A Review of the 3rd-Generation 2014 Lexus IS250 AWD
IN A NUTSHELL: AWD versatility/traction for slippery roads, but interior trim and sound-insulation cost-cutting shows.
CLOSEST AMERICAN-MARKET COMPETITORS: Infiniti Q50, Buick Verano/Regal, Cadillac ATS, Audi A3/A4, Acura ILX/TSX, Volvo S60, BMW 320/328, Mercedes C250/CLA250
Although the Lexus line-up of vehicles has expanded considerably since then, when the original Lexus IS300 (essentially a rebadged Toyota Altezza with a larger engine) debuted here in the American market in 2001, it was hailed by the auto-press as the original "Non-Lexus". The IS300, introduced here to basically compete with the BMW 3-series, emphsized handling, sportiness, and a so-called "Drivers' Feel" compared to previous Lexus sedans/coupes, which, with the possible exception of the first-generation SC, rode and drove like well-hushed coccoons. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...I like a quiet, comfortable car myself). The 1st-generation IS300 was radically different, both inside and out, from any other Lexus product of the time. Paint jobs included bright Solar Yellow, a nice red/copper Auburn Sky Metallic, and a few other shades to keep your eyes open. Inside, high-quality materials were used, several of the gauges were in a chronometer-styled housing, and the shift lever had a unique, highly-polished real chrome-metal ball. Even though it lacked the wood trim that I liked (wood trim was not available with the yellow paint), at the D.C. Auto Show that year, I fell in love with this car's unique interior and ingot-like build quality. For a while, it was Consumer Reports' most reliable sedan, which told you something), I bought a yellow one myself that year with the 16" all-season tires, which rode smoother than the standard 17" wheels....kept it almost 5 years. An IS300 SportCross wagon/hatchback version was briefly marketed here in the U.S., but it was unsuccessful due to very low sales. A manual-transmission version was introduced in 2002, but also did not sell particularly well, especially compared to the manual-transmission BMW 3-series it went up against.
The 1st-generation IS, though, besides some minor quirks in the transmission programming and shift-lever action (which I won't get into here), had one major Achilles Heel...its RWD, even with all-season tires, electronic traction control, and a Snow-Mode for the automatic transmission that limted engine torque, could be a real handful on snow and ice. I am a careful driver, but, even using care and all of those traction-aids, if the road was really slippery, that IS would fishtail side-to-side like a skater doing a Dutch Roll. It BADLY needed AWD, and Lexus just didn't offer it on the first-generation model.
That, of course, changed with the all-new 2nd-generation model, where AWD became an option, along with a change from the smooth, bulletproof in-line 3.0L 6 to new 2.5L and 3.5L V6 engines. The 5-speed automatic gained an extra gear, and the quirky but interesting interior became more conventional and Lexus-like. A high-performance IS-F, with a V8 and rock-hard suspension (I remember reviewing it) was added to compete with the Audi S4, BMW M3, and Mercedes C63 AMG series. Later, a 2-door convertible model, with a folding hard-top, was added. Reliability stayed good, though there was a noticeable drop in the solidness of some of the interior and exterior parts. Sales expanded noticeably over the 1st-generation model, due mostly to the addition of the new equipment and body styles.
For 2014, the new third-generation IS line-up comes in quite a number of different versions. The base IS250 models are offered with a choice of RWD or AWD, with or without the F-Sport package. The IS350 is offered the same way...a choice of RWD or AWD, with or without the F-Sport package, for a total of eight different versions. The ISC hard-top convertible and high-performance IS-F models are in separate categories on the Lexus web-site, and are not considered part of the regular IS line. Base prices, for the standard lineup, range from $36,100 for a RWD 250 to $45,380 for an AWD 350 F-Sport. IS250 models, with or without the F-Sport package, use a 2.5L V6 with 204 HP and 185 ft-lbs. of torque. IS350 models, with or without the F-Sport package, use a larger 3.5L V6 with 306 HP and 277 ft-lbs of torque. All models except the RWD IS350 use a Sport-Shift 6-speed automatic transmission, while IS350 RWD models, with or without the F-Sport package, use an 8-speed Sport-shift automatic. Sorry, enthusiasts, no conventional manual is offered, even on the high-performance IS-F.
