The Lexus IS long had the air of 'under-confident also-ran' about it. You certainly couldn't say that of the third generation model. Jonathan Crouch checks out the IS 250 variant.
Ten Second Review
The MK3 Lexus IS aims to have what it takes to beat its BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class rivals. In conventional 2.5-litre V6 petrol IS 250 guise, it can't quite do that - but it's still a desirable thing.
It would be easy to list what was wrong with the last second generation Lexus IS model. Off the top of my head, I'd nominate the underwhelming diesel engine, the lack of space in the back, the off-pace emissions and economy figures and interior styling that lacked any great sense of occasion. Yet quality was something the IS had in spades. Deeply engineered quality, rather than merely the superficialities of soft-touch plastics and solid door slam sounds. It was reliable. Well sorted. Thorough. That's not enough to generate the sort of showroom appeal to level with the likes of Mercedes, Audi and BMW though. So when Lexus had a third crack at the IS, it came up with something radically different. Something more assertive, which didn't need to try and copy its German rivals. The latest IS is defiantly Japanese and all the better for it. In other words, it's a car that might well have finally come of age. The efficiency merits of the hybrid IS 300h variant are well documented. But how will it fare without these in more affordable but much more conventional 204bhp 2.4-litre V6 petrol IS 250 guise?
Lexus will offer you a pair of engines in this IS and they're both 2.5-litre petrol units, though that's where the similarity ends. The more conventional of the two is found in the IS 250 model we're looking at here, powered by a 2.5-litre V6 developing 204bhp and driving the rear wheels via an ordinary mechanical six-speed automatic transmission. It's a pleasant enough thing, with decent refinement and crisp acceleration that'll see you to 62mph in 8.1s en route to 140mph - but you'll almost never see one. These days you see, few people buy thirsty V6 petrol engines in cars like this - which is why the UK importers aren't offering the 3.5-litre V6 variant you can buy in the States. It all means that in the UK at least, the IS 250 feels like a bit of a makeweight in the range. Still, you can have a reasonable amount of fun driving it - if you make good use of the standard 'Drive Mode Select' system, a set-up that tweaks engine output, throttle response, gearshift times and even air conditioning functionality through four main settings. There's 'Normal' if you want to leave the software to do its own thing but otherwise, you can select 'Eco' (for efficiency), 'Snow' (for slippery roads) or 'Sport' (for performance motoring that comes with the accompaniment of a red-tinged hue on the instrument panel ahead of you). Those likely to want to be selecting 'Sport' on a regular basis are the folk being targeted by a firmer-sprung and more dynamically-inclined F Sport variant. Even with ordinary trim though, I'd suggest this to be the best-handling Lexus I've ever experienced. Developed at the fearsome Nurburgring Nordschliefe, it tackles the bends really nicely thanks to a bodyshell 10% stiffer than that of the previous model and a redeveloped double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension design that decreases bodyroll by 25%.
Design and Build
There hasn't been a bad looking Lexus IS to date and the latest version continues that theme. You can see the lineage from the basic proportioning of the second generation car but everything is sharper, tauter and more muscular than before. It's a striking piece of metalwork. The front end features two different front grille treatments - a more sedate take on the Lexus spindle grille in the SE, Luxury and Premier trims and a bolder mesh grille on the F Sport variant. SE models get rather unremarkable 16-inch alloys, the Luxury models get smarter 17-inch rims while the Premier and F Sport versions ride on lovely 18-inch wheels, with five spokes in the case of the former and ten for the latter. The IS features a number of design cues first seen on the LF-CC concept car, including extrovert rear lights that swoop downwards into the flanks of the car and the top F-Sport variant's curved front spoiler. The interior features a chunky centre console and elements borrowed from other models in the Lexus range, such as the analogue inset clock and big LED display. It's a more conspicuously styled interior than the rather functional cabin of the second generation car and the mix of materials used as well as the contrasts of colour and texture generate a far more upmarket feel. Design literacy is taken for granted in this sector.
Market and Model
The IS 250 undercuts its hybrid stablemate by around £3,000, which means pricing that starts at around the £27,000 mark. If you want sporty F Sport trim, there's a £4,000 premium. Lexus customers never go short of equipment and even the entry-level IS has a quota of extras that can put German rivals to shame. You might want to upgrade the SE's 16-inch alloys but otherwise, it's doubtful you'll be disappointed with the Drive mode select system (with Normal, Eco & Sport settings), cruise control, a smart entry and start system, dual zone air climate control and power-fold heated mirrors. Then there are HID headlights with dusk sensing, eight airbags, a DAB digital radio with Bluetooth connectivity and 60/40 split fold rear seats. That makes the sticker price seem remarkable value compared to a BMW 320i Luxury, which gets a smaller 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and still costs over £2,000 extra. Step up to the Lexus IS Luxury trim and you'll find Lexus Park Assist, rain-sensing wipers and those 17-inch alloy wheels. The Premier models meanwhile, really do get all the gear thrown at them and are priced accordingly - from just over £35,000. Here you get auto folding door mirrors, eight-way power-assisted leather seats with heating and ventilation, an electrically operated steering column and some really tasty infotainment functions. These include a 7-inch full hard disk-based sat-nav system with rear view camera and dynamic services and a Mark Levinson 15-speaker stereo with 5.1 channel surround sound. The top F Sport variant meanwhile, gets sports suspension with a lateral damping system, a sports body kit, instrument meters styled on those used by the Lexus LFA supercar, aluminium pedals and F-Sport leather trim for the steering wheel and gear stick.
Cost of Ownership
As we've said, two engines are on offer to IS buyers. Both deliver similar outputs but one costs nearly twice as much to run as the other. No prizes then, for guessing which unit will mop up the most sales. It won't be the 2.5-litre petrol V6 you'll find in the IS 250. This engine may be creamy smooth and slightly more efficient than it was when plumbed into the previous generation IS but its figures - 32.8mpg on the combined cycle and 199g/km of CO2 - still struggle in the modern era. And get worse than that if you choose an upper-spec variant with bigger wheels. Insurance groupings range between 31 and 33. Residual values of the IS have always been good, propped up by the model's brilliant reliability and customer satisfaction metrics, as well as modest insurance ratings. This version looks set to continue that form line.
In third generation form, the Lexus IS is a bigger, more confident car that looks smarter and drives better. Plus, as before, it's very well equipped and beautifully built, with dealer back up which is second to none. None of which will help the IS 250 2.5-litre petrol V6 variant we've been looking at here be any more than a minority choice when it comes to this car. The running costs see to that. Still, if you're a little jaded with the three main choices in the compact executive saloon sector. In other words, if you simply don't want yet another BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class or Audi A4, then here's a different way to go. It's a choice that doesn't punish you too much for a bit of individuality, whether that be dynamically, financially or merely through having your decision-making called into question. That's what Lexus hopes to have provided with this third generation IS. Perhaps there is a fourth way after all.