The IS has consistently been one of my favourite Lexus models.
Since its appearance in 2000 as a thinly disguised Toyota Altezza from the Japanese domestic market, it has stood in stark contrast to most of its showroom siblings as a driver-oriented sedan that is focused on performance and relatively light on luxury.
The current generation has been with us since 2014 and in IS 300 AWD guise since last year.
For 2017, changes include enhanced safety features (a common theme across the Toyota/Lexus range) and minor cosmetic updates inside and out.
We reviewed this car last year and noted that the 300’s engine is underwhelming compared to those in the 250 and 350 models.
And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the 3.5-litre six-pot produces only 255 hp and has the same thirst for premium fuel as its more potent big brother.
But what the IS 300 AWD does offer — consistent with its mandate since inception — is a uniquely satisfying handling repertoire that had me making excuses to get out and go for a drive during my week with the car.
Let’s start with the styling.
The forgettable second-gen car was replaced with this one that has more visual impact thanks to its low, wide stance and dramatic character line that runs along the rocker panels and then sweeps up to the car’s taillights.
Like some Lexus models, its looks promise a sporty driving experience.
But unlike some Lexus models (I’m talking about you, CT), this one delivers.
Slide into the driver’s seat and it’s immediately apparent that this one doesn’t get by on looks alone.
Firm, well-bolstered seats and an intimate cockpit tell you this is more about go than show. The rear quarters are predictably snug, but that’s par for the course in a sports sedan.
Accessible storage is elusive from the driver’s seat; no cubby ahead of the shift lever or overhead sunglass storage.
There’s a small bin under the centre console armrest and a couple of cup holders that are almost too far back to be useful. But these items can be excused given the character of this car.
The IS is not without its luxury perks, though, particularly the example we drove which had the $6,700 luxury package on board. Thanks to that little extra, we get treated to a heated steering wheel, 18-inch alloys, 10.3-inch display screen (new for 2017) with remote control, real leather on the heated and ventilated seats, adaptive headlights, and a bunch of other goodies, some of which should really be standard in a car like this. Such as a blind spot monitor, for instance. Or a moonroof.
As the middle child, the $42,950 IS 300 AWD gets an increase in power (but a decrease in torque) and two additional driven wheels over the $40,150 stern-drive IS 200t. But it gives up 51 hp and 41 lb-ft of torque to the top-trim IS 350 AWD in order to save you more than $10,000.
However, the 350 starts with the F Sport Series 2 package, which is a couple of steps up on the 300, so the real difference in price is closer to $3,450 when similarly equipped.
So, the strength of this model is its combination of smooth V-6 operation, all-wheel drive and a strong value proposition. But to me, the sweet spot would have been to offer the 200t with all-wheel drive and dispense with the 300. Regardless of engine choice, though, the IS offers the kind of driving experience that kept me wanting to return to the driver’s seat.
Responsive steering. Firm suspension. Great seats. These are the things people can enjoy daily, no matter how mundane the drive. These laudable dynamic traits are supplemented by a cockpit that puts controls where they need to be.
The only control that I can do without here is the “remote” that Lexus has designed to control the display functions. It’s kind of a cross between a track pad and a joystick and it takes too much attention away from the road to operate. This is the case despite what looks like painstaking design to offer haptic feedback to make it easier to land on a chosen command.
Thankfully, Lexus designers appreciate the need for hard buttons to access many functions—you aren’t at the mercy of the display to do most things—as there are separate controls for climate, audio, seat heaters/coolers and a dedicated map button to get the right information in front of the driver.
But Mazda does it right: drivers have the choice of using a control knob (supplemented by dedicated buttons) or touch screen to activate these functions.
The IS package is an appealing one because of the unique (for a Lexus) attention its designers paid to driving dynamics and appeal to the driver. It’s a crowded field, though. And similarly appealing options — with more inspiring engines under the hood — are available.