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2008 Lexus IS Test Drive Review

Picture of 2008 Lexus IS F RWD

A compact sport sedan with a large helping of quality.

7.3 /10
Overall Score

The second-generation Lexus IS debuted for 2006. While not as overtly sporty as its predecessor, this IS now has the comfort and refinement shoppers expect from a Lexus. But just when you think Lexus is going to sleep, it pulls a fast one. New for 2008 is the IS F, an absolutely wild sport sedan with a massive V8 engine.

Look and Feel

9/ 10

The IS stands out from the average Audi thanks to small details. Take the rear door cutline, which reaches over and around the rear window instead of pointing straight up. The car's nose is tapered and the hood slopes aggressively, yet the rear is short and square. On the side, perhaps in the wrong color, you might mistake an IS for a pricier Toyota Corolla. It's not as low or sleek as its rear-wheel-drive (RWD) chassis would suggest.

But once inside, you'll realize none of that matters. Attractive colors, especially the matte silver on the center stack, make the IS look more high-end than the competition. Even the rear seatbacks are more sculpted than they ought to be in an entry-level luxury car, replete with a few pleats for that tailored style. The leather and wood trim are rich, and what's not leather or wood is mostly soft, padded, and fitted with the same exacting care as the flagship LS sedan. A few more details impress, like the instrument panel gauges with thin numbers aligned to each hash mark, like an expensive wristwatch. Even the hand pulls and speaker grilles on the front doors intersect as the headlights and grille do on the outside of the car. Not many cars in this price category feel this upscale.

The IS F is a subtle but meaningful upgrade in the best tradition of German rivals like BMW M and Mercedes AMG. Everything inflates in size—the wheels, air intakes, and the quad exhaust tips, stacked at either end—without revealing the true muscle underneath.

Performance

7/ 10

The IS comes with two V6 engines in either rear- or all-wheel drive (AWD). The base IS 250 has a 2.5-liter V6 with 204 horsepower, 185 pound-feet of torque, and a 6-speed manual transmission. Yes, a manual-transmission Lexus still exists—for now. It's a lazy thing, really. The IS 250 never wakes up from its perpetual snooze, and keeping the revs high just makes things louder without the accompanying thrust. It's fun to row the gears in a Lexus, and the clutch engagement and shifter are as smooth as they come. AWD is only available for the IS 250. The better choice is the IS 350 with its 3.5-liter V6. At 306 hp and 277 lb-ft with the 6-speed automatic that's optional on the IS 250, there's no lack of anything. Paddle shifters make the IS 350 truly fun. But despite livelier steering and a balanced chassis, the IS holds back compared to a BMW 330i, and it dials in more ride comfort.

The exception is the IS F, which has a brutal ride, a loud exhaust, and a 5.0-liter V8 worthy of a race car. This little sedan has 416 hp, 371 lb-ft, and an 8-speed automatic bolted to re-engineered suspension, brakes, and tires. It's so quick and overkill that went it first launched, I saw a journalist crash one into a racetrack barrier in just minutes.

Form and Function

8/ 10

On Lexus's infotainment system, hard shortcut buttons surround a large color screen in the dash when ordered with navigation, and all climate and stereo controls are right up front and easy to use. Room is a little tight in the back seat, but the IS tries to be accommodating with knee cutouts in the front seatbacks. Trunk space measures 13 cubic feet. The front seats are very comfortable and supportive over long drives.

Tech Level

8/ 10

Push-button start and proximity entry came standard along with a six-disc CD changer, 13-speaker stereo, 10-way power leather seats, moonroof, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Optional are heated and ventilated front seats, power rear sunshades, rain-sensing wipers, bi-xenon adaptive headlights, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and auto-dim exterior mirrors. The sport package on IS 350 models have a stiffened suspension, 18-inch wheels, and aluminum interior trim. Bluetooth, reversing camera, and a DVD navigation system that can play DVDs through a 14-speaker Mark Levinson 7.1 surround sound were optional—and very good.

Safety

6/ 10

The 2008 IS comes with dual front airbags, dual front knee airbags, front side airbags, and front and rear head curtain airbags as standard. ABS, traction, and stability control come standard. Optional is a Pre-Collision Assist system that uses a radar sensor to detect an impending crash. If one is unavoidable, the seatbelt pre-tensioners activate and the brakes are primed to transmit full braking force the moment the driver steps on the pedal. A reversing camera is available.

In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tests for the front moderate overlap and side, it scored the best Good rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rated the 2008 IS at four out of five stars for the driver and passenger in a frontal crash, five stars for the driver in a side crash, and four stars for the rear passenger in a side crash.

Update: The 2008 IS came with defective Takata airbags that can explode during a crash and kill the front occupants, so be sure to verify the vehicle has received the recommended recall repairs.

Cost-Effectiveness

6/ 10

The 2008 IS starts at $30,555 for the IS 250, $36,005 for the IS 350, and $56,000 for the IS F. Reliability is historically strong on all Lexus models. Fuel economy is 18-21 mpg city, 25-29 mpg highway, and 20-24 mpg combined. The IS F does 16/23/18—not too bad considering how insanely it's tuned. The combination of high quality, comfort, and simplicity make the IS a good choice, but it's not as sporty as its competition unless you opt for the IS F.

Updated

Clifford Atiyeh is a contributing editor at CarGurus who writes, hosts, and co-directs video reviews of the latest vehicles. He has reported and photographed for dozens of websites, magazines, and newspapers over a nearly 20-year journalism career, including Autoweek, the Boston Globe, and Car and Driver. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and runs a creative marketing consultancy.

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