2019 Lexus IS Test Drive Review: Outgunned But Not Outstyled

2019 Lexus IS Test Drive Review: Outgunned But Not Outstyled

In an effort to pull buyers away from the established German luxury brands, Lexus introduced the IS (a rebadged version of the Toyota Altezza) was back in 2001. Now in its third generation, the IS faces its stiffest competition yet from an all-new BMW 3 Series, recently refreshed Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class, and new entrants to the segment such as the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Genesis G70, and Volvo S60.

Without a major refresh in the third-generation, the IS is starting to lag behind its competitors in terms of powertrain and interior technology. But can its interesting styling and fabled reliability keep it competitive against newer rivals? We tested the top-trim 2019 IS 350 F Sport mode to find out.

IS Exterior

The IS has come a long way since the clear taillight clusters of the original that inspired many an aftermarket tuner, and the new models look fantastic in contrast to the cookie-cutter German rivals. Spearheaded by the large spindle grille up front, flanked on either side by LED headlights with L-shaped daytime running lights, new for 2019 is the option of tri-beam LED headlights in a new design. A power sunroof is found on all trims, as are dual chrome tailpipes. F Sport derivatives get aggressive front and rear bumpers, wider black-flanked air intakes, ‘F’ fender badges, and model-specific 18-inch split five-spoke alloy wheels, influenced by those found on the LFA. These wheels stand in contrast to the 17-inch items on the RWD IS 300, or the more subtle 18-inch items on AWD models and the IS 350. For 2019, the limited edition IS 300 F Sport Black Line gets a black vapor chrome finish on its 18-inch alloys, as well as black side mirrors,

Dimensions

The Lexus IS resides in the compact luxury sports sedan segment, and with an overall length of 184.3 inches and a 110.2-inch wheelbase, fitting in with the 3 Series and C-Class crowd. With a width of 71.3 inches and only standing 56.3 inches tall, it boasts an imposing presence befitting of a sedan with sporty intentions. Curb weights naturally vary based on trim, engine, and drivetrain specifications, with the four-cylinder, RWD IS 300 representing the lower end of the spectrum at 3,583 lbs, while V6 models with AWD are heaviest, tipping the scales at 3,737 lbs.

Exterior Colors

A color palette of ten hues remains largely unchanged from last year, with only one color making way for a new choice. Liquid Platinum replaces Silver Lining Metallic, available on all trims. Otherwise, highlight colors like Nebula Gray Pearl, Redline, Obsidian, and Caviar all remain and are available at no extra cost. Eminent White Pearl and Nightfall Mica are specific to standard IS derivatives, while F Sport models instead receive Ultra White and Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0, the latter a striking shade of blue available at an extra cost of $595.

Our test car was finished in a lovely shade called Ultra White. It is far from the most exciting option but it does look classy and it pairs nicely with the bright Rioja Red leather interior. If we were picking colors from the Lexus catalog, we’d go for the more aggressive Redline or Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IS Performance

No replacement for displacement is a creed the Lexus IS lives by, with the quicker models in the line-up being those with the highest cylinder count and biggest displacement. With no IS F on the horizon, the IS 350 F Sport takes the mantle as the greatest performer, proffering a 0-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds in the rear-wheel-drive guise (the AWD variant just one-tenth of a second slower), with 311 horsepower from the 3.5-liter V6 pairing neatly with an eight-speed automatic gearbox. These aren’t world-beating figures, though, and rival six-cylinder offerings are up to a second quicker in the same metric, primarily due to the addition of turbochargers absent from the Lexus V6. BMW and Audi models with all-wheel-drive are also quicker than the AWD IS, but largely due to their quicker automatic gearboxes compared to the outdated Lexus six-speed.

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Engine and Transmission

The IS lineup features three engines paired with a dizzying array of transmission, drivetrain, and trim options. All rear-wheel-drive IS models send power out through an eight-speed automatic while all-wheel-drive models are saddled with a six-speed box. The IS 300 utilizes a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Interestingly, opting for AWD on the IS 300 replaces the four-pot for a 3.5-liter V6 producing 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Each of these cars can be optioned with or without the F Sport package.

The most powerful model in the range is the IS 350, which uses the same 3.5-liter V6 but tuned to produce 311 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque. As with the IS 300, RWD models get an eight-speed automatic while opting for AWD reduces the gears to six. 0-60 in the IS 350 F Sport takes around 5.6 seconds, which is quick in a vacuum but feels slow next to competitors. The eight-speed automatic works well during normal driving but is sluggish during aggressive gear changes. We enjoyed the throaty sound of the V6, which almost sounds supercharged at high RPMs, but it needs to be revved out before it starts feeling fast, the opposite of turbocharged rivals.

