The new-generation IS250 makes huge gains on its predecessor, but is it enough to topple its German rivals?
The Lexus IS250 is no longer the Japanese brand’s most affordable model but it remains its most important in terms of reputation.
Lexus’s luxury mid-sizer emerged in the late 1990s, though it was the second-generation Lexus IS250 of 2006 that put the Germans on notice with attractive styling, smart interior and decent dynamics.
For Lexus IS Mark III, the company is being even more aggressive in its bid to outshine the 3 Series that’s long been regarded as the driver’s pick of the segment.
Built on a scaled-down version of the same platform that underpins the larger GS model, the all-new Lexus IS is longer and wider than its predecessor.
The styling, too, has been massively reworked with Lexus’s spindle grille and ‘Nike swoosh’ daytime running lights shouting the loudest – and bringing the IS in-line with the rest of the Lexus range.
If you choose the F Sport version, you even get an intimidating black mesh grille over the horizontal bars.
The new design also features a prominent upswept line along the length of the car, rounded off by a nicely integrated rear lip spoiler that replaces the previous tacked-on version.
It’s still not the most cohesive design when viewed side-by-side with the 3 Series, A4 and even the aging C-Class, but it does have bags of attitude.
Inside, the latest Lexus IS250 is something rather special. Gone is the traditional look of the old IS’s centre stack in favour of a more technical design that, at least in part, nods toward the LFA supercar.
Also dumped is the less-than-attractive slab of dashboard plastic – replaced with a distinctly layered look, along with a premium blend of stitched leather, plastics and metallic accents.
The IS250 range kicks off with the entry-level Luxury from $55,900 (before on-road costs and just $100 more than the previous iteration), and in true Lexus form it comes with almost everything.
Features such as satellite navigation with reversing camera, coupled with a 7-inch TFT screen, keyless entry with push button start, heated and cooled front leather seats, digital radio with a 12-speaker 299-watt premium audio system with Bluetooth phone and music streaming, dual-zone climate control, HID headlamps and an additional 4.2-inch full-colour display covering audio, navigation, phone and trip in the instrument cluster.
Also on the standard-kit list are auto headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and an electrically adjustable steering wheel for tilt and reach.
The entry-level car gets standard 17-inch alloy wheels, but step up to the F Sport and top-of-the-line IS250 Sports Luxury variants for $64,900 and $77,900 respectively, and you get a choice of 18s along with a host of extra kit.
The F Sport version tested here adds Drive Mode Select with Sport S plus mode, unique F Sport bumper and grille, LFA-Style instrumentation, as well as adaptive suspension, while the Sports Luxury grade gains an 835-watt 15 speaker Mark Levinson sound system, lane departure warning and pre-collision safety system.
Highlights on this version also include touch-sensitive temperature control system and the semi-virtual LFA-like instrument display that lights up and swings into position on start up. There’s more than one set of display graphics too – simply hit a button on the steering wheel and the information switches from gear position to fuel consumption, for example.
Lexus has also fine-tuned their proprietary mouse-guided remote touch system that guides a cursor on the screen (just like your desktop), but it still feels clunky and doesn’t quite land where you want it to, though there’s plenty of functionality with the system overall.
The sports bucket seats are simply brilliant. They’re foam-injected around the leather seat mould to provide a racing style cup and support, but with ideal levels of cushioning for superb backside comfort.
Rear-seat passenger comfort has also been greatly improved, thanks to the IS’s extended length resulting in more legroom, while those slimmer, more sculptured front seatbacks provide extra knee space.
The new Lexus IS is also somewhat of a pioneering model for Lexus. Amazingly, it’s the company’s first sedan to get a 60:40 split-fold rear seat set-up. Boot capacity has also grown by 20 per cent to a useful 480 litres.
However, the model’s characteristic sloping roofline means those with taller frames than this reviewer will continue to struggle with headroom in the back.