For the review and test-drive, I chose an IS250 AWD with a typical load of options, listing at $43,762. I'm generally not one to buy into automotive stereotypes, but I noticed that the former, 2nd-generation 250 AWD) sold very well in the D.C. area where I live, and that, like some Beetles and other VW convertibles, it did especially well with women. That doesn't necessarily make them so-called "Chick" cars in my book, because, like I said, I don't buy into labels. But I figure that, if so many people in this area bought the 2nd-generation model, male or female, it's worth seeing what its replacement third-generation would be like. I owned a 1st-generation IS300 (painted bright yellow), and I was also curious from my own point of view to examine the latest version. Added to that, Lexus, unsolicited on my part, sent me an offer in the mail for a $75 Visa card/test-drive....Lexus apparantly doesn't sign people up at the auto shows for the Visa-offer like Ford and Lincoln do (remember my recent review of the Lincoln MKX?). So, I figure, hey....now's a good chance to use that offer, especially since it runs out in a couple of weeks.
MODEL REVIEWED: 2014 Lexus IS250 AWD
BASE PRICE: $38,465
Blind Spot Monitor Package: $600
18" Wheels: $935
NAV Package: $2085
Premium Package with Heated/Vented Seats: $610
Trunk Cargo Net: $64
Wheel Locks: $73
DESTINATION/FREIGHT: $910 (Steep for a car of this size and weight)
LIST PRICE AS REVIEWED: $43,742
DRIVETRAIN: AWD, Longitudinally-mounted 2.5L V6, 204 HP @ 6400 RPM, Torque 185 Ft-lbs. @ 4800 RPM, 6-speed Sport-Shift automatic transmission.
EPA MILEAGE RATING: 20 City, 27 Highway, 23 Combined
EXTERIOR COLOR: Obsidian
INTERIOR: Parchment (Beige) NuLuxe with Matte-Black trim
AWD traction/versatility in bad weather.
Smooth quiet drive train, except for a jumpy start up from rest.
Decent ride comfort over bumps, considering the low-profile tires.
Generally flat cornering and lack of body roll.
Good brake response.
Typically Lexus well-done paint job.
Fairly solid-feeling doors and sheet metal.
Fairly easy-access battery underhood.
Underhood gas struts instead of a manual prop-rod.
Decent imitation seat leather (NuLuxe).
Generally comfortable-shaped front seats except for big rumps.
Very clear, easy to read primary gauges.
Nice covering on headliner and sun-visors.
Nice stereo sound quality.
Nicely-trimmed cargo area.
Standard First-Aid kit.
Typically good Lexus reliability.
OK but marginal engine torque for the weight/drag of AWD.
Somewhat jumpy throttle-by-wire response starting from rest.
Steering response somewhat slower than expected.
More road noise than a Lexus product should have.
Generally poor underhood layout.
No body side mouldings for parking-lot protection.
Unimpressive cost-cutting on dash/console interior trim materials.
Bottom front seat cushions too short for good thigh support.
Marginal front seat head room for tall persons under sunroof housing.
Poor rear seat headroom for tall persons.
Generally cramped rear seat for tall persons.
Brake pedal not well-located for some feet.
Awkward (IMO) mouse-controller and zig-zag shift levers on the console.
Finger-scan bar-sensor adjustments on the upper console somewhat awkward (IMO) to use.
Temporary spare tire in the trunk.
Fairly low ground clearance for a sedan without lower body air-dams.
In general, the exterior styling of the new 3rd-generation IS isn't that much different from the previous version, although the car, overall, has a lower, more squat-out look from the bulging sides down below the roof. In the rear, the taillights have been given a more aggressive, slanted look. Up front, the most significant and immediately visible change is the new spindle-shaped grille now common to several other Lexus models as well. These spindle grilles, like some other large grilles from Audi, Lincoln, Cadillac, Buick (and the Acura parrot-beak grilles), have been controversial, and, of course, are subjective as opinions differ. So, because of that, I generally don't generally list them as either a PLUS or MINUS. But, just for the record, I'll state that I'm not a fan of the spindle-grille....I preferred older Lexus grilles....as also with Audi, Lincoln and Acura grilles.