Handling and Driving Impressions

Opting for the F Sport package doesn’t add any power to the IS but it does add an adaptive suspension and limited-slip differential. We weren’t expecting the smallest Lexus sedan to cuddle us with a soft ride but the suspension tuning is excellent over all road surfaces. The body lean isn’t too pronounced though there are other cars in this segment more inclined to tear up a back road. We have to give credit to Lexus for the steering in the IS, which carries a nice weight and engages the drive when the road gets twisty.

When we asked the car to drive aggressively through the bends, the IS felt like a 30-year-old parent being dragged through an amusement park by their child. It can handle the task but feels more at home taking a brisk walk in the mall. The IS is targeting a market with standout driver’s cars like the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Genesis G70, so just being “OK” at the fun stuff isn’t enough to rise to the top of a crowded segment. With “only” 311 hp on tap, turbocharged rivals can make quick work of the Lexus in a straight line and continue to pull away through the corners. Of course, if you never plan to take your compact luxury sedan to a track or an empty canyon road, you probably won’t notice any of these shortcomings.

IS Gas Mileage

While many may dispute the real-world efficacy of turbochargers, on paper it’s the turbo-four in the IS 300 RWD that’s the most efficient model in the IS range, sipping away at a rate of 21/30/24 mpg on the city/highway/combined driving cycles. This is followed by the RWD IS350 at 20/28/23 mpg, while both AWD variants get away with 19/26/21 mpg. With a gas tank od 17.4-gallons, the turbocharged IS 300 can theoretically manage nearly 420 miles on a tank of premium unleaded gas. In real-world driving, we observed around 23 mpg on average from our IS 350 F Sport, which matched the EPA estimate.

IS Interior

Like all Lexus interiors we’ve come to know and love, the IS reeks of luxury. Soft-touch materials adorn all surfaces, as do combinations of genuine and faux leather, soft-touch plastics, and genuine wood and metal trim elements. Comfort is a given, and its a staple at the heart of the IS, but that doesn’t mean the interior is devoid of flaws. The IS lacks the rear seat space afforded by German rivals, and the trunk space is well below par in a competitive segment. While the seats are comfy and the dash looks beautifully laid out, it’s also home to Lexus’s infuriating infotainment system, which puts a severe damper on otherwise sophisticated proceedings.

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Seating and Interior Space

Lexus seats are among our favorites in the luxury segment right now. Few other automakers can offer supportive side bolstering on sporty models without making the seats uncomfortable on long trips and losing functions like heating and ventilation. The IS gets more bolstered seats on F Sport models and we found them to be the perfect blend of comfortable and aggressive. Front-seat occupants will have plenty of legroom but our knees kept bumping into the large transmission tunnel. Rear seat legroom is an acceptable 32.2-inches and Lexus has carved out the front seatbacks so rear occupants won’t rub against the front chairs.

Interior Colors and Materials

Non-F Sport models can be optioned with four simulated leather colors matched with piano black trim. These include Chateau NuLuxe (beige), Flaxen NuLuxe (brown), Black NuLuxe, and a black and red combination. F Sport models can also be optioned with a red leather interior and are all paired with dark grey trim. The red leather interior found on our test car might be too bold for more conservative buyers but we think it jazzed up the cabin in what is meant to be a sporty vehicle.

IS Trunk and Cargo Space

These premium sports sedans generally aren’t the most practical when it comes to trunk volumes, but there’s still some effort made to ensure they can cater to basic family needs. Sadly, the Lexus IS is one of the worst performers in this regard, giving buyers just 10.8 cubic feet of trunk space. Rivals all offer more, and the opening is somewhat awkward, meaning it takes some effort to load in the two suitcases the IS can accommodate. The rear seats fold to garner a little more practicality, but there’s a step between trunk and seatback, which hampers true usability.

Small-item storage within the cabin is better but still not exemplary, and the central cupholders are small, although the door pockets are large and can accommodate large water bottles. The rear of the cabin boasts a fold-away armrest housing two more cupholders, as well as a small storage area, but the rear doors don’t have pockets, leaving seatback pockets as the only other available storage space.

IS Infotainment and Features

Where Lexus brings the IS into its own is in the feature-count, giving buyers more bang for buck right from the base IS 300. Ten-way power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control, a power sunroof, and keyless entry with push-button start are all present, as are heated front seats on AWD models. The rearview mirror is auto-dimming, a rearview camera is standard fare, and the Lexus Safety System + is standard, equipping a pre-collision system, lane departure alert, intelligent high beams, and adaptive cruise control. Options include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, power rear sunshades, parking assistant, a heated steering wheel, and adaptive front lighting, while the steering adjustment can be power-operated and seats can be ventilated by means of equipping one or more options packages.

