Overview: Shortly after the third-generation Lexus IS was unveiled in 2013, it faced down a BMW 3-series and a Cadillac ATS to win our comparison test. It was an impressive feat, but we later discovered that the greatness of the little Lexus trails off sharply the further you get from the top-spec rear-wheel-drive IS350 F Sport. In all its iterations, though, the four-door, automatic-only IS sedan is a swift-handling and downright radical-looking small luxury car festooned with slashes, swooping cutlines, and an oversize spindle grille, all in the manner of the current Lexus design ethos.
For this review, we drove (but did not photograph) the mid-grade IS300 F Sport, which shares its naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 with the IS350. Here, however, it’s detuned to 255 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque (down 51 horses and 41 lb-ft) and comes only with all-wheel drive. As in the IS350 AWD, the IS300’s big V-6 mates to a six-speed automatic. Order a rear-wheel-drive IS350, like the 2017 F Sport we recently tested, and Lexus treats you to a newer eight-speed unit. The same goes for the base, rear-drive-only IS200t with its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four making 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. Our loaded $49,084 six-cylinder IS300 faces off against like-priced four-cylinder competition, such as the BMW 330i, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and the Audi A4.
What’s New: As part of a 2017 refresh, Lexus fiddled with the shapes of the headlights, the front bumper, and the taillights so they zag instead of zig. The oval exhaust tips became rectangular, and the front outer air intakes (which cool the brakes on F Sport models) are longer and deeper. Minor tweaks to the interior include an armrest near the Remote Touch Interface, which gains a second enter button that doesn’t make the infotainment system’s mouselike controller any less wonky to use. Lexus added stitching to the instrument-cluster hood and revised the clock face. Most notable are the driver-assist systems that are now standard across the entire IS lineup: forward-collision alert with automated emergency braking and pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beams. (Blind-spot monitoring comes standard on F Sport models.) Competitors charge thousands more for such features.
What We Like: No matter which IS you choose, Lexus does a good job blending sensory engagement and luxurious isolation. In comparison, the latest BMW 3-series requires a careful selection of options to avoid becoming too cushy or too hard-core. That said, the rear-drive IS350 F Sport remains the pick of the litter, and its firmer damping doesn’t result in any harshness. F Sport models are denoted by an aggressive appearance package that includes a blacked-out, diamond-textured grille that replaces the normal model’s thin horizontal chrome strips. (On F Sport trims, Lexus restricts upholstery choices to NuLuxe, a synthetic material so rich and supple we thought we’d been sitting on leather the whole time.)
Lexus engineers must have held meetings in a sauna, because the interior details are appropriately sweated. The F Sport’s central tachometer is motorized and will slide right to reveal a secondary LCD screen for viewing various vehicle settings. The window motors slow their force upon initial opening and final closing to soften the deafening roar of glass against rubber seals. The V-6 engine emits a pleasing snarl without any coarseness, and both the six- and eight-speed transmissions shift smoothly. The driver’s seating position is appropriately low and offers good visibility, although the back seat and trunk are tight—not surprising given the tidy overall package.
What We Don’t Like: We’ve been pleading with Lexus for more power, but no one in the sauna listened. With any of the three engines, acceleration suffers against its smaller-displacement rivals by wide margins. By the spec sheet, the 306-hp IS350 looks plenty strong. But in reality, this port- and direct-injected V-6 pushes too many pounds. The rear-drive car we tested weighed 3785 pounds, just 92 below the mid-size GS350 F Sport we tested in 2016 (that car rides on the same platform). The IS300, meanwhile, barely exceeds the four-cylinder IS200t’s horsepower and trails behind in torque, so why pay extra for a V-6? And the software engineers who designed the central display’s mouse-style controller need a cold shower. The controller is continually one wobbly finger away from usable, and once you’ve conquered it, the navigation map greets you with dated graphics.
Verdict: An all-around satisfying luxury sports sedan mostly in need of extra speed.