By Jim Bray
Lexus is revisiting an old appellation with the 2016 IS 300.
The 300 has joined the company's other IS sedans, the (also new for 2016) IS 200t and the existing IS 350; the hope, undoubtedly, is to up Lexus' sporty reputation, which is a worthwhile endeavour for a company known more for luxe than lust.
Click on the image to open a slideshow (Note, the images are of the IS 350)
Other than the apparently spectacular LFA, Lexus has never been really made a sports car worthy of being held up against such benchmarks as the those from Ferrari, Porsche and the like. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course - it depends on how the company wants to be perceived.
Lexus has made a couple of attempts at hot sport sedans before, specifically the V8 powered IS F that many wags thought was aimed directly at (but missed anyway, as far as driving dynamics were concerned) the BMW M3. And if you weld shut the rear doors, Lexus has also made other models of varying sportiness, including the SC 300/400 (coupe-based versions of the flagship LS sedan) and the new RC coupes, which are led by the RC F, which is in fact an awesome vehicle.
Lexus' first real attempt at a sports sedan came in the early 2000's with the IS 300. It was a good car (full disclosure: my son drives one), though a tad busy on the instrument panel, and it featured the last version of the venerable Toyota inline six cylinder engine - a fine power plant that appeared on everything from the old Crown and Corona Mark II to the Supra sports coupe. It was a great engine; my 1983 Supra had it and I drove it happily for 20 years before finally putting it out to stud (you should see its progeny!).
I've always liked the inline six cylinder layout, which seems available these days only from BMW. So imagine my delight when I learned of the new IS 300, whose name clearly indicates that the old engine is back - probably with direct injection and all the other modern upgrades we expect these days.
Imagine my chagrin, then, when I discovered that the IS 300 now comes with Toyota/Lexus' great, though not inline, 3.5 litre V6 engine. Oh, it's a lovely piece of work, nice and torquey, and you can get it on Toyota and Lexus vehicles virtually across the lineup - from the Camry to the ES 350, IS 350, GS 350 and numerous other cars and SUV's. So while I was disappointed in the IS 300 not having an inline six, I'm familiar enough with the 3.5 litre V6 to not be too disappointed.
And that isn't all. The new IS 200t comes with the same, sweet, turbocharged four found in the NX SUV, where it works very well indeed. Lexus says the engine has been "optimized" for use in the rear wheel drive IS, and its output is listed at 241 horses and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. That's not bad, but a lot of sports sedan customers will undoubtedly want more.
So it is that there is now the IS 300, which basically replaces the too-anemic-of-a-performer IS 250. The IS 300's version of the 3.5 litre V6 cranks out 255/236 horses/torque, which may not seem like enough (especially when compared with the IS 350's 306/277 horses/torque), but there's more to a sports sedan than simple oomph (not that there's anything wrong with oomph!).
The IS' underpinnings have also been tweaked, including GS-inspired steering and rear suspension to enhance the sedans' handling.
Both the IS 300 and the IS 350 come with all-wheel drive, and the power/torque gets to each of the car's corners through a six speed automatic transmission with a decent manual mode. The IS 200t gets an eight speed auto. All of the IS iterations get more standard equipment for 2016, too, including rear seat side airbags and 60/40 split/fold rear seats. If you add one of the F Sport packages (and you'll undoubtedly want to) you'll get at the bare minimum a nice moon roof and rain sensing windshield wipers.
The "spindle" grille is still more in your face than I like, but Lexus seems determined to pursue this signature item despite my whining. On either side of Sleeping Beauty's Bane are handsome LED daytime running lights topped by self-levelling HID headlights.
Inside, the cockpit is driver-centric with a low seating position and excellent seats in which I could spent all day without getting fatigued. It's a very high tech interior, too, though I was pleased to find that Lexus Canada's test IS 300 eschewed the mouse-or-trackpad-like interface, instead offering a simple to use knob to control the various functions available via the high-mounted central LCD screen.
Speaking of screens, the IS came with a really nifty, LFA-inspired instrument panel and you can (via push button) slide the tach over to the right to reveal even more information than the abundant data presented otherwise. It's more cool than absolutely practical, but it is very cool.
You can choose from among six optional configurations for your IS 300 AWD, whose basic price starts at $41,700 (the 200t starts at $39,250 while the top line IS 350 takes off at $51,900). Opt for the Premium Package and you get a heated steering wheel - a wonderful feature during the Canadian winter if you don't like driving with gloves on - as well as heated/ventilated front seats, backup camera, moon roof and 18 inch alloy wheels.
Add the Luxury Package and you'll get a leather-wrapped, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, leather seats, driver's seat memory, a power rear window sunshade, reverse auto tilting mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a voice-activated navigation system (with that darn Lexus Remote Touch interface), in-dash DVD player, clearance and backup sensors, Blind Spot Monitor, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert.
Those packages up the luxe and safety ante mostly - and why don't you get a rear view camera as standard equipment on any IS? - but there are three different F Sport packages you can add, too, and they'll give (well, sell) you everything from some cosmetic upgrades (wheels, grille, aerodynamics, a sportier steering wheel, etc.) to the Lexus Pre-collision System, dynamic radar cruise control, 15 speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound audio system, and more.
I really liked driving this car, though of course the IS isn't without its warts. For example, I had trouble getting in and out, especially the rear seats, but it was hardly a deal breaker. The car makes the most wonderful sound when you tromp on the gas pedal, and the Sport mode feels very nice indeed. The transmission's manual mode works well, and the car handles and accelerates nicely.
Lexus' voice recognition was quite impressive, which isn't something I've said a lot in the past. Either I'm getting used to it or they've improved it a lot because I found myself actually using it without cussing (much), especially once I'd turned off the excessive prompting.
Naturally, you get oodles of aides with the IS, from ABS and traction control to an abundance of air bags - and as noted above you can add - or, better still, eschew - the newer generation of nannies such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitor, etc.
The sample IS 300 tipped the fiscal scale at just shy of $46,000 Canadian, which isn't a bad price considering what else is out there (Audi A4, BMW 3, Mercedes C class, Infiniti Q50, Acura TLX, etc.).
Is it a BMW 3 series killer? Well, yes in that its interior interfaces blow the BMW's out of the water, and the car would therefore be much easier to live with and to figure out - but no, in that the 3 series is still more rewarding to drive.
Which proves, once again, that there's no single perfect car. That said, however, the IS 300 is a really nice vehicle, perhaps the most interesting of the IS's to date. Not counting the IS 350.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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