Infotainment

If we never had to test the Lexus Enform infotainment system again, it wouldn’t be soon enough. It doesn’t seem unfair to call this the worst infotainment system in the luxury segment right now. First, the system lacks Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility, though Lexus is now making strides to include them on more vehicles. Lexus has gone through two iterations of its Remote Touch controller and this is the older version, which uses a mouse to control various functions. The controller is cumbersome as distracting to use while driving. Lexus will be adding a touchscreen starting with the 2020 RX but hasn’t announced plans to bring it to the IS. As a bit of good news, the optional Mark Levison audio system with 15 speakers sounds great.

IS Problems and Reliability

As the luxury sub-arm of Toyota, Lexus retains the familial penchant for reliability, with not a single recall issued for this generation IS since 2015. Compound this with incredible predicted reliability ratings from the likes of J.D. Power, and the IS seems like a solid buy. It’s been around for seven years, too so any kinks have been resolved along the way, failing which, Lexus offers a 48-month/50,000-mile basic warranty and a 72-month/70,000-mile powertrain warranty.

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IS Safety

The Lexus IS scores top marks from both the NHTSA and IIHS in crash testing, with the NHTSA awarding it an overall score of five out of five, while the IIHS gave it best available scores of Good in most tests. However, the IS was unable to retain the Top Safety Pick tag from last year.

Key Safety Features

Key to the IS’s top safety scores is an array of active and passive safety features, of particular note being the ten airbags, including dual front knee airbags and front side airbags. Additionally, the standard raft of features apply, ABS brakes, EBD, traction and stability controls, a rearview camera, and the standard Lexus Safety System+, equipping every IS with a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and lane departure alert with steering assist. Optionally available to augment these systems are a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and an adaptive front lighting system.

Verdict: Is the 2019 Lexus IS a good car?

Asking whether or not the IS is a good car really depends on perspective. In a vacuum, the IS feels comfortable, well-built, quick, and surprisingly capable on fun roads. But when you start to look at competitors like the 3 Series, G70, S60, and Giulia, they can all do the “luxury” job as well as the Lexus but easily trounce the IS in the “fun” activities.

For buyers who favor reliability, running costs, and price over all else, the IS 350 is still a nice option. It is far cheaper than its European rivals and comes from one of the most reliable brands around. But for those who desire the best technology, class-leading acceleration, and the ultimate driving experience, the Lexus IS just feels outgunned.

What’s the Price of the 2019 Lexus IS?

Of the available configurations, the cheapest Lexus IS is the RWD IS 300, which carries a base MSRP of $38,560, excluding license, tax, registration, and a handling fee of $1,025. All-wheel-drive adds an extra $2,450 for the IS 300. The IS 300 F Sport is the first to breach the $40k mark, priced from $41,755, with the AWD model priced at $43,805. The IS 350 starts at $42,180 in RWD format with a price bump to $44,345 in AWD guise. The most expensive model is the IS 350 F Sport, which starts at an MSRP of $45,375, but adding AWD pushes that number to $46,710.

2019 Lexus IS Models

The Lexus IS range comprises four trims: IS 300, IS 300 F Sport, IS 350, and IS 350 F Sport. All are available as either rear- or all-wheel-drive, with the former receiving an eight-speed automatic gearbox and the latter a six-speed auto.

Standard features on all models include LED headlights, a power sunroof, dual-zone climate control, faux leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, a rearview camera, Lexus’ multimedia system with eight speakers and a seven-inch display, and Lexus Safety System+ assistance features. All-wheel-drive models get heated front seats.

The IS 300 is the only trim available with two engines, the choice made for you based on your choice of rear- or all-wheel-drive. The RWD version gets a 2.0T four-pot, while the AWD model gets a 3.5-liter V6. 17-inch alloy wheels are standard here.

The IS 350 gets the same features as standard, but upgrades to larger 18-inch wheels, and notably receives the 311 hp V6 engine upgrade.

F Sport models can be had in either IS 300 or 350 guise and receive bespoke exterior styling, F Sport heated and ventilated front seats, aluminum pedals, an F Sport steering wheel, aluminum pedals, a black headliner, and exclusive to the 350, adaptive suspension and a Torsen limited-slip differential.

What Lexus IS Model Should I Buy?

Choosing the right Lexus IS can seem like a daunting task with three engine options, two drivetrain choices, and the decision of whether or not to get the F Sport package. As enthusiasts, we’d skip right to the IS 350 F Sport with RWD for $45,375, pick a bold exterior color, then opt for the Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio package for $2,845, power sunshade for $200, and adaptive front lighting for $300, bringing the as-tested price for $49,505.

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