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Lexus IS sedans and convertibles are quick, stylish rear-wheel-drive cars that combine sharp handling with luxury performance features. Trim, sleek and relatively light, they offer paddle-shift transmissions, good brakes and, in the IS 350, 0-60 acceleration as quick as 5.6 seconds. They are designed to offer comparable style and performance features as the BMW 3 Series cars and Mercedes CLK 350, but at a lower price.
The Lexus IS models come in sedan and hardtop convertible versions and with a choice of engines ranging from sensible to sporty to raceworthy.
For 2009, a new rear suspension has been employed for all models, and the steering has been retuned for improved steering feel and control. In addition, advanced dynamic handling technology formerly only offered on the Lexus IS 350 is now standard across the line. Significant styling revisions, inside and out, keep the IS sedans in tune with the sensibilities of the more sophisticated urban buyer.
A broad range of engines, transmissions and drive systems are available in the IS line. The 306-horsepower IS 350 is the performance leader of the group, but the entry-level IS 250 offers all-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and class-leading fuel mileage. For the most involved driver, there is the captivating IS F, which boasts a top speed of 168 mph and is powered by a 416-hp 5.0-liter V8. The IS F can compete with the BMW M3.
Convertible versions, called the IS C, are in the showroom. The 2010 Lexus IS 250 C and IS 350 C are true convertibles, converting from top-down roadster to hardtop coupe with the press of a button.
The Lexus IS sedan is comfortable for two and can seat five, but it's not a family car like the Lexus ES 300. The back seat is not commodious, with rear legroom at a premium, though there is a car seat anchor for the little ones.
Styling revisions for 2009 include subtle changes to the grille and front bumper, and the rear bumper and taillight clusters. There are new interior color schemes and wheel designs, and turn signals are now integrated into the side-view mirrors.
The IS 250 is equipped with a 2.5-liter V6 engine and comes standard with a six-speed manual gearbox ($31,305) or six-speed automatic transmission ($32,475).
The IS 250 AWD ($34,935) features all-wheel drive and comes standard with the automatic transmission. The AWD model also gets special perforated leather upholstery and Bird's eye maple trim.
The IS 350 ($35,705) comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and six-speed automatic. More sophisticated braking and electronic stability systems augment its additional performance.
The 2010 IS C is a hardtop convertible that comes in IS 250 C ($38,489) and IS 350 C ($43,940) versions.
The IS F ($56,760) features a high-performance V8 engine, eight-speed transmission, speed-rated tires, and a sports suspension.
Lexus IS sedans employ tightly drawn, edgy bodywork to create a sophisticated, sporty identity. The convertible IS C and the high-performance IS F models have longer bodies and unique body panels, but all models share the Lexus IS family resemblance.
A wide track and high rear deck give the IS the crouching, forward leaning stance of a sprinter in the blocks. The front tires are one size smaller than the rear tires, which accentuates the road-hungry look. Carefully shaped body contours, a subtle ducktail-curved trunk lid and aerodynamic taillights contribute to a sleek profile with a 0.28 coefficient of drag. High performance, high-efficiency LED taillights, brake lights and license plant lights are molded into the design. Two polished stainless steel exhaust pipes signal performance.
For 2009, the IS grille and front bumper cover have been revised, as are the rear bumper cover and taillight clusters. New turn signals are now integrated into the exterior mirrors, and the 17-inch and 18-inch alloy wheels feature new designs for 2009. On rear-wheel drive models, the 18-inch wheels can be equipped with all-season tires.
The IS C convertible retains the fundamental features and characteristics of the sedans, but in a two-door, four-passenger configuration. The windshield angle has been revised, and every body panel except the hood required some modification to blend with the folding roof. Visually, with the top down, the ISC looks lower and wider than the sedan. The IS C also has its own exclusive color, Cerulean Blue, which is a very pale, sky blue metallic.
To make access to the rear more practical, the doors are longer, and they open wider. The rooftop folds up when the driver holds down a button on the dash, using 15 electric motors to convert for open-air driving in 20 seconds.
In any convertible, frame strength is an important safety consideration. The frame of the IS C has been reinforced by use of thicker rocker panel structure, additional steel in the A and B pillars, and a system of V-shaped braces across the underbody. To reduce impingement on trunk space, the IS C body was enlarged by 2.25 inches to help accommodate the top mechanism.
The Lexus IS cabin uses sophisticated lighting and contemporary design to convey a sense of quality and luxury. The interior features intelligently designed displays and controls that are easy to see and use. A focused cockpit area conveys the sporting intentions of the car, while premium interior materials and attention to detail remain consistent the Lexus identity. Smartly integrated metallic or maple trim help create an elegant environment.
