Car reviews - Lexus - IS
Ride comfort, quiet NVH levels, plush seats, great exterior styling, smooth powertrain
Room for improvement
Dated interior elements, average handling, lack of low-down power, old platform
Lexus makes improvements to new-gen IS sedan while falling behind in other areas
22 Jan 2021
DESPITE the sliding consumer interest of sedans in Australia, Lexus has stuck to its guns by bringing its new, fourth-generation IS mid-sized passenger car to market, continuing a run that first started in 1999 when the first-gen IS arrived to take on the likes of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Twenty years later, the interest in sedans may not be the same however Lexus’ commitment to the sector remains clear with the IS joining the ES and LS in the brand’s sedan line-up.
Lexus has promised improved technology, dynamics and styling in the new IS, so we took the IS300 F Sport ($70,000 plus on-roads) out to see how far its new-generation contender has come.
First drive impressions
Before you even step into the new IS, it is hard not to stand back and admire the design changes. Lexus cars generally have sharp, edgy designs that can border on being too angular, however with the new model the brand’s designers have got it just right.
From the rear in particular, the IS now has a purposeful and sporty look – no doubt aided by its wider wheel track – with the character lines running from the bonnet, along the sides of the car and inward toward the boot lid giving a sense of sportiness and aerodynamics.
The front end is also strong with new-look headlights and a dominant front grille featuring Lexus’ “spindle grille” design that matches well with the new 18-inch alloys.
Inside the cabin are new features such as the wide 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system that immediately stand out, however there are also a number of bugbears and leftover features from the previous model that let it down.
Chief among those old features is the frustrating Lexus touchpad, a mousepad-like controller used to control navigation of the touchscreen system.
Seen on many previous Lexus models and almost universally derided by critics, the touchpad is a novel idea but in reality it makes navigation of the infotainment system fiddly and difficult to operate, and unnecessarily diverts driver attention from the road.
This can be bypassed by simply using the touchscreen, however because it is so deep set into the dashboard it is difficult and uncomfortable to reach for the driver.
The other disappointing element of the new IS interior is the dated-looking air-conditioning cluster, which seems to be carried over unchanged from the outgoing model.
In the luxury car space, many manufacturers have moved to at least partial-digital screens for their A/C clusters, however Lexus seems stuck in the past with cheap plastic switchgear and a sliding temperature stick that is just as fiddly as the touchpad, and is far more difficult to operate then a simple circular dial.
The fact that a CD slot sits underneath the A/C cluster tells you about its age.
Apart from the disappointing hangover elements from the previous IS, the new model’s cabin is otherwise a pleasant space to be with particularly comfortable and well-bolstered seats. Combined with a chunky and well-positioned steering wheel, it provides a comfortable driving position.
The seats feature heating and cooling and are trimmed in a bold red leather which adds a sense of sportiness and excitement to the cabin.
Rear legroom and headroom makes it comfortable for two adult passengers, while the boot can swallow up to 480 litres of luggage.
While the switchgear and equipment in the IS may not look as flashy as its German competitors, its luxury bent can be observed by how quiet the cabin is while driving, with excellent noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels when out on the open road.
The IS makes for a great open-road tourer with its comfortable seating and serene cabin environment, eating up long distances with various road terrains with ease.
Three petrol powertrains are available on the IS range – a 2.0-litre turbo four-pot, a 2.5-litre hybrid and a 3.5-litre V6 – with our IS300 F Sport coming equipped with the 2.0-litre turbo unit good for 180kW at 5800rpm and 350Nm from 1650-4400rpm.
Carried over essentially unchanged from the previous generation, the IS300 powerplant drives the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The outputs of the IS300 are plentiful for a mid-sized sedan and compete well with the likes of the Audi A4 45TFSI (183kW/370Nm), BMW 330i (190kW/400Nm) and Mercedes-Benz C300 (190kW/370Nm), however we feel the IS300 is better suited as a GT-style cruiser as opposed to a sports sedan.
Some turbo lag is present in the engine – particularly off the line – while it needs to get its revs up for the power to really be felt.
Shifting from the Normal mode to the performance Sport S mode (only in the F Sport variant) does wake up the engine somewhat, however we would have liked a more stark difference between the two drive modes.
The eight-speed automatic is a slick-shifting unit that manages changes smoothly and adds to the IS’ overall GT appeal.
One major gripe with the engine is its thirst. On our drive we returned a fuel economy figure of around 10 litres per 100km, a significant figure for an engine of its size.
As mentioned, the strength of the IS lies in its comfort and composure, which is aided chiefly by the suspension underpinnings, which on F Sport variants includes adaptive dampers.
The ride comfort in the IS is excellent and worthy of the Lexus badge, soaking up bumps and imperfections well on all road surfaces and combining with the strong acoustic insulation to provide a serene driving experience.
On the other hand, handling in the IS300 F Sport is not as impressive, with the car not feeling as tight or composed in the twisty stuff as a new offering should.
This is likely due in part to the underpinnings of the IS, with Lexus opting to carry over the new model with he same ‘N’ platform as the outgoing version, instead of moving to Toyota’s more modern TNGA scalable architecture.
The decision to keep the IS on the old platform looks to be a mistake, as every model to have moved to TNGA – such as the current-generation Corolla, Camry and RAV4 – has seen a marked improvement in driving dynamics.
Given the suspension is geared towards ride comfort, it is not as well suited to sporty driving. The F Sport’s adaptive dampers do firm up in sport mode, which helps somewhat, however we would have liked to have seen an even stiffer set-up when changing drive modes.
Steering is well calibrated and communicative, and makes for a good steer out on open roads.
Overall the new IS is something of a mixed bag. Its handling and comfort marks it as a GT car, however it’s market placement and styling gives the impression of something sportier.
It is an all-new model, however its platform and some interior equipment make it seem as if there are unwanted elements from the old model that have been carried over.
Last year Lexus sold 703 examples of the IS in 2020. It will likely not expect huge volumes from the new model, however it holds appeal for buyers looking for a luxury sedan that looks sporty while proving a comfortable drive.
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