Lexus is a veteran in the luxury car field now, after more than 20 years, and the IS series has been a good one for Lexus. While the big LS goes for the full-size sedan customer and the GS and ES have their roles and customers, the IS is more compact and sporty-and is aimed directly at BMW’s 3 Series.
The IS 350, powered by a 3.5-liter, 306-horsepower inline 6, competes with the BMW 335i, but in the IS 250, you get good performance but less thirst (and cost), more evenly matching the performance of BMW’s 328i. Its 204-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 is smaller and a little less powerful than the BMW’s 3.0-liter inline six with its 230 horsepower, but you get the point.
BMW offers a model with all-wheel drive; so does Lexus. My Matador Red test car didn’t have it, but apparently about 30 percent of the IS 250s sold do. It delivers more traction in normal driving, and is a godsend in places where snow and ice are present at least part of the year.
This is not to say that the Lexus IS 250 is just like a BMW. While the German brand is iconic, it also has gone through some extremes of interior and exterior design, and the Lexus has for the most part steered clear of those. The appearance of the IS is not groundbreaking but is pleasant and attractive. It is smoother and more linear than the BMW, and there are no odd angles or curves. It actually has some of the traditional feel that BMW lost with its more recent styling adventures.
For 2011, the IS 250 received some mid-cycle tweaks to the grille, front bumper and taillights. You can order a new F Sport package, which gives the car some of the tough appearance of the mighty ultra-performance F version with its 416-horsepower V8 and 8-speed gearbox.
The F Sport package provides special suspension and steering tuning, front and rear spoilers, plus 18-inch alloy wheels with a dark super-chrome finish and a matching front grille insert. Inside, you get heated front seats with microfiber inserts and leather side bolsters and F Sport badging around the cabin to let everyone know it’s special.
The IS 250 may be a Lexus but it doesn’t feel especially luxurious inside-even with the optional Premium Package Value Edition ($640), which adds real wood trim and upgrades the standard leather interior. The wood had a gray finish in my car. The car is not flashy-it just feels comfortable and enjoyable as soon as you sit down, and as a subcompact, it also feels cozy.
The windshield to dash ratio feels about right. The padded surfaces wear a matte finish. The armrest/door pulls swoosh across the doors, giving a sense of forward motion, and are pleasing to the touch. There is a feeling that this car is based on a Japanese market Toyota, not meant as a standalone luxury model, but there’s really nothing not to like about it.
The IS 250 is a pleasure to drive, especially with its standard six-speed manual transmission. This is a true nod to the German competition, because it’s unusual to find a manual in any car these days, especially with the advent of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The six-speed lets you pull a lot of energy out of the 204-horsepower engine; the car flies up onramps and settles in at 75 on the freeway without a fuss.
The IS 250 employs a double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear suspension with high-strength steel and aluminum components. According to Lexus, monotube shock-absorbers integrate special multi-leaf linear control valves to optimize damping force, plus internal rebound springs for firmer body control without degrading ride comfort. Simplified, that means it feels sporty but comfortable too.
Naturally, as a Lexus, it’s quiet inside, the better to hear the standard 13-speaker audio system. I appreciated the hidden USB port for my iPod. My tester had no navigation system hogging the center console, so the audio controls were easy to use and not squeezed into the perimeter of a screen. This felt a little “old fashioned”-but in a good way.
The EPA gives the IS 250 with manual transmission fuel economy ratings of 19 City, 27 Highway (average 22 mpg). I got 25.0 mpg-but I was on the freeway much of the time. That’s good for a luxury sedan. The Green Vehicle Guide numbers are 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas-average.
Prices start at $33,520, including destination charges. My tester, with $830 worth of fancy 18-inch wheels and a couple odds and ends, came to $34,627. That’s good, considering the BMW 328i starts at $34,525. Boy, that’s close, isn’t it?