The new IS's exterior sheet metal seems to be reasonably solid (as with the door openings/closings), and the panel-gaps/clearances are assembled with the usual Lexus precision. The exterior hardware is well-done, and the twin outside mirror-housings swivel/snap-lock with oiled-slick precision. There are no body-side mouldings for parking-lot protection, though, due to customer complaints, I noticed that these mouldings ARE coming back now on some new models, either standard or as added options. Eight exterior paint colors are offered, including two whites and a Matador Red Pearl. The color choice is a little dull for my tastes....but the paint jobs themselves, as usual with Lexus/Toyota products, are quite well-done, with even the typically hard-to-do black showing only minimal orange peel. The ground clearance, though not sports-car low, is a little on the tight side for a standard, non-air-dam sedan, so some care may need to be taken navigating speed bumps and ramps.
Open up the fairly solid-feeling hood, and a nice touch is the twin gas struts that brace it for you. I've seen vehicles more expensive than the IS (some listing over 50K) that used a manual prop-rod instead. A nice insulation pad on the bottom of the hood, common to all Lexus products, helps quiet the engine. Underneath, the longitudinally-mounted 2.5L V6 is a fairly tight fit (so, of course, is the larger 3.5L). The large (and IMO annoying) plastic engine cover blocks virtually all of the access to the top engine block itself.....and the fairly tight fit of the engine in the compartment also hampers a lot of access down the sides to reach those components, too. Lexus Mechanics/Technicians are going to earn the pay they get servicing and repairing these cars. That's one reason, of course, why most new-car service-departments charge $100 an hour or more there days. (and, it you think a Lexus is expensive to work on, just wait till you deal with a Mercedes or Porsche). Fortunately, for Do-it-Yourselfers, the battery, back on the left up against the firewall, is relatively easy to access its terminals without a cover, and the filler-caps, dipsticks, and fluid-reservoirs are also easy to reach.
The interior trim is, overall, where I think the new 3rd-generation IS has the biggest letdown over the previous 2nd-generation model. Not all inside, though, is poorly done, so I'll start with the better things. The ceiling headliner and sun visors have a nice felt-fabric material covering that is pleasant to touch. The stereo sound, while not a Mark-Levinson-quality killer, is pretty nice. The primary gauges are extremely clear and easy to read. The NuLuxe imitation leather on the seats (two-tone on my test car),like on the CT200h, is a pretty good substitute, though, IMO, at this 43K price, it should be the real stuff. The front seat cushions and bolsters are generally well-shaped and comfortable for all but large rumps (yes, like mine). At least some of the upper surfaces are padded.
But the rest of the interior, IMO, is nowhere near the quality we saw on the first two generations of the IS....especially the durable materials we saw on the original IS300. Much of the center-dash and console trim is cheap, unpleasant-looking/feeling, matte-finish plastic. The front seat bottom cushions, despite their general comfort, are too short for good thigh support, especially for long legs. Headroom up front, under the sunroof housing, is lacking for tall persons, and very lacking in the also-cramped rear seat....along with foot/knee room. The steering wheel, to me, even with a leather-covered rim, looked and felt like something out of an econobox. The globe box lid, though not quite as flimsy-feeling as the paper-thin one on the new Toyota Avalon, seemed to use second-grade plastic and a somewhat flimsy push-button lock. The mouse-type controller on the console, which selects the data on the info-screen, was, IMO, somewhat awkward to use, especially on a bumpy road where your hand jumps it around. The plastic ***** for the stereo and climate-control worked OK, but had a flimsy feel. Some rather small and unimpressive gray or brown wood-trim strips are available on the Luxury Package, but my particular car didn't have it.
Open up the fairly solid-feeling trunk lid, and the cargo area in back is nicely trimmed (better, IMO, than some of the trim inside the cabin). A nice, plush-feeling black carpet covers the floor and walls, and the ubiquitous Lexus First-Aid Kit is also present (several luxury/upmarket auto brands include a First Aid kit). My test car had the optional ($64) cargo-net that clipped onto hooks at the back of the floor. Both rear seats, of course, split-drop 40/60 to add to cargo space. Cargo room inside is reasonable for a sedan this size, but, of course, don't expect to be able to haul a new sofa home from your local furniture store. Under the floor is (you guessed it)....the usual temporary spare tire. Only dedicated off-road-capable vehicles seem to get a real spare these days.....and even some of THOSE are now an option.
