Lexus is not usually known for “sporty” and drivers’ cars. When it launched the successful LS sedan in 1989, Lexus created a reputation as a dependable, luxurious, reliable brand. But Lexus was also perceived as a stodgy and unexciting company, which is corroborated by the fact that the average age of the Lexus buyer is around 60 years old. The 2001 IS (The IS was launched in Japan in 1998, Europe in 1999, the US in 2000 as a 2001 model.) was the Lexus’ attempt at creating a sporty image, and as a genuine competitor to the BMW 3 series, Mercedes C-Class, and Audi A4. The 2001-2005 IS did push the brand’s image in the right direction, but the IS itself proved to be too much of a compromise, trading the typical Lexus refinement for sportiness. The 2006 Lexus IS attempted to rectify the drawbacks of the older IS. The IS combined sleek design, typical Lexus refinement, and decent driving dynamics, which helped Lexus become a major player in the compact luxury market. Sick of the size and the fuel costs associated with her Honda Pilot, my mom was in the market for a compact and luxurious car. When it comes to cars, my mom sees them merely as transportation from A to B. She looked at the typical brands, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Lexus. It came down to the BMW 328i and the Lexus IS250. The IS won over the BMW because it felt more luxurious than the BMW.
Let’s start with the styling. The design is beautifully sleek and refreshingly simple. No unnecessary vents, (BMW I’m looking at you), or creases/curves (W212 Mercedes E-Class, you know what I am talking about). The feminine shape is accentuated by a classy grille and a coupe-like roof line. Even after all these years, the 2nd generation IS ages well, especially compared to the third generation IS which takes a radical approach. If I had to complain about one thing of the styling, it would be the 2009’s facelift which brought protruding and unpleasant taillights. But one thing is for sure, this car is one of those cars that you look back as you walk away. I do not usually like red colors on cars, but the Matador Red Mica brings out the car’s curves, and it creates a stunning effect. I am glad that I convinced my mom to go for the Matador Red Mica with tan interior combo rather than for a silver with a black interior combo. The interior has exemplary fit and finish, with swarms of plush leather throughout. The gauges are attractive and easy to read. The speedometer is too compact as it is hard to read ten miles per hour gaps, so when driving at 40 to 50 miles per hour, it is hard to tell if you are over 45 or not. The wood feels real, and the leather seats are supremely comfortable. The cooling and heating controls for the seats are a nice touch. The coupe-like roof does impede visibility somewhat. The trunk feels plush as well, with soft lining.
Aimed at the BMW 3 series, the Lexus promises driving performance that betters the BMW, or the E90 generation to be specific (Check my BMW 328i Review). Alas, the driving performance does not succeed in doing so, but it comes come close, which is a remarkable achievement if you consider that Lexus’s lineup consists of cars such as the tarted-up Camry (ES) and the best selling RX which is literally designed to be as unexciting as a car can possibly be. Body control stays level in turns, and it exhibits impressive grip when attacking corners at high speeds. I can go into a corner at 40 miles per hour and the car will stay level, fooling me into thinking I am driving slower than I actually am. This car is the IS250 version, which comes with a 2.5 liter engine pumping out 204 horsepower and 185 pounds of torque. In today’s power-hungry society, most people consider that to be underpowered. On the contrary, the engine is strong, and it has decent pick up power. This car may not accelerate as fast as the latest 3 Series or the C class, but it makes use of its power at any speed. Fuel economy is commendable as well. Sadly, it uses premium fuel. The brakes are very sharp, and if you’re not careful, you can induce whiplash if you’re brave enough to slam on the brakes. They are that sharp. The 6-speed automatic transmission swiftly changes gears without any fuss and executes shifts in the most unobtrusive manner possible. The paddle shifters are a joke, though. The computer is always controlling the manual operation. If I select 3rd gear, I expect it to stay in that gear. But if I floor it, or give more gas, the computer downshifts, which defeats the whole “manual” operation. Same thing goes for the gear lever’s manual shift, which by the way is wrong. It should be up for downshifts and down for upshifts like in a manual transmission, but the Lexus has it up for upshifts and down for downshifts. If you want a “manual operation”, get the manual transmission model. The only thing that mars the driving experience is the steering. The steering is quick and accurate. But the steering itself is a big let down. There is no feel, and the weight is completely artificial. The steering has this weird characteristic where it will be heavy when tracking straight, but when in a curve or turn, the weight decreases dramatically. The steering is weirdly heavy when in a straight direction, which is a problem if you have alignment issues. If the steering leans to the right or left, it is hard to keep the car straight because the steering itself is twitchy, and trying to keep the car straight becomes a chore. The steering feel is a major drawback because I never know what the front wheels are doing.
