Since its initial launch in 1998, the Lexus IS has been a sport sedan for people who want something a little different than the 3 series, C-Class, and A4 lines that nip at each other’s tires for space in the entry-level luxury sport sedan segment. In fact, when the first-generation car hit U.S. soil, many pundits asked why even bother chasing the Germans in a segment they practically owned (if not invented) in most markets.
Then the reviews started coming in. Here are a few comments from our long-term IS 300’s log book way back in 2001: “It’s not as complete a car as a 3 series, but it’s edgier and perhaps more interesting.” “After driving the IS 300, the [BMW] 328i feels almost large. The IS is far more nimble.” “I gained a lot of admiration for this car. I’d take one over a 325i any day.”
Today, the Lexus IS is five years into its third generation and when a 2018 IS 300 was dropped on our door step for review, we wondered if the car would still hold the same magic of the original version all those years ago. The answer? Well, it’s complicated.
First of all, you can no longer get an IS 300 with a manual gearbox. In fact, the manual was slow to come on the original model (our 2001 tester was a pre-manual automatic) and the second generation IS offered a manual only with the entry level IS 250 trim which made do with a 2.5-liter V-6, rather than the 3.0-liter V-6 available on the hotter IS 350. In a sign of the times, today’s IS 300 pairs a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine (with a healthy 241 hp/258 lb-ft output) to an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. A 311-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 is still available on the current IS 350, but we’d venture the turbo-four is quick enough for most drivers.
Then, there’s a little issue of size and weight. The current IS 300 is nearly a foot longer than the original was all those years ago, while also being several inches wider and nearly an inch taller. It’s also a few-hundred pounds heavier than the original IS 300’s relatively svelte 3,300-lb curb weight. While it’s more powerful to compensate (and today’s buyers find many of the whizz-bang features they’re looking for in this segment like optional navigation, a host of safety features, seats that ventilate their bottoms, and so forth).
In fact, our tester boasts 10 airbags standard, along with a standard back-up camera, Safety System + (which includes pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, and lane departure alert with steering assist), Bluetooth, satellite radio and a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, among other niceties.
Optional equipment includes the $1,220 Comfort Package with memory driver’s seat, blind-spot and cross-traffic monitoring, and rain sensing windshield wipers; a $300 adaptive front lighting system, a $290 Premium Plus Package with heated and ventilated seats, a $334 trunk mat/cargo net/wheel locks package and the $2,835 Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio System package which bundles 17 speakers, an 835-watt stereo and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Whew.
Certainly a lot of progress has been made in nearly two decades. Consumers get an IS 300 that more closely resembles their ideal living room, while being nearly as safe. But how is the car to drive as a result? Answer: pretty good.
In our time behind the wheel, we used the IS 300 for daily tasks including grocery schlepping and assorted errand running, as well as a bit of back roads duty. Through it all, we were impressed with the little 2.0-liter turbo-four’s giddy-up, with little lag and max torque arriving at just 1,650 rpm. This made for easy bursts of acceleration, though in Normal driving mode, the eight-speed’s penchant for super-low-rpm cruising meant dropping several gears to get into peak horsepower.
In Sport mode, the transmission keeps the car in its powerband better, and manual shifts were acceptably quick. Steering feel from the electric-assisted rack was the chief let down in terms of sporty driving characteristics and it’s a negative shared with even the RC and LC model ranges. Ride quality is very good, with a nicely balanced tune between sport and comfort. We achieved 23.5 mpg in mixed driving, versus the EPA’s 26 mpg combined average.
We also think the IS 300’s LFA-derived interior design has held up well through the years, still feeling modern and upscale. That said, Lexus’ mouse-like display controller is perhaps the worst in the industry. The system’s poor control and requirement for full attention is challenging when parked, but even worse when driving, mandating far too much time be spent with the driver’s eyes off the road. Rear seat room is also a bit cramped and the door aperture is small, requiring a little contortion for larger or taller adults to get in and out.
With an as-tested price of $44,184, our Lexus IS 300 tester is competitively priced in its segment and we’d question the need for the IS 350’s V-6 with a turbo-four this potent under the hood. Most people simply won’t need the extra oomph. While the IS 300 may not be quite as interesting or as sporty as the IS that started it all some 20 years ago, it has morphed into the car that the dwindling sedan market has required of it. It also remains an alternative choice to the myriad German sedans in this space. And the fact that it isn’t another compact sport-utility vehicle is reason enough for many to take a closer look.
2018 Lexus IS 300 Specifications
|PRICE||$39,205/$44,184 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/241 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,650-4,400 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/32 (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||184.3 x 71.3 x 56.3 in in|
|WHEELBASE||110.2 in in|
|0-60 MPH||6.9 sec|
|TOP SPEED||143 mph (est)|