ON THE ROAD:
With your foot on the brake, start up the 2.5L V6 with a nice engine START/STOP button, which is almost universal now in this class of vehicle. The engine comes to life in the usual Lexus manner....virtually no noise or vibration at all, which is one reason why Lexus includes a protective starter-override that prevents you from trying to start the engine when it is already running. While quiet and refined, though, this engine is definitely not a powerhouse, especially with the added weight and drag of the AWD system. It does, though, have a sometimes-jumpy response from the throttle-by-wire system starting up from a rest. You have to use a very light foot starting out to keep from jerking, and then add substantially more pressure to keep up with traffic. However, in all fairness, even though this is no dragster, its 0-60 times, according to Lexus, outperform some other equal-displacement 2.5L four and V6 AWD competitors, and I felt that the power level was acceptable for normal driving without a heavy load in the car. The trade-off, of course, for the added drag that AWD places on the engine is the all-weather security it gives, though, once again, the fairly low ground clearance of the IS sedan means it probably won't be quite the deep-snow-bunny the Subaru Forester/Outback or higher-clearance SUVs are.
The 6-speed Sport-Shift automatic transmission is the usual Toyota Lexus smoothness/refinement, though I am not impressed with zig-zag shift levers used by Toyota/Lexus and some other manufacturers. I much prefer a simple straight fore/aft motion. Some versions of the IS have shift-paddles on the steering-column....I don't recall my test-car having them.
The chassis, IMO, seems to be a mixed bag. Steering response, though with at least some feel (not a lot)from the electric power steering, was not as quick what I expected from this semi-sports sedan. But what response you DO get is flat and sure, without lean or body-roll. Ride comfort, overall, was better then I expected from the optional (18") wheels and low-profile tires. You could definitely feel bumps and impacts, but the ride was generally steady and composed...almost, but not quite, like past versions of the BMW 3-series. Though wind noise seemed to be well-controlled, the bean-counters apparantly kept some of the sound-insulation out of the wheel-wells. Road noise was definitely more prominent than on the first-generation IS I myself owned years ago, and, from what I remember, on the 2nd-generation IS models I also sampled. Of course, in all fairness, the specific type of tire and tread-pattern used can vary the noise level significantly. But, even so, it still seemed to me like Lexus, like it did with interior trim, did some cost cutting here. The brakes, like in past IS models, were well-done, with good response, but the brake-pedal is not in a very good position, relative to the gas pedal, for my big size-15 clod-hopper shoe to slide easily to it from the gas pedal without a hang-up.
Well, given the fact that this review is going to be posted on a Lexus (and general car-chat) forum, and that there will probably be a lot of Lexus fans on that forum, I expect to get at least some negative (as well as positive) feedback over my comments here. But I'm simply being honest in my evaluation and review. The new 3rd-generation IS, while offering what the first IS300 models SHOULD of and didn't (an AWD option and a choice between two different engines...three, if you include the 416 HP 5.0 V8 on the high-performance IS-F), is clearly a disappointment in several areas. Yes, it still keeps the excellent Lexus paint jobs, precision assembly, good sheet metal, and smooth drivetrains....but the second-rate (for this class) interior trim, lack of adequate (for this class) sound-insulation in the wheel wells, and flimsy interior *****/controls all lose points in my book and point to bean-counting by the designers.
However, that doesn't mean that the new IS is a bad car. Like most Lexus products, it will probably have Better-Than-Average reliability rating, and not have major problems before its lease or car-payment is paid off. Its suspension/chassis generally gives a good ride/handling combination, though both are slightly compromised. The engine/powertrain, despite a sometimes jumpy start, is Lexus-smooth and refined. The cargo area is well-trimmed. And, of course, the AWD option lets you deal with winter conditions that the original IS300 clearly couldn't handle.
But a big question is...is it worth a 38K base price and a 43K+ list price? Opinions will differ on that, but, no, not if it is money from my own bank-account....especially considering the design cost-cutting on this latest version. IMO, there are too many other good vehicles AWD products on the market at the same or lower price, though I have to be honest and say that I don't think the latest BMW 3-series competitors are worth what THEY cost, either. But, if you DO decide to spring for a new IS (and, considering the way the last 2nd-generation IS250 AWD model sold in this area, I suspect a number of people will), you could indeed do a lot worse with your auto-dollars.
And, as always......Happy car-shopping.