Story by: Will Sabel Courtney
Everybody has flaws. It’s human nature. Sometimes they’re glaring, sometimes they’re subtle, but at the end of the day they fall into two categories: deal breakers or not. They’re intensely personal choices; the hearty chuckle your girlfriend makes that you find so endearing might be a deal-breaking irritant to somebody else. That’s not to say he’s wrong or you are; it’s a personal choice. We each draw the lines in different places, and those differences are part of what make people so fascinating.
Why am I strolling you down this tangent? Well, because the Lexus IS has one deal breaker in my book. Just one, but that’s all it takes. You might not find it a problem, but I’m writing this review, and I gotta be straight about how I feel.
Let’s cover the good stuff first, though. Lexus has made epic strides in the last few years to make their cars fun to drive, and the IS has benefited from it like whoa. The chassis is rock-solid, the body well-balanced, the suspension taut and dynamic without costing much in the way of ride comfort. Most sporty sedans wish they could achieve this level of poise. Honestly, it’s hard to believe this car’s from the same people who make the ES or the CT 200h. It handles like they outsourced the chassis development to Porsche.
The styling, though, is unmistakably Lexus—which is a plus these days. Not long ago, Lexus’s cars ran the gamut from boring to bizarre, but the brand’s finally found a look that works for them: aggressive, sharp-edged, and unabashedly Japanese (it’s downright manga-esque from some angles—call it “kaiju cool”). Every brand these days, it seems, is trying to find a front fascia they can share across their models; Lexus manages to accomplish it without falling into the trap of making every car look the same. The IS may be the best-looking of the Lexus bunch, with a crisp, muscular face sure to do a damn fine job scaring left-lane-hogging Prius drivers out of the way. (Bonus points to Lexus for the LED eye black beneath the headlights, one of the cooler running light strips on a car today.)
Move inside, and at first glance, the car’s interior lives up to the skin’s sporty promise. The instrument panel is a digital marvel, with an icy-cool digital tach/speedo that looks peeled off Mr. Sulu’s LCARS display
on J.J. Abrams’s Enterprise
. The steering wheel and paddle shifters are chunky and reassuring, and fall right where your hands want it. The seats are thickly bolstered, but not constraining—ideal for a couple hours of backroad hustling.
Spend a little longer in there, though, and you start to realize that the IS really isn’t as big inside as its slab-sided flanks and squinty head-and-taillights make it seem. The rear seat is barely larger than that of the Audi A3
which is a class smaller and $10,000 cheaper. The trunk is adequate—if you don’t plan on filling all five seats with occupants packing more than a rucksack each.
But the biggest flaw inside is…no, not yet. We’ll get there.
Hit the open road, and, as I said, the chassis delights; the engine, however, comes across as merely acceptable. 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft would have been up to the standards of the class five years ago, but nowadays, that’s not enough power to cash the checks the chassis is writing. The V6 lacks the low-end turbo torque that’s become a staple of cars in this class, but neither does it bring the high-revving playfulness that’s become the main reason sporty cars stick with natural aspiration. It may be quiet at cruising speeds, but under heavy throttle, it’s coarse and hoarse. Lexus badge on the hood or not, the engine’s still Toyota’s corporate 3.5 liter V6—the same engine that sits under the hood of the Avalon
. Granted, the IS makes 38 more ponies and 29 more lb-ft…but the Avalon also goes five more highway miles for every gallon of gas. 19/26 city/highway is downright sad in this day and age for the IS’s class. BMW’s 335i
gets 32 mpg on the open road—while making more power and torque.
But poor gas mileage and an unsexy exhaust note aren’t deal breakers.
The infotainment system is.
As wonderful as the primary controls—steering, braking, throttle—are, the secondary controls are, well, I have to say it…bad. Lexus’s infotainment control system uses a free-floating mouse and trackpad-style control setup, and it boggles my mind that anyone would think this is a good idea for a car. There’s minimal tactile feedback—no real sense of resistance from the cursor when it finds a button to press, which makes it almost impossible to use the system without taking your eyes off the road. And you wind up looking away for twice as long as in most other cars, because the cursor’s so sensitive, you often overshoot your target and have to circle back.
And apparently the same people who designed the infotainment also designed the climate controls, because the temperature controls are equally challenging. A millimeter-wide, inch-and-a-half tall touch-sensitive metallic strip controls the temperature: drag up for warm, drag down for cool. Not a bad idea in principle—Cadillac’s CUE uses the same basic idea. But where Cadillac gives you several inches of range to drag and takes deliberate effort to use, Lexus’s version is so compact and sensitive, the slightest touch sends the temperature rocketing up or down a dozen degrees. (It’s also not illuminated or backlit, so good luck trying to use it after dark.) Every other car maker in the world has found a simple way to adjust cabin temperature. Why does Lexus insist on overcomplicating such a basic task?
Admittedly, as an auto journalist, I don’t have as much time to get used to a car’s eccentricities as its owners will. The average IS owner will spend two, three, four years behind the wheel; I spent four days. But that also means I get to see how almost every car company is managing these same issues, and on the infotainment/climate control side, pretty much everybody else has a better solution.
It’s tough to write this, because the fundamentals are so good, I really want it to be a great car overall. I want it to succeed. If the IS were crap to drive, I could write the whole car off with a series of pithy jibes and chalk it up as another chapter in the long history of automotive flops. But it’s not a failure. It’s a really, really good car. It just happens to be saddled with secondary controls that are, tragically, a deal breaker in my book.
But as my man LeVar Burton used to say… you don’t have to take my word for it
Price as Tested: $50,525
0-60: 5.7 secs
Power: 306 hp, 277 lb-ft
Gas Cash: 19 city, 26 why
Miles Driven: 100