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2007 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 test drive

The thrill is gone

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


2007 Lexus IS350 front-left view

2007 Lexus IS350

Photo © Aaron Gold
What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

When the Lexus IS-series first appeared as a 2001 model, it was clearly a BMW 3-series knockoff right down to the inline six-cylinder engine and beautifully balanced handling. A 2006 redesign made the IS less BMW-like and more Lexus-like; 2007 brings few changes. I tested both models of the 2007 IS, the IS250 and IS350. They still appeal to people who buy BMWs -- but more to the people who buy them for their style than for their road manners. $30,970 base, $32,455 and $47,850 as tested, EPA fuel economy 20-24 MPG city, 28-32 MPG highway.

First Glance: A new mission for an old friend

Larger photos: front-left front-right rear

2007 marks my first time actually driving the Lexus IS since it was redesigned in 2006, and to be totally honest it was a bit of a disappointment. I don't have a problem with the new car's bigger size, and I like the new family resemblance to other Lexus cars. Styling wasn't the old car's strong point -- it was the way it drove that endeared the car to me. But even with the new-for-2007 "X-package" on the IS 250 I drove, which combines a sport-tuned suspension with racy-looking bits like a front "lip" spoiler and 18" wheels, the new IS250 wasn't the handling champ I remember the old car to be.

Still, my opinion is clearly in the minority: Here in Los Angeles, which is Lexus, BMW and Mercedes country, the new IS is proving to be immensely popular. You can't throw a bucket-full of rocks without denting at least half a dozen of them. Clearly, Lexus made the right move in making the IS less BMW-like and more Lexus-like. Just don't expect this reviewer to be happy about it.

Admittedly there are many positive aspects of the redesigned IS. Though both my testers were rear-wheel-drive models, Lexus also offers an all-wheel-drive version of the smaller-engined IS250, a boon to folks who live in places where the weather is lousy. And while the old IS was basically a rebadged version of the Japanese-market Toyota Altezza, with interior amenities that never really matched up to those of other Lexus models, the new IS is trimmed out like a proper Lexus, something you'll see as soon as you sit inside.

Continued below...

In the Driver's Seat: Luxury and amenities up to true Lexus standards

2007 Lexus IS350 dashboard

Dashboard of our IS350 test car, which was loaded with many of the available gadgets and gizmos

Photo © Aaron Gold
Larger interior photos: IS250 IS350

No one does interiors quite like Lexus. Picture the warmth and quality of a Mercedes Benz with the ease-of-use of a Toyota. I drove two ISs for this test, a low-end IS250 and a loaded-to-the-gills IS350. Of the two, the IS250 was the one that I preferred. Part of what I liked was the color scheme; the IS250 had a beige and black interior with metal trim (link goes to photo), which I found warmer and more inviting than the IS 350's grey and black with wood trim. But what really impressed me about the IS 250 was the value. It was priced just over $32k, but had the same premium feel as Lexus' $70k+ top-of-the-line LS460, and came equipped with good stuff like leather seats and keyless entry and ignition.

That said, I also liked the fact that the IS350 -- with an as-tested price optioned up to nearly $48,000 -- sported many of the high-end accessories available in more expensive Lexus models, including heated and cooled front seats, a backup camera, and dynamic radar cruise control, which automatically slows the car to maintain a set distance from the vehicle ahead.

Though the rear-wheel-drive layout compromises rear seat room, the IS offers decent room for two people in back. But the rear seat doesn't fold down, so there's no way to expand the meager 13-cubic-foot trunk. If you frequently haul people or stuff, the IS' bigger sister, the front-wheel-drive ES350, might be a better choice.

On the Road: Best with automatic transmission and straight roads

I was looking forward to driving the IS250 mainly because it had a six-speed manual transmission, a rarity in the luxury class. Sadly, the stick-shift was a real let-down. The clutch feels totally numb and the shifter's throws are too long. It's difficult to drive smoothly; one has to work the shifter and clutch slowly and deliberately to avoid jerking the car (and your passengers' necks). That's a problem, because the 2.5 liter V6 needs to be caned to produce any serious power. No fun at all. Plus the space around the shifter, essentially a hole in the car, lets a lot of un-Lexus-like noise seep through. There were some nice details: The stick-shift gets a proper handbrake (automatics get a foot-operated parking brake) and an orange ring on the tachometer warns when you're about to hit redline. Still, without question, the automatic is the way to go.

The IS350, which comes only with a 6-speed automatic, has a bigger (3.5 liter) V6 engine and an extra 102 horsepower. It's significantly quicker, but surprisingly didn't use that much more fuel than the stick-shift IS250 -- in fact its EPA ratings are identical on the highway and 1 MPG better in the city.

When it comes to curvy roads, the IS is nothing to write home about. I had high hopes for the IS 250 with its rear-wheel-drive layout and the X-Package sport suspension, but it bungled its way through my favorite twisty road. Every time the standard stability control system cut in, it announced its operation with a loud beeping, which was both distracting and annoying. Driving fast on curvy roads isn't this car's forte.

Journey's End: No longer a BMW clone, but still very much a Lexus

2007 Lexus IS350 rear view

From the rear, resemblance to other Lexus models, most notably the GS, is clear

Photo © Aaron Gold
Despite undergoing a "thrillectomy", the IS displays all the characteristics responsible for Lexus' rapid ascent up the luxury car ladder: First-class accommodations and (aside from the herky-jerky stick-shift) a smooth, quiet ride. The IS may not lead the pack for road manners, but in my opinion it matches Mercedes for one of the nicest interiors on the market. Still, now that the IS' road manners have been softened, the ES350 is the more appealing entry-level Lexus thanks to its more generous interior and trunk space. That said, drivers who prefer small cars will probably be more comfortable with the IS' tidier dimensions.

If you're looking for a real four-door sports car, check out the Infiniti G35 sedan. It's attractively priced compared to the IS and much more thrilling to drive. And then there's the IS' former nemesis, the BMW 3-series -- just prepare to pay for the name. Same goes for the 2008 Mercedes C-Class. Want something more affordable, more fun, and more off-beat? Check out the Saab 9-3.

Though I was disappointed by the new IS, its popularity with buyers would indicate that my opinion is in the minority. Lexus bills the IS as a "luxury sport sedan", and those who prefer luxury over sport will find the IS to be quiet, elegant, and -- in IS250 form -- a great way to get Lexus luxury and cachet at a very reasonable price. Those buyers to whom sport is more important than luxury, however, should look elsewhere. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros and cons, who should buy it, specs and best rivals

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