DUNCAN, B.C.— Lexus may be a luxury brand, but the fact is, it turns out some pretty decent driving machines as well. And because it does, I found myself at the new Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit recently, whomping the 2017 Lexus IS around the track’s many turns.
It’s the entry-level among Lexus’ rear-/all-wheel-drive sedans, and comes in the 200t RWD trim starting at $40,150; the 300 AWD at $42,950; and in 350 AWD guise at $53,350.
Although vehicle press launches are usually done for major changes, the IS morphs only cosmetically for 2017, having been completely made over for 2014.
There are new LED headlamps, changes to the taillamps, hood and door trim, standard rain-sensing wipers, new bumper with considerably larger air intakes, and more of a “pinch” to the love-it-or-hate-it spindle grille (which has yet to grow on me, if it ever will).
Inside, there’s a new audio panel, clock, cup holders, and on certain trim levels, a redesigned navigation display and gauge cluster.
Even with the redesigned headlights, the IS has a face only a mother could love. The spindle grille, which looks bad enough on the cars and even worse when supersized on Lexus’ SUVs, isn’t really helped by the new and massive origami-style air intakes on either side.
But the car does have a great side profile, especially with a body line that sweeps up from under the doors, and seems to pass through the wheels en route to sliding up to touch the edge of the taillights. The spindle shape looks better on the trunk as an “echo” of the front end. The handsome, squared-off chrome exhaust tips are new for 2017 as well.
The event consisted of a long drive on regular roads in one model, punctuated by some track time in all three. I spent my drive time in the IS 200t, which was upgraded with an F Sport Series 1 trim package that brought it to $44,950.
The overall interior layout of all three models is the same, save for the centre console. In the 200t, there’s a dial and buttons to access the infotainment’s main menu and audio settings, with a shallow storage cubby in behind.
In the 300 and 350, a padded armrest guides your hand to a mouse-style button, which Lexus calls Remote Touch, to move between icons on the screen. Perhaps I’d get better with more practice, but I found it tough to accurately control its too-eager movements.
All trim lines include dual-zone climate control, heated seats, auto-dimming mirror and push-button start, but the 200t lacks the backup camera included on the other two. My car’s $4,800 F Sport package added such interior items as a three-spoke sport steering wheel, ventilated seats, power sunroof, and the otherwise missing-in-action rearview camera, along with 18-inch wheels in place of 17-inch ones, auto-dimming exterior mirrors, and blind spot monitoring.
Overall, it looks like Lexus put most of the money into the drivetrain, rather than the cabin. The interior design is handsome enough, but there are a lot of hard, plasticky surfaces that don’t mesh with the luxury brand.
Weirdly enough, on the IS 350 that I drove for a short while later in the day, the two stereo knobs were simply plain, off-white plastic pieces set against a dark woodgrain panel, as if someone forgot to snap metallic covers on top of them. As good as this car performs, the interior doesn’t match up to the price.
Another change for 2017 is that all models receive Lexus Safety System+ as standard equipment, which bundles radar-based adaptive cruise control, pre-collision emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert that will help steer you back if you cross the line, and automatic high-beam headlights.
But there are some curious omissions. Blind spot monitoring is standard strictly on the IS 350, and could only be added to my 200t tester as part of the $4,800 F Sport Series 1 package. On the mid-range IS 300, you have to add a minimum of $6,150 to the base price to get to one of the two available option packages that includes it.
And while navigation is also included on the IS 350, it’s only available on the IS 300 by adding those same pricey packages, and it can’t be added to the IS 200t. Really? I can get a Toyota Camry with a built-in map for less than $36,000, but it’s not available at all on a $40,000 Lexus?
While I could be more impressed with the interior and those missing items, the IS really shines once you get behind the wheel. All three models are sharp and responsive, and are great fun when tossed around the corners.
The greasy bits on all three continue unchanged from the 2016 models. That means a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder in the 200t RWD, cranking out 241 horses and 258 lb-ft of torque; a naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre V6 in the 300 AWD making 255 horses and 236 lb-ft of torque; and that same V6 in the 350 AWD, but tuned for 306 ponies and 277 lb-ft of twist. The four-cylinder is mated to an eight-speed automatic, while both V6 models use a six-speed autobox.
All are available with F Sport packages, but they are primarily trim and do not add any extra power. That said, when equipped with the F Sport Series 3 package, the 350 AWD includes an adaptive variable suspension.
It’s actually been a long time since I’ve been behind the wheel of an IS, and I’d all but forgotten how much fun this car can be. As can sometimes happen with a two- or three-engine lineup, the baby of the bunch turned out to be the star of the show. The all-wheel models stuck in the corners, but the rear-drive 200t tackled them admirably and with a fun little flirt of its tail.
And while the six-cylinder models laid down more power overall, the turbo four got its torque to the tires just a little sooner, and with some 70 fewer kilos of curb weight to move along. While the V6 models are certainly no slouches in either performance or handling, drivers who opt for the base model won’t feel like they’re missing out on much.
With a starting price of $40,150, the Lexus IS is in the ballpark among competitors from the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Infiniti. It’s a good price for how well it drives, but for the money, the cabin could look a little more upscale. The IS 200t should also at least have a standard backup camera, and navigation available as an option, if not thrown in at the starting price.
This mid-cycle refresh adds a few new features, but maintains the model’s best attributes: it’s a sports sedan that lives up to the name, equally capable of smooth highway cruising, or fun in the twisties. It could do with a little more luxury in the cabin to live up to the name, but when it comes to its performance, I’m impressed.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.