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2017 Lexus IS 300 Test Drive Review
It’s crazy that a car as responsive and energetic as the Lexus IS 300 comes from the same company that makes the sleepy ES 300.
Lexus has something of an identity crisis. The company long known for sensible-yet-boring cars proves it can do fun—you just have to pick the right car. The 2017 Lexus IS 300 could not be a more-different sedan than the ES 300 hybrid I previously reviewed. The IS and ES are of course two different types of cars, made for two different types of luxury-car buyers. Ostensibly, they're both 4-door sedans made by Lexus. But while the ES is a boring commuter car, the IS actually feels fun, and as the legacy of the ES has been sleepy and sensible, the history of the IS has been as the sporty option.
The first Lexus IS 300 was a compact, rear-wheel-drive sedan that had a cult following for its iconic “Altezza” taillights, 2JZ engine shared with the Toyota Supra, and unique “chronograph” instrument panel—something that's somewhat carried on today, albeit with a new interpretation. The generation that followed it arrived in 2005, and that was a somewhat more staid vehicle. The niche appeal was gone, and it felt more like the sensible-yet-lackluster cars it shared showrooms with.
The IS competes in the compact luxury sedan market, which is seriously competitive territory. This space is dominated by the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It even has relatively new competition over the last several years from the Jaguar XE, Infiniti Q50, and Cadillac ATS. This is tough territory.
Look and Feel
The IS comes in two versions, the IS and the IS F Sport. This emulates cars like the 3 Series and C-Class, which have “luxury” and “sport” versions. Both versions have unique two-piece “Boomerang” headlights, which when you really break it down consist of a normal-looking headlight with crazy accents below it.
Those accents complement the “spindle” grille that Lexus has affixed to every one of its cars to make them more visually exciting—whether it actually accomplishes that or not. Despite the IS being the more sporting sedan, if you squint, you can see the sleepy pre-facelift sedan that came before it. But the F Sport version really emphasizes the performance nature of the car with a more aggressive grille, added vents, and available 18-inch aluminum F-Sport wheels.
Inside, the driver’s seat of the IS feels like a cockpit. The center stack rises high and flows up into dash. The IS also has great steering-wheel positioning—behind it is the unique, single-circle instrument panel that takes inspiration from the LFA supercar, but that’s the point of building unique supercars like that: to create more-affordable cars with subtle connections that get people excited.
The IS also has bucket seats worthy of a sports car, as they’re low and contoured. The footwell is also rather tight, likely due to the hardware needed for the available all-wheel drive (AWD). It's a tight squeeze for larger drivers, but overall a snug and sporty place to sit.
The red-and-black interior scheme feels targeted right at the BMW M3, and it's very eye-catching. There are more subdued interior schemes, but this one pairs rather well with the white exterior with dark wheels.
The IS comes in three main versions: IS 200t, IS 300, and IS 350. The base IS 200t features a turbocharged 2-liter inline 4-cylinder making 241 horsepower. Our IS 300 test car features a 3.5-liter V6 with 255 horsepower on tap. And the range-topping IS 350 has the same 3.5-liter V6, tuned to put out 306 horsepower. The IS 200t is available only with rear-wheel drive (RWD), the IS 300 offers only AWD, and the IS 350 can be had with either.
RWD versions get an 8-speed automatic transmission, while AWD cars get a 6-speed automatic, and they both feature steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The best fuel-economy estimates are for the the 200t, which is rated at 22 mpg city, 32 highway, 26 combined. The worst is either AWD version, rated at 19 city, 26 highway, 21 combined.
The RWD IS 350 does only a touch better with estimates of 19 mpg city, 28 highway, 22 combined. But I'd recommend either of the IS 350s, because the IS 300 just doesn’t have the same bite as the IS 350, despite having the same fuel economy.
Our IS 300 is quick off the line, which is great for stop-and-go city driving. But move into the middle of the power band and power is lacking. You have to bury the throttle to get serious acceleration. As a result, you give up a decent amount of grunt for a scant improvement in fuel economy, which makes me wonder why this middle car even exists. One could argue it’s so shoppers can get the tight-handling agility of the F-Sport for a few grand less. If that’s the case, it’s worth it.
Form and Function
I will concede that the IS's seats are tight. They offer solid bolstering for hard cornering, but that doesn’t translate into long-trip comfort. The rear seats are a bit more comfortable, but may lack legroom if you have to sit behind a taller driver. Getting in and out of the rear seats is fine, as the rear doors are large.
Up front, all controls are well laid out, though the need to have a flowing center stack means you lose any meaningful tray for your phone or wallet. There are only two large cupholders and the center cargo bin.
The IS still has traditional Volume and Tuning knobs, which are quite welcome in a world where automakers are trying to replace such easy-to-use controls with all manner of high-tech ones. The IS also has a large trunk for a vehicle this size and a wide opening that will swallow golf bags with ease.
The IS 300's base infotainment system includes a 7-inch VGA monitor. It incorporates standard Bluetooth hands-free calling and streaming music, voice recognition, HD Radio, and dual USB/iPod audio inputs.
You can also upgrade it with a navigation system and to a large 10.25-inch display. It's operated via the Remote Touch controller down by the shifter, which is like a combination joystick and trackball and operates a free-floating cursor. It has force feedback that “snaps” to icons on the screen.
Not everyone loves Remote Touch, but it has easy-to-reference Map and Menu buttons, along with the ever-important Back button. I’d easily take it over BMW’s iDrive or the Mercedes-Benz COMAND system.
Many automakers offer high-tech safety gear like forward-collision warning, but at a price. Lexus provides it for free, as every IS now comes standard with Lexus Safety System Plus. This includes forward-collision warning and avoidance with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.
These are some of the top safety technology features available on the market today, and Lexus offers them as standard equipment. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Lexus IS gets a top score of Superior for its front crash-prevention technology. It also earns a best score of Good in IIHS side, roof strength, and moderate overlap front crash safety tests. It has a score of only Acceptable for small-overlap front crash testing. The Lexus IS 300 earns a perfect 5-star Overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The IS 300 comes standard with a full array of front and side impact airbags, front and rear crumple zones, traction control, and the LATCH child-seat tethering system. The Lexus IS is available with blind-spot monitoring with cross-path detection and a reversing camera. You read correctly: The Lexus IS, which has some of the most advanced safety features as standard equipment, does not provide a standard reversing camera. That’s a pretty glaring omission of a feature that will soon be mandated as standard on all cars.
The base 2017 Lexus IS 200t, which starts at $37,825, has an impressive list of standard equipment. The IS 300 AWD F Sport that we tested starts at $43,345, and with the $3,800-plus navigation and Mark Levinson sound system package, its price can grow to just over $49,000 with options.
An AWD IS 350 F Sport with options can cost more than $50,000. That puts it right in BMW territory with regard to pricing, but unlike the BMW 3 Series, the Lexus includes a bunch of new safety tech. BMW is the poster child for offering little for its tall base prices and making you shell out a lot extra for meaningful options.
The IS was originally a sporty car that took aim at the Germans. Then it became a somewhat sleepy option compared to the 3 Series or A4. But times have changed, and the IS is back to being a solid performer with looks to match. It’s exciting enough to turn heads and can carve through a turn as well, making it a legitimate rival to the established stalwarts in the performance luxury sedan market.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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