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 IS F was offered through 2014.