Unfortunately, Lexus’s major overhaul of the IS250 doesn’t include significant upgrades to the engine. The same 2.5-litre V6 is carried over – including its lacklustre output.
That means the IS250 still has 153kW of power and 252Nm of torque driving the rear wheels via the same six-speed automatic transmission.
It’s a similar story with the IS350, which makes do with the same 233kW/378Nm six-cylinder powertrain as the old model, though Lexus decided it deserved the eight-speed auto from the current IS F.
No one can deny the IS250’s V6 engine with six-speed automatic is smooth and refined, but up against a raft of more potent turbocharged four-cylinder engines, the Lexus feels outgunned and inefficient.
It’s not exactly slow (Lexus claims 8.1 seconds for 0-100km/h), but compared with most other base engine rivals there’s a decided shortfall of low-down torque, meaning you’ve really got to bury the throttle if rapid progress is to be made from the get-go.
It doesn’t start to pull with any real enthusiasm until the tachometer needle nudges 4300rpm. Once there, the V6 spins up to just under seven-grand and there’s a decent man-made growl that’s piped through the cabin that livens up the overall experience.
The V6 also pays a penalty in the fuel efficiency stakes, with Lexus claiming 9.2L/100km combined for the IS250. Real-world figures during our test period were closer to 12L/100km, which is considerably more than its principle rivals claim (Audi 1.8 TFSI – 5.7L, BMW 320i – 6.3L, Mercedes-Benz C200 – 6.8L)
The big letdown though is the IS250’s ageing six-speed transmission. The lower gear ratios are just too tall, and while all IS models have paddles for manual shifting, we found the rev-matching downshifts to be annoyingly inconsistent and largely uninspiring.
There’s a slight improvement in shift times and throttle response with the rotary drive mode selector set to the Sport S+ mode (only on F Sport variants), but even so, the downshift blips remain an issue.
It’s on curvy roads though where Lexus has made some thoroughly decent gains with the latest IS. The feel and weighting of the steering (borrowed from the latest GS) are both excellent, while dynamics generally have taken another step forward with this generation.
Certainly the new Lexus IS250 feels more alive on turn-in and the F-Sport version sits flatter through the corners than any of its closest rivals.
Boasting fat Bridgestone 255/35-series tyres on the rear and 225/40s up front, the IS250 also gains massive grip and bite in the bendy bits, further enhanced by the F-Sport’s Adjustable Variable Suspension system (AVS).
Linked to the car’s AVS drive mode select system, the ride quality softens or stiffens depending on the mode selected. Set to Normal or Eco and the IS250 offers a supple but still sporty ride that firms up sharply at the other end of the scale in Sport S+ mode.
It all works rather well, though the firmer-riding F Sport package robs the IS250 of that just-right ride quality you might expect of this new Lexus model, so it would pay to test the base model IS250 if ultimate ride comfort was a primary goal.
On the safety front, the new-generation Lexus IS range is equipped with a comprehensive suite of features including up to 10 airbags (eight are standard) as well as lane departure warning for the first time on a Lexus in Australia.
F Sport models also get blind spot assistance and all models come with hill start assist, anti-locking brakes and traction and stability control.
Lexus also offers a 48-month/100,000km warranty term with roadside assistance, as well as a host of other benefits such as free collection and drop-off of your car from workplace or home.
The latest Lexus IS250 makes decent sized gains over its predecessor in every area except the drivetrain – a crucial one considering the clear emphasis these days on lower emissions and good fuel efficiency.
This is where the IS300h steps in.
At just $58,900 ($3000 more than the IS250) its efficient hybrid drivetrain brings consumption below 5.0L/100km at 4.9L/100km, with CO2 emissions of 113 grams per kilometre notably better than the IS250’s 213g/km figure and half the IS350’s 225g/km.
If you’re looking for a good alternative to the traditional Germans that also gives you plenty more for your money, however, the Lexus IS continues to be a highly worthy consideration.