Being great can be one of the easiest levels to achieve. In fact, it usually occurs quite innocently enough. Someone has an idea, puts it to paper, a car is built, and lo and behold, it turns out to be segment-defining, category-busting, and bar-raising. One of my all-time favourite examples of this is the Mazda MX-5 ― it simply brought the roadster back and had a massive impact on sports cars.
One segment that’s had its share of innovative, mega wow-factor cars is the compact luxury sedan. It seems as though nearly every player here has set a standard at one point or another. Think E30 generation BMW 3 Series, W201 Mercedes 190 E, and 1998 Lexus IS 300.
When it hit the auto show circuit then dealership showrooms, the aura surrounding this car was like nothing ever before seen from a Japanese carmaker. It was not just an appliance; it was a performance sedan with style, substance, and a desirability factor that managed to take some lustre off of the BMW, Mercedes, and Audi of the day.
Tragically, eight years later, all that greatness that had been achieved was brutally killed with an appliance of the blandest kind. Even an IS F version could not bring it back to life. Something good happened in 2014 with the arrival of the third-generation IS, but Lexus made one mistake.
I like the current Lexus IS, generally speaking. The car’s exterior styling, for one, is far more alluring than that of the previous model, and the overall package is attractive. However, Lexus should have stuck with two trims and two engines. The 200t and 350 AWD are all the market really needs.
The “300” designation should have been reserved for a 300+ horsepower 2.0L version of the IS. It’s a number that should have been used for a performance or sportier version of the car, in commemoration of the original, and not for the mid-level model in the range. If the goal of bringing back the name was to arouse the interest of enthusiasts, it won’t work. If it’s to get more people behind the wheel, perhaps it will.
This particular engine has become extremely common among Toyota and Lexus products, from the Camry to the GS, from the Highlander to the RX. It’s a good thing as this mill is gifted with power, generous low-end torque, and a lovely engine note. I’ve enjoyed its abilities in all Toyota/Lexus products except for one: the 2016 Lexus IS 300.
You see, in this application, it’s been detuned to a level that slots it below that of the turbocharged 2.0L 4-cylinder (241 horsepower, 258 lb-ft of torque). How? The V6’s extra 14 horsepower come on at 6,400 rpm, 800 rpm higher than the 2.0L, and its torque, which is down 22 lb-ft, arrives 350 rpm later. What’s more, the engine is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission compared to the 4-pot’s 8-speeder. The IS 300’s only advantage over the 200t is AWD. And yet, Lexus wants $2,250 more for the base 300.
The Lexus IS 300 is not a bad car; it’s just very wrong for the reasons enumerated above and for the following: The 300 feels as though it’s had its mojo sucked out of it. The week after the IS, I roamed the earth in a GS 350 AWD and I rekindled my love affair with the 3.5L V6.
My tested $49,200 IS 300 AWD included the F SPORT 2 package which throws in 18" F SPORT wheels, an aero package and front grille, a staggered tire setup, a 3-spoke steering wheel, and more. On paper, there should be fun to be had. Sadly, flooring the throttle results in little more than that lovely engine note I was talking about. Is this the old man’s version?
I could almost see the V6 looking back at me apologetically with a grin saying: “They did this to me”. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of trying out the 2.0T, but I’m convinced the outcome would be sharper acceleration, better passing manoeuvre times, and many more smiles behind the wheel. The IS 350 will deliver on all these points. Thankfully, the 6-speed autobox is present and will do what is required of it.
On the road, the 2016 Lexus IS 300 AWD drives like a luxury sedan should. It is well enough isolated from the road, yet feels firmly in contact with the pavement at all times. Steering is quick and pleasantly heavy, but with little communication from the front tires. The suspension is calibrated for just enough comfort and handling ability ― this is perhaps one of the car’s best attributes.
Kudos on the cabin
Sliding aboard the IS is a retro-chic affair. The dashboard’s design and layout are unique and functional. The silver rotary audio controls are simply cool, while the screen is smartly positioned at the very top of the centre stack. Unfortunately, getting used to Lexus’ Remote Touch remains a very touchy problem.
There is a certain lack of storage space, however the very supportive front bucket seats are much appreciated. Fit and finish are good in typical Lexus fashion.
I want to like Lexus’ sportier and compact offerings, but I can’t get around to it. The RC coupe and NX crossover are fine, but as is the case with FCA, the larger the vehicle, the better the experience and product.
In this segment, the new 2017 Audi A4 stands as my No.1 choice followed by the other Germans. The new Infiniti Q50 has more bite than the IS, too.