Controls and gauges are designed to reduce visual clutter, including the bright, clear Optitron gauges. The multi-information display located within the speedometer integrates a trip computer that combines six different informational functions in one location, including outside temperature, driving range, average fuel consumption, average fuel consumption since refueling, current fuel consumption, and average speed. The display also includes an oil-maintenance reminder and system warnings. Additional features are added to the multi-information display depending on selected options. When an IS model is equipped with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, the display can show a car icon with the selected following distance. When equipped with Intuitive Park Assist, the display can show a car icon with the location and distance of objects detected near the bumpers.
Standard amenities for the IS models include 10-way power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear-seat vents and a pollen filter (plus a smog filter on IS 350). There is a power moonroof, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and power windows with automatic up/down feature and jam protection. The auto-dimming rear view mirror houses HomeLink garage door opener. The IS 250 AWD model comes standard with heated, leather-trimmed seats.
Changes for 2009 include the fact that the paddle shifters now function in Drive mode, and some controls have been changed for improved convenience. The rear seat headrests are now foldable to aid rear visibility. New interior colors include Ecru and Light Gray, both with new contrast stitching on the seats, door panels, and console lid.
The standard Lexus Premium Audio System features a six-disc, in-dash CD changer, 194 watts of total power and 13 speakers. Automatic Sound Levelizer (ASL) maintains consistent sound levels at varying vehicle speeds. A convenient mini-jack in the center console enables connection of an iPod or other digital music player. The center console has a 12-volt accessory power port.
Optional packages up the ante. A Premium Plus Package, optional for all IS models, includes wood trim, perforated leather seating trim and heated and ventilated front seats. The Sport and Luxury option packages include three-position memory for seats, steering wheel and outside mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, power tilt and telescopic steering column and auto-dimming outside mirrors.
The IS C is different from the sedan in a number of ways. Like all hard-top convertibles, the IS C roof intrudes on trunk space when folded. With the top up, there is almost 11 cubic feet of trunk space; with the top down, just 2.3 cubic feet, assuming a standard spare tire. That's still enough for two golf bags, though the vinyl cargo cover may cause some consternation to the unschooled. To create more space, run-flat tires are offered as an option, which eliminates the need for a spare tire.
Given that the open-air driving experience can be marred by ambient noise, wind and exposure to heat or cold, special attention has been paid to top-down comfort. Wind noise has been kept to an absolute minimum, and turbulence in the passenger cabin has been reduced by careful study of the mirrors and interior design. Indeed, this makes driving around the neighborhood with the top down most pleasant. The IS C instrument panel is shared with the IS sedan, but the dials are a different color, with more contrast to improve visibility when the top is down.
Based on the roof position and the amount of sunlight, the climate control system compensates for ambient temperature by adjusting air outlet temperature and air flow volume. The audio system is also automatically equalized to maintain the current acoustic field, regardless of outside noise pollution, when the top is opened or closed.
The 14-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound audio system, available as a stand-alone option or in conjunction with the optional DVD touch-screen navigation system, features discrete 5.1 multi-channel playback with 7.1-channel speaker architecture. Its 10 amplifier channels provide 300 watts total output at 0.1 percent total harmonic distortion. The Mark Levinson system plays conventional CDs and DVDs, plus MP3/WMA-formatted CDs. DVD movies can be viewed on the optional navigation system's color seven-inch touch screen, though only when the parking brake is engaged.
It didn't take much driving for us to notice the Lexus IS is nicely balanced. This is especially true of the IS 350 C, which has a 52/48 weight distribution, front to rear. It transitions from side to side with minimal body roll, and sharp brake/throttle/brake applications don't create appreciable front-end dive.
Steering, delivered through an electric power-assisted system that had been something of a sore point when the IS was introduced, has been revised with new programming priorities. The advantage of electric power steering is that it reduces energy consumption, yielding a 3 percent fuel economy improvement over conventional hydraulics. But in the context of a sports car, the steering felt numb and over-assisted. For 2009, the steering system has been revised for quick turning, 2.9 turns, lock-to-lock, and an overall ratio of 13.4 to 1. During an afternoon driving inland from the San Diego area, we thought the steering felt more connected at higher speeds, with better on-center feedback at low speeds. Steering might not be as positive as that in a BMW 3 Series, but it takes less effort at low speeds, and the difference between the two seems less than ever.
Taken together, the changes for 2009 enhance ease of operation, so it's more possible than ever to enjoy an IS in relaxed driving. It's a quick, taut car, but not so severe and compelling as to require the driver to prove himself in every corner, although the IS F might be an exception to that. Still, on the highway, in traffic jams, and crowded roads, any IS can be a serene cocoon. We found that there is hardly any road noise coming through the tires, very little vibration at the wheel and pedal, steering is light and easy, and wind noise is kept to a minimum. We found the standard audio system sounded great in this quiet environment, and it was easy to carry on a conversation in a quiet tone of voice.
