Thumbs Up: It looks good and it’s put together well.
Thumbs Down: Needs more horsepower.
Buy This Car If: You want an affordable Lexus that’s entertaining to drive.
In the span of a week, I put over 800 miles on the 2011 Lexus IS250 with the F Sport Package. You’d think that it would be easy to write a review about a car after spending that much time behind the wheel, but it isn’t. In fact, I have to admit that the IS250 leaves me a bit stumped: the F Sport suspension is a bit harsh for long freeway drives and the car needs a serious infusion of horsepower to be competitive with it’s main rivals. The interior lacks the room of others in the class, and the rear seats don’t even fold to accommodate oversized cargo. Despite this, I’m actually going to miss the car, because I really did enjoy driving it.
Let’s start with the exterior design. IS models are perhaps the only cars in Lexus’ product lineup not cross-shopped against Buick; in other words, the Lexus IS is the only offering targeted at a younger, more sporting crowd. Nowhere is that more evident than in the exterior styling of the IS250. For 2011, the IS gets a revised front fascia to give it a more sinister and sculpted demeanor. Chrome is minimized (especially on the F Sport Package cars) and a high beltline is used to make the car look sleeker and more athletic. There’s even a Lexus homage to BMW’s “Hofmeister kink” at the C-pillar, a reminder of the car’s target audience. Outback, the dual exhausts and subtle lip spoiler of the F Sport Package remind you that the IS is built for something other than just comfort and luxury. I’m not really in Lexus’ primary demographic, but I have to admit that I like the lines of the IS series; in fact, I think they’re the best looking sedans in Lexus’ lineup.
Inside, F Sport Package equipped cars get deeply bolstered sport front seats with microfiber inserts meant to simulate suede. They’re comfortable, even for hours behind the wheel, and really do offer more lateral support than the car needs. Driver and passenger seats are powered, and both get an adjustable lumbar support. Seats are heated, as you’d expect from Lexus, but not cooled.
Rear seats also offer more lateral support than most competitors, and are finished in the same leather and microfiber materials as the front seat. Legroom isn’t great, but children and friends with short legs won’t complain loudly on short trips. Headroom is decent once you’re in the car, but the IS’ sloping roofline requires some acrobatics for those taller than six foot to enter. Surprisingly, the rear seats don’t fold but the car does offer a trunk pass-through to accommodate cargo such as skis. Less forgivable, given the car’s price point, is the lack of heated rear seats.
One area where the IS excels is with interior quality, fit and finish. My tester came without the nav system, which is unusual for a press fleet car. Controls for audio and HVAC functions were completely intuitive and placed where you’d expect to find them, something I appreciate when driving a different vehicle each week. I admired the use of dark aluminum trim instead of the over-used faux wood or piano black, but feel that Lexus should have done just a bit more to dress up the interior. There’s an awful lot of soft-touch vinyl on top of the dash, which requires a bit more contrast than just matte plastic around the vents and center stack. The materials used were all high quality, but they were a bit bland given the IS’ target demographic. Even the steering wheel needed a little help; bigger thumb cutouts, thicker grips and a suede or microfiber surface would have made a huge difference in feel and perceived quality.
I’ll admit to loving the IS’ instrumentation, though. The original IS had what Lexus called “chronograph instruments”, and this version carries over the theme. Both the speedometer and tachometer are trimmed with a titanium colored outer ring, and the temp and fuel gauges form the illusion of an hour hand on a watch. The tach and speedometer have a center ring that lights in orange to warn you of redline or a pre-set speed (whoever had the car before me drives much slower on the highway, apparently). Top center above the gauges is the driver information display, which can be set to show distance to empty, overall fuel economy, tank fuel economy, gear position outside temperature or average speed.
Under the hood of the Lexus IS250 is a 2.5 liter, 204 horsepower V6. That’s not a lot of engine to move a sport sedan that weighs nearly 3,500 pounds, and that shows in the car’s zero to sixty time of just under 8 seconds. Top speed is said to be 140 miles per hour, but it would take you a while to get there; on the other hand, the car is content to maintain 75 to 80 miles per hour with zero drama, returning some respectable fuel economy in the process. I saw just over 30 MPG (30.4, actually) on the highway, driving at speeds I’d rather not confess to. If you kept the IS at or below the speed limit, I suspect you could do quite a bit better than the EPA’s estimate of 30 MPG. My suspicion is backed by my combined fuel economy of 26.6 MPG; the EPA tells you to expect 24 MPG. Sure, you could do better with a hybrid, but I can’t think of a single hybrid that’s as entertaining in the twisties as the IS250.
On the road, I only had two complaints on the IS250. I’ve already said it needs more power, so I won’t flog that particular dead horse; besides, that’s easily corrected by stepping up to the 306 horsepower IS350. My other complaint was the transmission, and this is true of all automakers, not just Lexus. If you’re going to put paddle shifters in a car with sporting intentions, at least make the effort to shorten shift times and improve drivability. The transmission in the IS250 had no “Sport” mode, so shifting manually was an exercise in frustration as you waited for the transmission to execute your intentions. If you’re going to build a car with a plain, shiftable automatic, that’s fine: don’t go to the trouble of adding paddle shifters. To me, they’re the equivalent of a giant rear wing or a grapefruit launcher exhaust, since they really don’t do a thing to make the car go faster. On the flip side, if you’re adding paddle shifters to your car, make sure they improve upshifts and downshifts compared to leaving the car in drive.
The F Sport suspension package goes a long way towards improving the handling of the IS-F (and the 18” graphite wheels are nice to look at), and the car feels very nimble when roads tighten up. Push the IS hard enough, and it will reward you with understeer; however, the limits of an F Sport Package equipped IS are definitely higher than a plain IS. The tradeoff is ride comfort on the highway; it’s not unpleasant with the F Package suspension, but it is considerably firmer than what you’d typically associate with Lexus.
Base price on my IS250 tester was $34,190, including a destination charge of $875. The only option on the car was the $2,440 F Sport Package (18” wheels with summer only tires, F Sport suspension, sport pedals, aluminum scuff plates, front and rear spoilers, sport grille, sport steering wheel sport seats), so the total sticker price came to $36,630. The pricing may be the car’s Achilles heel, since there are more than a few comparable models in this price range. A comparable Acura TSX, for example, stickers at $30,470, compared to the base IS250’s $34,190 asking price. On the other hand, a BMW 328i with the Sport Package would sticker at $39,025 and an Infiniti G25 Journey with the Sport Package would sticker at $40,435, so maybe the Lexus is priced where it needs to be. There are plenty on the road, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one charmed by the Lexus IS.