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The Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 sedans are feeling a bit dated next to its competition, as most of those models have seen major updates since the IS was introduced for 2006. That said, these sedans have seen some minor updates, including improved handling, revised styling, and an upgraded interior a couple of years ago. And, most notably, the introduction of new hardtop convertible variants last year—they're covered in a separate review.
Even considering that refresh, the Lexus IS hasn't changed much in many years; its exterior is sleek, low, and attractive but not particularly eye-catching. In some respects, the styling echoes that of the larger GS sport sedans, with its rather low hoodline and rising beltline, which altogether gives it a wedge-like appearance from some angles. For 2011, the IS sedans receive another light touch-up that includes a new grille and front bumper, slightly different rear exhaust tip and taillamp covers, HID headlamps with LED running lamps on the IS 350, and a new 17-inch wheel design. Also, the newly available F-Sport Package changes the IS's look somewhat, adding dark-chrome-finished 18-inch alloys, a dark-chrome grille, a front lip spoiler, rear spoiler, and a special Ultrasonic Blue exterior.
While many of the other models sold by Lexus embody a soft, detached definition of luxury, the 2011 Lexus IS sedans have pushed Lexus in a sportier direction. These compact sport sedans have always performed very well—not satisfying in the nuanced, balanced way that a BMW 3-Series (or Infiniti G37) is, but boasting satisfying performance all around. The 2011 Lexus IS 250 is available with either a 2.5-liter V-6 engine rated at 204 horsepower, or a 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 (IS 350), and for this year the IS is offered with either rear- or all-wheel-drive configurations for either model. A six-speed manual gearbox is offered with the IS 250 power, but the acceleration on tap from this engine is only adequate for a vehicle that's purported to be sporty. Overall, the IS models drive like proper sport sedans, with a rather taut suspension, strong grip, and crisp steering response. The rear-drive Lexus IS handles a bit better between the two and has a better steering feel, and while the IS 250 can be fun with its manual gearbox, out editors' pick of the lineup is the rear-wheel drive IS 350.
With leather upholstery and a high grade of standard features in even the entry-level models, the IS is a luxury sedan from the start, and the typical Lexus materials and build quality will meet most people's baseline standards for the price. In most of its guises, the 2011 Lexus IS isn't especially opulent, however. Enforcing that impression is quite a bit of tire thrum from coarse surfaces and a fair amount of wind noise at higher speeds, even though the powertrains remain smooth and isolated. Interior space is also quite limited, too. Though the front seats are roomy and well-padded, headroom borders on tight in front, while the rear seats are cramped and short on headroom and legroom both.
Bluetooth hands-free capability is built into the base audio system, which has a six-disc changer, 13 speakers, and 194 watts of power and has iPod connectivity and Bluetooth audio streaming compatibility. A 300-watt Mark Levinson surround sound system includes ten separate amplifier channels and also has the capability to play audio DVDs and DVD movies, and other upgrades include a nav system, retractable moonroof, ventilated front seats, dynamic radar cruise control, adaptive front lighting, and a backup camera.