The front seats blend luxury with performance. They are secure and supportive, but not overly firm, and 10-way adjustable. We found they were comfortable even on a daylong drive, at least for our average frame. The seats are mounted on a fairly long seat track to provide 44 inches of front legroom for taller drivers, but at the expense of back-seat accommodations.
Rear-seat access is reasonably easy. We found generous hip room, but not much legroom, in the back. The rear seat is rather upright, with two deeply dished seats at either window. The seating for a fifth passenger would be on the hump. Although there is a headrest and seatbelt set for the middle seat, it's clearly designed for temporary use, or possibly a car seat. All things considered, we would say the Lexus IS is a car comfortably built for driver and passenger, plus two more on occasion.
The instrument panel is also telling: The gauges are brightly lit, located front and center, dominated by a 160-mph speedometer and 8000-rpm tach.
The IS 350 is not a hugely demanding car to drive. There is ample torque throughout the rev range, so throttle management is a relaxed process under all but the most critical circumstances.
The automatic transmission is remarkably intuitive about sensing driver throttle demand, so when asked, it holds onto a gear past 5900 rpm, and perhaps more importantly, downshifts when appropriate. When we took control ourselves via paddle shifters, the car becomes more like riding a motorcycle, demanding more attention and a willingness to manage the revs. We don't think we would use the paddle shifters on an everyday basis. On a winding mountain road, we found paddle shifting was fun for a while, but we're not sure it was all that much faster.
We drove an IS 250 with manual transmission around the Willow Springs road racing circuit in Southern California. We found the six-speed manual's shift pattern took a while to get used to, particularly middle-gear downshifts (fourth to third).
The IS 250 is equipped with a 2.5-liter V6 engine that delivers 204 horsepower at 6400 RPM and 185 lb.-ft. of peak torque at 4800 rpm. The IS 250 gets an EPA-rated 21/29 mpg City/Highway. The IS 250, manual or automatic, is a fun car to drive. But it's clear that the IS 350 is the faster car by a large margin. Not only does it have more power, but it has bigger brakes and more aggressive rear axle gearing.
Driving the IS 350 on the track, it was easy to top 100 mph and more. We were easily able to overtake IS 250s, regardless of transmission or configuration. The IS 350 has a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower, 277 lb.-ft. of torque, and can hit 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds.
We never had the IS F on the track simultaneously with the IS 250/350 sedans, but it would surely constitute an exponential leap in performance. Top speed is electronically limited to 168 mph, and the car is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. The IS F comes with Y-rated tires, a stiffer suspension, 8-speed transmission and a full-throttle exhaust note that will curdle blood. The IS F is just over three inches longer than the IS 350, in order to fit a 416-horsepower, 5.0L V8 engine under the hood. Even with the V8, the IS F gets an EPA mileage rating of 16/20 mpg.
The IS 250 AWD, the slowest and heaviest of the IS cars, has a weight penalty of some 220 pounds over the RWD automatic model. That said, the AWD can still do 140 mph and 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, and offer all-weather performance in places that see significant rain and snow. The AWD is the only IS model that offers heated front seats for colder climates.
The multi-link rear suspension, new for 2009, feels a little more ride friendly than we recall from the original IS, a bit more compliant on jounce, but about the same when it comes to road-holding and lateral transitions.
We found that the IS 350 brakes offer strong, straight stops and inspire confident driving. Light pedal pressure brings lightly progressive slowing but it's possible to invoke immediate stopping power with just a bit more pedal. The system is built around four-wheel disc brakes; the IS 350 gets four-piston front calipers. The tires are one size smaller in the front than the rear, which enhances steering response and the braking power of the front discs.
For emergency stopping, there is a four-channel ABS system, plus six different electronic systems assisting with traction, stability, and emergency control. These systems are unified by the comprehensive stability control system Lexus calls VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) that makes electronic intervention much less obtrusive than any of the usual safety systems alone. We didn't invoke the VDIM, but we have tested it in controlled circumstances in other Lexus vehicles, and we know how well it works. In an extreme emergency, VDIM can actually lock individual wheels to force a car through a turn it would never make by driver intervention alone. And it can do it without scrubbing off much speed. VDIM is billed as a safety system, and it is, but it brings such hugely effective handling enhancements we think it could be considered a performance system as well. The system is switchable, but VDIM is so much less obtrusive than stand-alone stability control that there are few occasions when we'd feel the need.
The IS lineup encompasses a range of fast, fun, rear-wheel drive sports cars. They offer Lexus-quality workmanship, contemporary design, and a surprisingly diverse array of prices, performance options and luxury appointments.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Lexus IS models near Newport Beach, California.