The electronics are a pain in the a** especially when it comes to its safety measures. Let me list the reasons why. The stability control cannot be turned off, and it is overly intrusive. The navigation shuts off all functions except for radio and air conditioning when on the move. If you have your seat belt off for a second, the car chimes loudly. If say you’re in one of those parking situations where you open your door to see in front of you and move the car forward…the Lexus will not tolerate it. It will chime incessantly and “advise you to shift to P”. The car will chime if the sunroof is open or any of the windows. I know I am doing all these things, I don’t need a chime to tell me what I already know.
Refinement is excellent. Noise levels are all hushed. Except this car come with a performance package which includes performance tires. As a result, these tires exacerbate road noise. On the bright side, they have excellent grip. The ride quality is an issue. The suspension has virtually no wheel travel which is great for body control, but ride quality suffers. The car finds and magnifies all the bumps on the road. Uncharacteristically for a Lexus, this car thumps and bangs on every road surface. Even on the smoothest roads, there is still some movement as the overly stiff suspension has to cope with slight surface changes. The engine is subdued but as engine speeds rise, the result is an exquisite engine note that can be considered harmonic.
The navigation system is a touch screen setup, and it is refreshingly simple with separate buttons for radio, air-conditioning, navigation, and other functions. It is a shame that newer Lexuses uses a complicated system in which you use a mouse to click on functions in favor of the touchscreen. One feature I like, when you reach 5,000-6,000 rpm, the tachometer turns to orange, and as you hit the redline, it turns red. My mother discovered this feature which I found strange, considering she drives at 40 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone. Yeah, she is that slow driver in the right lane. Anyways, there is no storage space, and there is only one cup holder in the front. The back is cramped, and there is a protruding transmission tunnel in the back which makes life uncomfortable for the middle passenger. Access could be easier, but it is not too bad. This car is very well equipped with Bluetooth, navigation and backup camera, dual climate air-conditioning, keyless entry, and so on.
I call this car Veronica. Have you read the Archie Comics? In the comics, Veronica Lodge is the richest girl in this fictional town of Riverdale. Her father is a billionaire, and Veronica uses that to her advantage with her extravagant shopping sprees. She is snobby, pretentious, self-absorbed, and beautiful. But she is a good person inside and she values her friendships with people who do not share the same monetary status that Veronica has, and she works hard, and she has aspirations. This Lexus reminds me of that girl. The car is beautiful in appearance, the chiming and steering will drive you crazy, and the luxury adds to the pretentious factor. But over time, my dislike for this car has lessened due to the car’s charms. While it may not drive well as a BMW 3 series, you can tell a lot as gone into developing this car, and Lexus should be proud with this fine machine. Approaching 62,000 miles, this Lexus is going strong, and I do enjoy the alluring engine note whenever I do drive it. The latest IS saddens me because Lexus went for bold instead of conservative with the latest iteration of the IS. The 2006-2013 IS reminds me of a graceful mountain lion, whereas for some reason when I think of the 2014 IS, I think of a frog. I do not know why, but yes a frog. As an aspiring automotive designer, it worries me that the latest model will not age well like this IS does.Lexus’s boldness is commendable but I wonder if it is being too rash in its quest to create a sporty image. The latest ES has traded up the plush and conservative nature of the previous ES to be sporty which contradicts the ES’ mission as a cheap relaxing and comfortable car. I hope the 2014 IS does not ignore its mission in its desire to be different and “sporty”. Simple and steady won the race, remember?
*Credit for the first picture edit goes to my friend Y. Sivakumar.