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