It’s happened, all in a neat confluence of threes. By my decree, the third generation of the Lexus IS has surpassed the BMW 3 Series. While BMW has been busying itself creating niches for increasingly grotesque vehicle-type-things, Lexus has turned out a pair of legitimately great sports sedans, first in the GS and now in the new 2014 IS. This from a company who’s top sellers are Camry cousins.
After spending a week with the 2014 Lexus IS250 AWD it took me another couple weeks to shut up about it. That rarely happens, and when it does, it means that the car is simply fantastic. You’re probably all incredulous now, especially since this isn’t even the F Sport version with its stiffened suspension tune. This IS should be the least exciting of all, except it’s not.
There’s something about the way this car is pieced together and highly burnished that transcends the tiny 2.5 liter V6 and its equally-tiny 204 hp, not to mention the even-tinier 184 lb-ft of torque. A base-model Chevrolet Malibu has 10 more lb-ft and nearly as much horsepower from a four cylinder. A six-speed automatic, even with paddle shifters, pales in comparison to the eight- and nine-speed proliferation, and the IS has always been known for its cozy dimensions. And yet, it all comes together to just feel right.
Let’s get real for a minute. A 204 hp V6 in this era is only noteworthy for what it lacks, but look past the cylinder count and you’ll find that the output numbers square with the displacement. That Malibu I cited earlier has a 2.5 liter four cylinder, which, when you think about it, explains why the torque is better and the horsepower is about the same. The Lexus uses Toyota’s 4GR-FSE V6, which has 77 mm of stroke, while the Ecotec in the Malibu has a 100 mm stroke. There’s your torque difference, right there, though the Chevy’s 88 mm bore is also larger than the 83 mm cylinder diameter of the Lexus V6, which means bigger pistons travelling a longer distance and fewer firing pulses to go around. So, while it rocks a small V6, the power level is right on the money for a 2.5 liter engine, and because it’s a 60-degree V6, it doesn’t rock like a four.
The BMW 3 Series, the clear benchmark for anyone making this kind of car, now uses a four cylinder as its standard engine, and back when it was still an “E” instead of an “F,” it was about the same size as the 2014 Lexus IS. The 3 Series has put on inches and pounds while the IS 250 has stayed tight. The new Lexus styling language, Spindle Grille and all, is at its most handsome here, with characterful taillights that blend seamlessly into the creased shoulder line that runs across the tops of the doors and the pointed outer edges of the lenses align cleverly with a feature line rising from the rocker panels. The new IS is a handsome car.
Because of its standard V6, the IS 250 has fewer bad vibrations to manage, and maybe that’s why so many good vibes are able to make their way to the palms of your hands and the seat of your pants. The IS used to feel tiny and old. It was tighter than a Corolla, kinda growly and didn’t reward the driver for putting up with any of its shortcomings. The 2014 Lexus IS is still about Corolla-sized. In fact, there’s significantly more rear legroom in the lowly Toyota, and other dimensions, like wheelbase, overall length and trunk size are within spitting distance of each other. Just looking at the numbers might give you the impression what the IS is just a Lexus Corolla, but that’s just not so.
Have you stopped dreaming about what a Lexed-up Corolla would be like? It’s not likely that you’ll confuse the workaday Toyota with the sufficiently premium 2014 IS. Getting into the IS 250 is a reminder of a time when cars didn’t trade visibility for crash test stars. The base of the windshield is nice and low, and from the driver’s seat it’s an easy lean to adjust the furthest passenger side HVAC vent. The IS is a cozy environment, with the A pillar topping out just above your forehead. And of course, there’s that back seat with a scant 32.2 inches of legroom. With just 101 cubic feet of passenger volume, claustrophobes need not apply.
The benefit of this dimensional tidiness is that it makes the tired, two-bit car writer phrases work. Controls really *do* “fall close at hand,” for example. The materials are high quality, from the supportive, comfortable, widely-adjustable seats to the plastics on the dash and door panels, right down to the knobs. The 2014 IS 250 feels good in your hands, even the secondary controls. The acorn-colored, handsomely-stitched seats with heat and ventilation were very agreeable, though the extra bolstering of the available sport seats would have been plenty welcome.
Control stalks feel precise, the steering wheel has nubbins to promote a proper grip for getting the most out of the chassis, and even the touch-sensitive cabin temperature adjustment is responsive and not infuriating like the button-free options in Cadillac or Lincoln models. It may be somewhat devoid of whimsy, but the interior of the 2014 Lexus IS is a den of quality. The Lexus mouse is right there, too, giving you control over the infotainment system that can link up with your phone and an online account and apps. The system can read text messages to you and there are also canned responses that you can send back through your paired phone while driving. You can add to the presets, as well, and that’s pretty slick, if not a whole lot less distracting than fumbling with a handset.
The IS is now highway bomber happy to strafe along in the fast lane at highly extra-legal speeds without being the least bit perturbed by it. It may be powered by a small engine, and the AWD version I drove has extra underbits to sponge up acceleration, but that tiny V6 is a heart of gold. In fact, while the IS 350 has 100 more horsepower that’s surely entertaining in its own right, the IS 250 doesn’t lack for grins. There’s fewer places where you can exercise the bigger stable, anyway, but you can enjoy the polished ride and handling balance that is a just-right blend of control and supple absorption. Someone at Lexus knows how to tune a suspension, and again, this isn’t even an F-Sport. Every corner becomes an opportunity to find the line, you get useful feedback through the steering wheel and it even loads up through corners just like it’s supposed to.
If you’re looking to be astounded in 2014, take a 2014 Lexus IS for a spin. Start with the 250. I promise it’s all I’ve cracked it up to be. To use another tired-ass hack autowriter phrase, the 2014 IS 250 AWD is truly a Goldilocks car. It’s always entertaining, it has AWD for crappy weather (probably only actually useful when paired with winter tires), it’s a high-quality car that’s very comfortable and highly composed, and even with the small V6, it’s confident and assertive on the road, if not outright speedy.
Here’s the highest praise I can give a car: I would buy this. That’s right. If I had $45K to spend on a car, the 2014 Lexus IS 250 AWD would be a purchase I’d happily make. Now you know the secret of what the car pundit would drive if this industry paid as handsomely as we wish it did.