Car reviews - Lexus - IS - IS250 Sports Luxury sedan
Value, dynamics, styling, comfort, technology, quality, fuel economy, Lexus after-sales service
Room for improvement
Auto’s foot-operated park brake, big blind spots, no split-folding rear seat
17 Mar 2006
IF you’re after the best handling and sweetest steering compact sports sedan in the world then buy the latest BMW 3 Series.
But for everything else there’s the new Lexus IS250 – to borrow and butcher a famous advertising tag line.
The Toyota luxury brand’s baby has grown up after a spectacular first generation debut that helped establish the IS as a credible, capable and desirable competitor to the BMW, Mercedes C-class and Audi A4.
In six-speed manual guise in particular, the littlest Lexus – with its independent multi-link suspension, quick-witted rack-and-pinion steering, equal weight distribution and revvy in-line six-cylinder engine engaging the rear wheels – showed the then-new E46 3 Series from early 1999 what sheer driving pleasure was really all about.
Never mind that the 114kW 2.0-litre unit’s weedy 195Nm torque output equalled lethargy below 3000rpm, or that the cabin’s ambience – though hip and smart – was tight and lacked ‘premium-ness’.
Clearly Lexus had used the 1991-1998 BMW E36 320i as the template for its terrific little runabout. And in doing so it also created a character that really was akin to a four-door Mazda MX-5 – as one journalist so succinctly put it.
So, for its replacement, you’d think that Lexus would build upon the old IS base to create an even more-cracking driver’s car.
But the Japanese move in very mysterious ways, and Toyota started again from scratch to make an all-new model.
And this time it seems that the Mercedes and Audi are Lexus’ main targets.
Thus the resulting IS250 has gone in a different, somewhat less hardcore sporty direction, even eschewing the in-line ‘six’ philosophy for the more space-efficient V6 layout – just as the ‘C’ and A4 do.
In fact, now with the IS, the only obvious BMW lip service seems to be paid in its strong 5 Series-like styling, which is a real head turner by the way.
The Bavarians seem to have influenced the Lexus’ tail-light shape, taut body surface tensioning, rising window line, bustle-back boot and front wheels pushed to the car’s extremities.
What this new focus all adds up to is an awesomely rounded car that resolutely raises the bar in many key areas.
Only greater low-speed steering feel would have the Lexus walking away with absolute class honours.
As it stands in top-level, comfort-focussed Sport Luxury guise, the IS is merely an outstanding dynamic performer, imparting a benign feel to its handling set-up that errs on the safe, stable and fuss-free side.
Or, in other words, the Lexus’ cornering capabilities are virtually viceless.
Thanks to a good deal of grip and fine overall balance, the IS flows through turns calmly and consistently. Road irregularities don’t upset your chosen line while the sheer solidity of the steering fills you with confidence.
Up the speed considerably and the Lexus feels even better, as the steering weights up more positively while the whole car hunkers down with muscular-like poise and precision, backed up by a traction control system that sets in gradually.
It’s a credit to the IS engineers that what might be mistaken for dull low-speed responses actually turns into amazingly capable yet calm high-speed control.
Now drivers of the significantly lighter IS200 might wish for more of its entertaining steering crispiness (or twitchiness, depending on your point of view) but the new car has grown up far too much for that.
The IS250 Sport version’s slightly firmer suspension might suit them better.
And speaking of suspension, the Lexus’ ride comfort is a revelation now that BMW and Audi insist on almost totally ruining theirs with runflat tyres and/or rock-hard settings.
Even on 17-inch wheels and tyres all occupants are cushioned from a wide variety of shocks and surfaces – making the IS250’s remarkably adept dynamic abilities all the more impressive.
Throw in an absolutely cocooning interior environment, and it’s easy to see why the littlest Lexus feels like a big-league luxury car.
Only the shape of the old IS’ instrumentation binnacle carries over. Gone are the unsightly corrugated-style dash top covering, fussy sports-watch instrument gauges and tacky metallic-like trim.
In their place Lexus has fashioned a tactile, high quality and extremely elegant interior with detailing that would make Audi envious.
The plastic moulding texture and contrasting colours are pleasing, as are blue LED cabin lighting, a perfectly placed steering wheel, well-weighted switches and controls and high-grade roof lining.
And the stunningly luminous and breathtakingly clear white instrumentation is as simple and attractive as the old cars’ was not.
Meanwhile, the centre console is classically symmetrical in execution and features a large audio, climate and media menu screen that’s a breeze to use.
Only the proliferation of messy lettering detracts from the loveliness of this lush Lexus interior.
Lexus has also worked hard to make the cabin as inviting for passengers as it is for enthusiastic drivers.
The latter is well propped up on a supple yet supportive bucket seat that now moves back far enough to accommodate far-larger people than the Lilliputian old IS did.
In fact, the cabin’s space availability makes it feel like a compact medium-sized luxury car instead of a roomy compact executive express – which is what it essentially is.
But obviously blemishes abound.
Like an annoying foot-operating park brake on automatic IS250s (why doesn’t a car as tech-focussed as this have an electronic device?), bulky front seats that rob the rear passengers of much-needed room, and a hard centre rear pew that is pretty much unusable.
The rear-drive packaging is to blame here it’s also responsible for a shallow boot that – for reasons of optimal structural integrity – doesn’t benefit from a split-fold rear seat (although there is a small ski-hatch).
Most irritating though is the high sill that instils a claustrophobic feel for some occupants, and conspires with the awfully thick roof pillars to make over-the-shoulder parking a fraught affair.
In the loaded test car a superb rear-camera and parking radar, along with huge exterior mirrors, easily overcame much of this, although lower-level models must do without such helpful electronic gadgetry.
Speaking of which, spending the $80,000-plus for the top-line Sport Luxury isn’t as daft an idea as you might think because of the sheer amount of new and/or gimmicky technology made available in this segment.
Highly regarded and proven as an important safety advance is the Adaptive Cruise Control feature, that automatically adjusts the car’s speed to the vehicle ahead. It’s a dead cinch to use too.
Also impressive is the Bluetooth media adaptability that connects compatible mobile phones to the car for instant cordless and hands-free communication.
There are others too, and they go to lengths to justify, along with the hushed cocooning feel of the cabin, the extra dollars that Lexus demands. For the front occupants at least it feels like a compact limousine.
And this is helped by one of the smoothest and sweetest V6s available.
If only it had more punch! As it stands, 153kW of power at 6400rpm and 252Nm of torque at 4800rpm aren’t scorching figures, particularly considering that the IS250 is around 200kg heavier than the IS200.
But it does have help from direct injection and variable valve technology that make the most of what’s on offer.
In six-speed automatic mode, drive is delivered instantaneously, with the V6 happy to rev up to the redline.
If you want more go then there is the option of slotting the transmission in ‘S’ mode for sportier responses, and/or pressing the ‘Power’ function that is inconveniently hidden beside the steering wheel column.
Not coincidently, like most four-cylinder BMWs and the Mazda MX-5, the chassis always cries out for more power. And the brakes are more than up to the task of slowing things down.
In fact, the IS250 as a whole is more than up to challenging the best in the compact luxury sedan segment.
Even excluding the obvious highly competitive pricing for a moment, the Lexus scores highly enough for style, presence, comfort and ability to take it right up to the class-leading BMW 3 Series.
Factor in value for money and the Lexus lunges ahead.
Unless, of course, having the ultimate driving machine is your ultimate priority.
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