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2015 Lexus IS350 AWD review

In its own shadow By ,

Now there’s a tough place to be in; not only is Lexus’ IS in the shadow of its past, but it’s also in the dense fog created by its German competitors. What’s more, as if it weren’t already in a precarious place, the Americans and other Japanese brands are hitting back harder than ever. 

The IS was a rogue agent when it was introduced in 1999. It snuck up on the reigning BMW 3-Series and Audi A4, knocked over Infiniti, Acura, and Cadillac without breaking a sweat. This compact luxury car created a style and lent its name to a type of taillights. The Lexus IS (Altezza) was damn cool, and they also made a wagon version!

Then, someone at Lexus decided to transform the IS into a Lexus, and all was lost. By 2006, the IS had lost its soul and coolness factor. Although completely rethought for the 2014 model year, the IS struggles to shrug off the shackles from its own previous generation. 

Beyond the legacy
The 2015 Lexus IS is a very good car, fortunately -- and unfortunately. 

Unfortunately because Lexus actually has something potent and worthy on its hands. Manufacturers are no fools. Despite the force-fed spiels company reps have to cough up when questions must be answered or comments put forth, they know if their product is worth its mettle. 

And the Lexus certainly deserves a serious once-over. 

This is the fortunate part. If you, purchaser of a compact luxury sedan, give this car a chance it will surprise you. As a daily road car with a dose of panache, the IS does deliver where it counts. In fact, the redesigned body shell is (without exaggeration) gorgeous and sporty. The self-proclaimed Innovative Sedan (IS, if you were wondering) is striking where others might be bland, that is if you can get over the over-the-top spindle grille… I know I can. 

Not special enough?
The IS is, well, a Lexus. If you’re shopping for a luxury liner or a compact or midsize SUV, the LS and RX are some of your best bets. When perusing the list of available compact or midsize sporty luxury sedans, the IS finds itself somewhere near the bottom, behind the Germans, Infiniti Q and, most recently, the Cadillac ATS. 

The coming of the RC may help with the IS’ image issues, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough. Boasting rights are mandatory when forking over medium bucks for this type of car. While the German car owners simply have to mention Audi, BMW or Mercedes, the Lexus guy may have to follow with I don’t know what…

The IS250 utilizes a 204-horsepower 2.5L V6 and the more interesting 350 manages well with a 306-horsepower 3.5L V6. No one brags about a 204-hp V6… Could the lack of a small displacement turbocharged 4-cylinder engine be an issue? I don’t think so. AWD is now available with both engines and there’s even an F-Sport package that includes specific wheels, steering wheel, instrument cluster, and seats. A note on this option group: It is an absolute must. 

The basics
My tester was a loaded $52,900 IS350 AWD F-Sport Executive package which essentially makes it the most desirable of the IS lineup, at least power- and traction-wise. 

On the road, the double wishbone front and rear multi-link suspension setup makes the IS drive and handle with a good amount of talent. Switching from one drive mode to another is possible and tinkers with the usual throttle and steering settings. Sport, as opposed to Sport+ is the better daily option. 

These are not special ingredients. Actually, the IS350 RWD features an 8-speed autobox’ as opposed to the 6-speed in all others, along with larger front disc brakes. I’m not entirely sure why as everything else is identical to the 350 AWD, but I can tell you that the transmission works well and is engaging enough when using the paddles. 

The other V6
Now, although the 3.5L is better than peppy, a funny thing happened when I spent a week with the Toyota Highlander. I realized that they both sounded about the same and essentially, the engine felt as responsive in both vehicles. This fact alone deflated what was left of my “IS is good” bubble… 

I noted that in both automobiles, little happens below 4,000 rpm and stomping on the go-pedal is the only way to get things going in order to experience the 277 lb-ft of torque. The lack of low-end oomph I believe hurts the driving experience. A number of competitors resort to boosting to address this. 

A good alternative
As I re-read my review, I find myself bummed by its negative connotation. I had wanted to really like the new IS. Its looks alone had me salivating. It’s superb seats and original-yet-functional dash design had me thinking that Lexus was back in the game (1st IS was nothing if original). And yet, sadly again, it all turned into Lexus… 

At the moment, the Volvo S60, BMW 3-Series, Cadillac ATS, and a few others are all superior at stroking the ego and making friends and neighbors alike jealous.