When Lexus launched the first IS in 2001, they thought they were stepping up to the plate for a sacrifice bunt. The bases were loaded with the LS, ES and RX and instead of only one run coming in, the IS hit a grand slam, for the company's image.
It is becoming clear to me that Japanese manufacturers rarely know how to respond to success. What I mean to say is that follow-up versions to hit cars always lose ground. The 2012 Lexus IS is but one such example. Another is the 2012 Honda Civic...
Introduced in 2006, the current-generation IS was met with hopes of more RWD performance, handling and driving pleasure. The first IS did miracles, so to speak, with a 215-hp, 3.0L straight-6. The promise of 300+ hp with the new car ignited dreams of a BMW 3 Series fighting Japanese compact luxury missile. Sadly, it was not to be; the opportunity to stand and be counted did not come. It took a special-edition IS F to get noticed, but that did not last very long either.
Be that as it may, the 2012 Lexus IS 350 AWD has its merits. Up until the arrival of the 2013 GS, the IS was the most dynamically styled car on the showroom floor, F cars excluded. Distinctive and well sculpted, the IS is still the car-face of Lexus. The RX is the best-known Lexus of all and it'll probably stay that way for a long while yet.
The IS plays its role well, as it mostly stays away from the generic styling found on the LS and ES cars. The cabin is equally youthfully attractive, for a Lexus, mind you. The centre stack is lifted from the previous GS, which is good, thanks to its larger, user-friendly controls and touchscreen interface. By comparison, the new 2013 GS is an ergonomic disaster.
Interior space is valid for four adults, not more. The front seats are comfortable, but are the least supportive and attractive when compared to all of its competitors, namely from Audi, Volvo, Infiniti and BMW. Fit and finish are beyond reproach and clearly demonstrate Lexus' general attention to detail.
Lexus is meticulous, refined, luxurious and all about comfort. These calling cards apply to all of Toyota's luxury line except to that of the 2012 Lexus IS. I get the impression that there were two rival teams of engineers on the IS program. Both had different ideas and neither won or lost.
For example, if you look closely about the cabin, you'll find a power button hidden behind the steering wheel, out of sight, as though they were ashamed. It's there but you're probably not supposed to use it, at least that was my impression.
Same goes for the engine note. From tick-over to about 4,000 rpm, the 3.5L V6 is as docile as a kitty cat. Beyond that, all 306 ponies sound as though they are moments away from ripping the bonnet to shreds before stampeding across the Great Plains, fully enraged by having been kept under wraps. I like engine noise, not a cacophonous racket. This is a strange mix.
The 2012 Lexus IS 350 AWD is a fine road car. It is clearly, and as expected, anchored to luxo-cruising more than sport-cruising; however, it manages to be entertaining to drive in most instances.
The V6 is eager and well versed in getting things in motion. The slick-shifting 6-speed autobox never misses a beat and is well tuned to handle the engine's 277 lb-ft of torque. The IS 350 AWD will reach 100 km/h in just under 6 seconds which is commendable and quite quick.
In Power mode and with the shifter slotted in manual mode, the IS is entertaining to drive but the good times promptly run out. The none-too-imposing P225/45VR17 tires and wheels do what they can, but it becomes quickly apparent that this is not a sports sedan.
The fully independent suspension, like the remainder of the car, errs on the side of comfort but is far from being soft. In fact, I'd say it's well tuned with a fine balance between handling and easy driving.
At odds with smooth operation, the car's steering is overly, almost unnecessarily, heavy. At low speeds, it's downright unpleasant. Brakes are efficient and up to the task.
IS or something else
At the end of my week with the 2012 Lexus IS 350 AWD, I did not feel one way or another about the car. This is often times the Lexus way, at least until now. Again, the 2013 GS is shaping up to be a different beast.
The IS is a tough sale in a segment that includes such heavy hitters as the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Volvo S60 and Infiniti G. In the tested trim, the car has an asking price of $52,850. That kind of money will get you all of the above.
As someone that knows what they want, the IS' split personalities probably won't suit your specific needs. Then again, maybe it will.