2014 Lexus IS - 2014 Automobile of the Year Finalist

We've previously termed many Lexus models anodyne, perfectly adequate for the company's customers but unlikely to stir envy in the hearts of car enthusiasts. But it's not as if Lexus doesn't know how to make exciting cars -- think of the carbon-fiber, V-10-powered Lexus LFA, the outgoing 5.0-liter IS-F sports sedan, even the fact that the 2013 Lexus GS sedan was far livelier than its predecessor. So when the Japanese company said its all-new 2014 Lexus IS250 and IS350 sedans would be sportier than before, our attention was piqued.

The 2014 Lexus IS grows a few inches longer and arrives with all the visual trappings of today's Lexus. There's an enormous spindle grille out front, sweeping character lines near the rear fenders, intersecting curves and angles, and new LED running lights that look like a famous shoe company's "swoosh" trademark. The cabin features the smart horizontal dashboard design borrowed from the GS, and F-Sport models have a funky color LCD gauge cluster that apes the Lexus LFA's center-mounted tachometer. There is more legroom and interior space than before, too, as well as the latest version of the Lexus Enform infotainment system that is operated by a mouse-like button on the center console.

Beneath the glossy exterior, the 2014 Lexus IS has a three-inch longer wheelbase than before. Buyers pick between a 2.5-liter V-6 with 204 hp and a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with 306 hp, both with either rear- or all-wheel drive. Most configurations come with a six-speed automatic transmission, but the sporty IS350 rear-wheel drive gets an eight-speed. All versions, however, can be fitted with an F Sport package that brings a more aggressive body kit, sporty cabin trimmings, special 18-inch wheels and suspension tuning, and different power-steering tuning.

Much of what makes the IS great is borrowed directly from the new Lexus GS, including the quicker and more communicative electric power steering rack and the multi-link rear suspension. As a result, the IS is one of the most invigorating Lexuses in years. "This Lexus is far sportier and more athletic than I expected," said associate editor Greg Migliore. "The steering was heavier than I anticipated, and the chassis worked well even when pushed hard. I think it's a bit of a sleeper car in this segment."

So has the sporty Lexus abandoned its roots? Not one bit. "Even when Lexus tries to make an edgy sports sedan, it just can't help but the car with creamy smoothness," said senior editor Joe Lorio. "That's no bad thing: It's nice to sit in a cosseting bucket seat, brush up against soft padded surfaces, touch smooth leather, hear and feel a seamless gearbox, and experience a smooth ride."

Still, editors had some reservations about the 2014 Lexus IS. "The steering is a little anodyne and the engine can sound like a vacuum cleaner," said Lorio. "While the IS350 can convince you it's a pretty serious sports car on the road, it suffers when you drive it back-to-back with a BMW 335i on a track," said columnist Ezra Dyer. "If this car had style, it would get respect… Sadly the Japanese really don't know where to go in terms of styling," said senior editor Michael Jordan.

No Lexus has ever been named to our Automobile of the Year list, and the Lexus IS has never been voted an All-Star. Stay tuned to learn how the 2014 Lexus IS250 and IS350 fared in this year's evaluation.

Photos by Patrick Hoey.

We will be releasing our 10 Finalists for the 2014 Automobile of the Year throughout the week leading up to the announcement of the winner on Saturday, November 16. See our other finalists here:

2014 BMW 435i

2014 Cadillac CTS

2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

2014 Chevrolet Impala

2014 Jaguar F-Type

2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport

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