Friday, April 24, 2015

Test Drive: 2015 Lexus IS250

MSRP: $36,550
As test price: $42,638

The first two generations of the Lexus IS were, at least to me, not exactly terrific cars. If I had to pick between the first and second generation IS, I would take a first generation Lexus IS300 with the five-speed manual. Why? Because inside its tiny body was the 3.0 liter, naturally aspirated inline-six from a Toyota Supra. Performance notwithstanding, the rest of the car was just merely adequate with an incredibly cramped interior. The second generation Lexus IS never really showed up on my radar as the interior space issue was never really fixed and it was quite boring to drive, aside from the insane IS-F.

Lexus clearly wants to make sure that the third generation of the IS more fun to drive as the first generation, but actually has enough interior space and new technology to compete with the rest of the mid-size luxury class. East Brother has already driven a version of the current IS, but I had yet to, so a proper test of this new 2015 model was in order. What I was really hoping to get out of this test drive was to help shed the image that the Lexus IS is this cramped, tiny vehicle that was only fun to drive because it shared a power plant with the Toyota Supra. Let's see if that happened.

When I first saw the all new Lexus IS, my first thought was that it bore more than a passing resemblance to the previous model. Sure, there are some notable changes, such as the new Lexus "hourglass" grill, and the taillights, but from the side, it really just looks like a "swoopier" version of the last gen car. That is not to say that it looks bad. In fact, it actually looks quite good...with maybe the exception of the front which resembles an angry insect. It just makes me wonder if Lexus has built enough brand cachet to start taking the German route of merely evolving an existing design, model after model, and calling it brand new. While the rest of the design was forgettable enough, I felt the most stand out feature of the exterior were the optional 18 inch wheels. They definitely lend a very sporty character to a car that otherwise looks like it might be trying a bit too hard.

My biggest gripe with the previous two generations of the IS were its cramped interiors. Sitting in the back, I felt like I needed to sit with my knees against my chest and the front was hardly any better. In order to get any proper leg room, you have basically ensured that your rear passengers can only be people with their legs amputated or small children. It did take three generations, but Lexus finally addressed this problem with the third generation car. I can actually move around in the back seat. Hallelujah! The best part? I can actually sit fairly comfortable in the front without having to amputate the rear passenger's legs, or force them into an upright fetal position. 

Lexus has always done upscale interiors well. The materials they use always feel like they are of the highest quality, making sitting in a Lexus interior always feel very luxurious. That said, stepping into the new IS was a big let down. There is A LOT of plastic in this car. I mean A LOT. Take the center console for example. Besides the swatch of leather on the arm rest, the entire center looks like one gigantic hunk of plastic. It is not that I mind manufacturers using plastic as it is pretty much unavoidable, but if your interior is going to be primarily constructed out of plastic, would it kill you to use some of higher quality? I had a hard time believing I was sitting in a Lexus and not a Toyota. At the very least, they did not skimp on the quality of the leather, which was soft and supple.  

In pretty much all of Lexus' new vehicles, the infotainment system is now controlled by some sort of mouse analogue attached to the center console. You use it to steer a little cursor on the screen between the various icons and feedback is felt to help indicate when you land on something that can be clicked. Long story short, it is a little strange to use. When you first grip the device, it feels familiar. As you start moving it around, you realize you can only move the mouse so far, which is where the strange feelings begin. The screen used to display all the infotainment information is pretty small, making the entire sensation of using a mouse even stranger. I am sure with extended use, I could probably get used to the setup, just as I have with every other infotainment system I have experienced thus far. Plus, it removes a lot of the buttons off the center console, cleaning it up quite a bit. Credit is due where credit is due, and I have to give Lexus credit for trying something that is different from everyone else, although a few more iterations might see some usability improvements.

Carried over from the previous generation are the two engines that are available in the IS. The engine in this model here is the 2.5 liter V-6, that makes 204 horsepower and 185 lb./ft. of torque. It is a slug of an engine. During the entire test drive, the IS felt absolutely gutless. Being a small displacement V-6, I thought that torque would be available lower in the rev range. Nope. What about closer to the mid-range? Still not there. I will never understand why =Lexus feels it necessary to use such a small displacement V-6 when Honda/Acura's 2.4 liter inline-4 in the Acura TLX makes two more horsepower, only three less lb./ft. of torque, and gets 35 MPG highway compared to the 30 MPG highway the IS gets. I almost feel like Toyota should revive the naturally aspirated 2JZ to put in this car, just so it will be quicker. Will it be as fuel efficient? Probably not. If you added some modern technologies to it, such as direct injection, you could at least have the underpinnings for an enthusiast friendly version of the IS. Luckily, there is a brand new turbocharged inline-4 motor in the new NX200t crossover that is ripe for the picking to go into this car.

Continuing with the drive train, the car's six-speed automatic transmission is not very good either. Its shifts are a bit clumsy, even in the car's least sporty mode. In this day and age of eight and nine-speed transmissions, why is it Lexus decided to equip its smaller displacement vehicle with an ancient and outdated six-speed? If it were actually good, I probably would have no complaints. [Editor's note: the Mazda6 has a lovely 6-speed, for example] Seeing as how Lexus has access to the fairly excellent Aisin built eight-speed, it makes no sense to hamper the car with an old, clunky, six-speed. By adding the eight-speed, they could easily address one of this cars biggest shortcomings, which is its rather pitiful fuel economy.

Lexus' non F-Sport and F branded cars have always been sprung on the softer and cushier side, and the IS250 is really no exception. Driving over the same rough patch of road we tested the Mercedes C300 on, it soaked up the broken pavement reasonably well. Were it equipped with the standard sized 17 inch wheels instead of the optional 18 inch, it may have soaked up the poor road even better. Throwing the car into a corner proved to be uninspiring. It is not that the Lexus does not handle reasonably well, but as you put the car through its paces in a corner, the body rolls, the tires maybe squeal a little in protest, and that is about it. What it lacks is a sense of excitement, never really making me want to push the car harder, but neither does it make me fear for my life. Taking the IS through a corner just makes me feel like, "Meh, this is OK."  The car's well weighted but otherwise lifeless steering and average feeling brakes do not particularly help in dispelling this feeling either.

So the all new third generation Lexus IS250 is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty vanilla car. Yes, the interior space issue has been fixed, but it is just not very exciting to drive. Strapping the F-Sport package to the car might make a difference as would getting the 3.5 liter V-6, but why should I have to spend a crap ton of extra money to make the car fun and enjoyable? Why is it that Lexus cannot make a car that is fun and exciting to drive without having to add a bunch of extra stuff? The first generation IS300 was plenty of fun, even if it was about as comfortable as a clown car on the inside. It feels as if Lexus believes that they only need to continue to cater to their aging customer base and do not care about bringing in younger customers. At the same time, maybe Lexus does realize their problem because they are introducing sportier and more hip models like the new RC Coupe and NX crossover. However, if our brief test drive of the RC Coupe at the LA Auto Show last year was any indication (it drove like a rear-drive Toyota Camry), then Lexus really is not that interested in driving excitement so much as visual excitement. I am pretty sure they do not want to be known as the Japanese Cadillac, especially when Cadillac is trying desperately to appeal to the younger generation.

*Special thanks to South Bay Lexus for allowing us to spend some time with their car.