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The Lexus IS is getting old. The Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and newcomer Genesis G70 offer a fresher experience — even the current BMW 3 Series, which is actually a year older than the IS, feels newer inside, with more up-to-date tech. The Lexus brand as a whole is a powerhouse in the luxury car space, yet the IS posts lower sales numbers than all of its German competitors.
But that’s not to say it isn’t competitive — maybe just overlooked. If you’re looking for an alternative to those other compact luxury sedans, there are ways in which the Lexus IS is still pretty appealing.
Enjoyable to drive, but lacking motivation
Even without the zippier F Sport package that I’ll get into later, the standard IS 350 is sporty enough. It may have been around longer than its stablemates, but the IS’ chassis still feels segment-competitive.
Instead of sending shockwaves through the car’s skeleton, an errant pothole can hit the car’s competent suspension and travel no farther than that. As a result, the occasional bump in the road does little to distract my enjoyment behind the wheel. My delight is elevated by the IS’ steering, which offers great heft to its action and adequate levels of communication about what’s happening at road level. That culminates in a car that makes me want to drive it with gusto, even during mundane A-to-B trips. That’s how a sport sedan should make you feel.
On paper, you’d be led to believe that the IS 350 is a quick car, with its 5.6-second 0-60 time. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine is good for 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, which is enough power for respectable initial acceleration, but for midrange punch, this V6 is sluggish and dull.
The eight-speed automatic transmission is to blame here. On the highway, when you put your foot down, the Lexus doesn’t find the gear that’ll put you in the heart of the power band. This transmission rarely gets downshifts right. If anything, the transmission is programmed with an efficiency bent, but the IS isn’t that efficient. After a week and 461.2 miles of testing, I averaged 24.2 miles per gallon during mostly highway driving. The IS 350 is EPA-rated for 20/28 city/highway mpg.
If you’re looking for more efficiency than what the V6 offers, the base IS 300 is equipped with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which is a tad less than other turbocharged four-cylinders in the class. But with two fewer cylinders, the IS is still not that efficient with just 21/30 city/highway mpg. Plus, it’s a lot slower, with a 0-60 time of 6.9 seconds.
For those who want something a skosh more interesting, the IS 350’s optional F Sport package features a slightly more aggressive exterior, as well different suspension tuning, unique wheels with summer tires and a limited-slip differential. Inside, the F Sport is a little racier-looking, too, with unique gauges, aluminum pedals, a black headliner and sportier front seats with heating and ventilation. That said, as nice as the F Sport pack is, given how nicely tuned the IS 350’s chassis is from the get-go, I’d leave this package — and its $3,195 price premium — on the table.
High-quality interior with a bevy of standard safety tech
The Lexus IS offers more standard safety technology than most of its competitors. Collision-mitigation braking, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beams and adaptive cruise control all come at no extra cost. The adaptive cruise control only works above approximately 30 miles per hour, but it’s a nice touch that it’s even offered on the base IS 300.
This level of standard driver-assistance tech is more robust than what Audi, BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz offer in the base versions of their competitors. Even so, the IS’ $38,310 base price (plus $1,025 for destination) is higher than many competitors’ starting MSRPs. Only the Genesis G70 offers the same level of driving aid systems — and for less money, too.
Despite its numerous safety tech features, where the IS falls flat is in the infotainment department. Heck, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t even offered, so you’re just left with Lexus Enform, which is perhaps the industry’s worst infotainment interface. Graphically, the system is pleasing, but your blood might begin to boil as soon as you have to work through Enform’s menus. That’s because the IS’ infotainment is managed through a joystick/mouse-based controller called Remote Touch. Using it is as frustrating as trying to remove a thorn from your foot with locally anesthetized fingers. Subsequent versions of Remote Touch now use a touchpad-based controller, which is bad in a totally different way.
Happily, the rest of the IS’ interior is a pleasant experience. The cabin is remarkably enveloping thanks to the high center console, but it never feels cramped from any seat in the house. The driver’s seat, specifically, left me feeling fresh after a long drive through the mountains. In addition, my back-seat passenger was also pleased with the amount of comfort she felt after our extended Sunday drive. In true Lexus fashion, the quality of materials is on par for the segment.
The 835-watt Mark Levinsonis a great complement to the cabin’s comfort, but there’s still room for improvement there. The 15-speaker system is one of the clearer and more enveloping units on the market, but the subwoofer sometimes sounds small and overburdened by heavier low frequencies. In fact, audio systems in cars more recently redesigned — even non-luxury vehicles — have impressed me more as of late.
The Lexus IS has been on sale in its current, third-generation form since 2013 and received a light helping of updates for 2017. Yet it still feels like a throwback when compared with the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Excluding the Mercedes, the other three cars have lower base prices than the IS. Excluding the Genesis, though, you still have to option them to price points higher than that of my $48,444 (including destination) tester. But if you’re willing to pay a few thousand extra, they’ll offer more modern infotainment and driver-assistance features and most of them are more fuel-efficient as well.
All those cars drive pretty well, too, and none of them have weird design traits about them. Odd looks probably don’t help the IS move off showroom floors. That spindle grille is far from universally praised and it’s flanked by headlights that are way too upright for the svelte and swoopy LED daytime running lamps that accompany them.
The 2019 Lexus IS 350 is a fun car to drive, but it’s going to take a complete redesign to stand shoulder to shoulder with the segment’s best players. The Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Genesis G70 all have lower starting prices, yet feel better executed from the get go.
Until a next-generation IS arrives, you might want to give this car a pass and look instead at the comparably priced 2019 Lexus ES. It’s larger and not as inherently sporty, but the ES offers similar performance to the IS, all while being more refined, spacious, tech-laden and comfortable. Right now, the IS just leaves the heart empty.
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