2014 Lexus IS 250 Review: From LA to Monterey
Lexus has been putting out a lot of hype about the 2014 IS. It's got their new corporate maw, edgy new styling, and handling that's supposed to compete with BMW and Mercedes latest. No one would fault the out going model as a "bad car" by any measure, but I don't think anyone would've called it daring. At least, that the general opinion of the automotive public. The latest Lexus IS definitely has a more detailed design, but the question is always whether it drives as good as it looks.
Lexus handed me the keys to their latest baby to see if this new car lives up to their aspirations. My right foot would have no problem determining if it did, but that wouldn't be telling the whole story. A car needs to fulfill multiple roles, and the IS was never intended to be a pure sports car. So, I decided to take it on a road trip to along California's Pacific Coast Highway to the historic city of Monterey... With my parents in tow. Their wizened minds helped inform my opinion about the car for audiences that aren't me.
Also, I was 100% less likely to stuff it into a wall with them in the car. Call it insurance.
Sitting in traffic heading out of Los Angeles towards Santa Barbara was probably the best time to acquaint myself with the car's interior. Everything is wrapped in soft, comfy leather with an absence of hard plastics anywhere. The thing that I genuinely love is the near absence of glare from the dash onto the windshield at all hours of the day. Visibility on the whole was excellent. There are no gaping blind spots in this car like there are in the bigger Lexus'. The side mirrors are large and provided plenty of warning when some jerk decided my gas cap was a good place to merge lanes.
Roll up the windows and you might as well be back in the womb
Eventually though I got impatient with the slog, and with true spirit of an Angeleno, started cutting lanes like an asshole. Those huge mirrors helped, as did the blind spot monitoring system. Honestly though? Coming from someone who drives an older car with no such aids, I don't know if this is a good thing to give people. It's like handing a pyromaniac a more effective flamethrower. It is incredibly helpful when switching lanes at speed though, and I'm sure it'll be an even bigger boon to the safety conscious.
One thing that the IS does phenomenally well is sit in traffic. The car is wonderfully isolated and the Mark Levinson sound system is fantastic. Roll up the windows and you might as well be back in the womb. Actually, with the heated seats on, that comparison is especially apt.
Head north along the coast and the four-lane freeway pares down into a stretch of ribbony, two-lane highway. The 1 splits from 101 somewhere above San Louis Obispo and leaves the bulk of that traffic with it. At this point the trip had already taken a solid 3 hours or so with a handful of stops along the way. To the IS' credit, the ride from the driver's seat is comfortable, but not numbing. The big deal with this updated IS is the new suspension and chassis they shared with the GS. If you're used to Lexus' feeling like a rolling sofa, you'll be relieved here. The chassis is responsive but the electric steering takes some getting used to. It's not communicative of the road. It is accurate, however, and the car will go where you tell it to without hesitation or drama.
My passengers felt the same way. They might've have been bickering like an old married couple the entire way but, it was never about the car. Even my dad, a six-foot tall man who rode in the back seat the entire way found it acceptable.
No, instead their complaints were more along the lines of "Why didn't we stop in Santa Maria for Tri-Tip?", and "You're driving too fast.", and "Marcus, that sign said 45", and my personal favorite "brakebrakebrakeBRAAAKE!!" On that note, the brakes on this car are excellent. Pedal travel is short, linear, and very easy to control.
In Sport Mode, you have a car that's surprisingly fun for its weight and power
As we stormed up the coast towards Big Sur, the coast turns twisty and craggy. There was no sign of lost grip at any point even when pushing it a little bit in the corners. In a word, the car felt grounded. The car would hold a lower gear without issue and shift aggressively when left in automatic. This key because the IS 250 is not a powerful car; it only has about 200 horsepower. When you're thrashing on it, the 2.5 liter V6 spends a lot of time screaming it's lungs out without much actual speed. The torque was adequate though, and never did I feel that the car struggled under its own heft. It's just not going to make your hair stand on end.
My favorite part about this car is actually versatility in the transmission. If you want you can leave it in automatic and do your own shifting with the column mounted paddles. In Sport Mode, you have a car that's surprisingly fun for it's weight and power. It'll be noisier, sure, but it's not really a bad noise. Moreover, you should be paying attention to other things, like, not driving your family off a cliff into the pacific. If you actually intend to put that rubber to use in the twisties every now and then, op for the IS 350 or F-Sport. It'll be worth it.
There's not much to be said about Lexus' new face that hasn't been said already. It's definitely a polarizing look. Though, the real story about the IS is the rest of the car's exterior design. The sweeping side skirts that melt into the wrap around tail lights are my favorite bit of design here, putting it leagues ahead of anything else Lexus is making when it comes to looks. It's elegant; but more importantly, not boring. Perhaps even more important than all of that is how well it fit in with the well-to-do crowd in Monterey. Sure, this sleepy coastal community might seem like little more than a pit-stop on your way to the Bay area, but in reality, you couldn't throw a stone without busting the window of some new BMW.
Monterey itself isn't a terribly thrilling location, but this coastal enclave is very nice. No one goes there to actually do anything besides relax and enjoy the fantastic weather and beautiful scenery. But that's not why I came. As much as I enjoyed the entertaining drive and our luxurious sleeping arrangements, I came for the food. Specifically, the clam chowder.
You see, while Monterrey is best known in the automotive world the Monterrey Bay Historics shows and Pebble Beach, if you're not rich, you're sol. The seafood, however, is fantastic even if you can't afford to an LFA. Fisherman's Wharf doubles as a relaxing tourist venue and bastion of free clam chowder samples. Every restaurant along the wharf has their own recipe on that they just can't wait to shove into your open gullet. It's delicious and rich in an entirely different way than the Pebble Beach Concours is.
Heading back from the Monterey was about as easy and a drive as heading down. Regarding mileage? The Lexus did pretty well. For what it's worth, I was able to make it all the back from Monterey to Los Angeles in a single tank. Actually, I had just over a quarter of the tank. It was almost a trouble free experience... Almost.
About a third of the way through the Navigation panel froze up completely. This wouldn't have bothered me so much if it wasn't the second time it had happened in the five days I had the car. Getting the Bluetooth to connect with my phone was frustratingly inconsistent. It would forget that I even had paired my phone to the car every time I started it up, meaning I had to manually reconnect it every time. My other coworkers had this issue too. Frequently they couldn't get it to connect at all.
I'm guessing this is just some prototype weirdness that'll be worked out once the car hits the market. The navigation in the GS 350 F-Sport and the ES 300h we tested recently had no such issues.
Either way, it was a minor issue that fixed itself when we stopped to check out the elephant seals sunning themselves on the beach.
I'll be the first person to admit that I'm probably not the target market for this car. I'm too young, too broke, and way too in love with things that are a threat to my physical safety at every turn of the key. But I did enjoy this car. It's surprisingly versatile. Being a Lexus, it's perfectly at home to the city streets and highway grid lock, but everyone expected that. I'd say it's a worthy alternative to the 328i or the C250. If luxurious comfort is your concern, you can definitely pick the Lexus without sacrificing much, and paying less.
Even in this basic configuration, the IS 250 has taken a determined step away from blandness. That grill--love it or hate it--is anything but anonymous, and the styling breaks from Lexus' slab sided cookie cutter mold. What do you think? Leave us your opinion of the IS 250 in the comments below!