A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it but worthwhile update for the third-generation Lexus IS, making it smoother, safer and sexier.
WHAT IS IT?
A mid-cycle refresh for the three-year-old, current-gen Lexus IS - just in time for the nameplate to celebrate one million global sales – focusing on improved ride and refinement, flashier multimedia, an edgier front-end and upgraded active-safety systems intended to flesh out its repertoire in the face of increasing competition.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT?
Because it remains the most competitive Lexus relative to its class, and, until the stunning Lexus LC Coupe launches around May next year, one of the prettiest.
Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Jaguar XE, Infiniti Q50, Volvo S60 and the about-to-launch Alfa Romeo Giulia.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Unlike the flawed and over-inflated Infiniti Q50, the 2017 Lexus IS proves that Japan still knows how to produce an appealing and capable premium-medium alternative to buying European. Underscored by its value for money, but bolstered by an absorbent ride, nicely balanced handling, competitive four-cylinder drivetrains and uniquely edgy styling, the facelifted IS continues to mount a solid argument against buying German.
PLUS: Individual and expressive styling; rear-drive handling balance; decent ride; spritely 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four; excellent eight-speed automatic transmission; superb trim quality
MINUS: Tyre noise; below-par cabin storage; doors lack that German ‘thunk’; average rear-seat room; ageing 3.5-litre V6 isn’t the range-topping engine it should be
THE WHEELS REVIEW
WITH much of the action in the premium-medium sedan segment focused on the latest breed of European entrants, you could be forgiven for dismissing the third-generation Lexus IS.
It’s three years old, after all, and has had just one update during its tenure (a much-needed 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine transplant in September 2015), but unlike the flawed Infiniti Q50, the Lexus IS continues to prove that Japan does indeed offer a viable alternative to the predictability of buying German.
As far as mid-cycle enhancements go, this IS update bucks the trend by hiding the best bits beneath its crisply folded exterior. Beyond its more masculine exterior enhancements – trick new LED lights at each end, a new front bumper and grille, new rear bar with different exhaust outlets, new alloys for Luxury and Sports Luxury models, and two new colours (Deep Blue and Graphite Black) – the 2017 Lexus IS features an extensively modified chassis.
New springs, dampers and anti-roll bars feature in all models, along with new aluminium front suspension arms and revised bushings to “enhance rigidity and yaw response during steering”, as well as revised upper suspension mounts at both ends.
Turbo-petrol and V6 models also get a front ‘performance damper’ mounted between the left and right underfloor braces that is designed to “optimise steering and handling response, and reduce NVH (noise, vibration and harshness)”. And the Lexus IS350 F-Sport and Sports Luxury get variable-gear-ratio steering that reduces the number of turns lock-to-lock from 2.84 to 2.58.
What’s obvious from the outset is that the revised Lexus IS200t F-Sport ($67,480) is a really sweet package. Sharing its retuned adaptive dampers with other F-Sport and Sports Luxury models, the 18-inch-wheeled IS200t’s suspension (in Normal mode) does an impressive job absorbing country-road lumps and bumps, while maintaining consistently well-weighted and accurate steering connection. The only real downside is persistent tyre rumble.
With almost as much torque as the 3.5-litre atmo V6, the 2.0-litre turbo blends seamlessly with its eight-speed automatic ’box, and if you nudge the centre ‘Drive Mode’ controller into Sport, there’s a tangible uplift in throttle sharpness and shift calibration, including intuitive downshifting on twisty roads. Admittedly, the IS200t doesn’t really need a ‘sport’ steering setting, but it’s relatively subtle in its weight increase over the default tune.
Sport+ brings much firmer damping best suited to smooth roads or racetracks, but there’s enough rear-drive balance and sporting suppleness in the IS’s default suspension set-up to support Lexus’s ‘driver’s car’ claims.
We also drove a flagship IS350 Sports Luxury ($84,160), packing a 233kW/378Nm 3.5-litre V6 and eight-speed auto, and discovered it lacks the cohesion of the IS200t F-Sport. Some inconsistency in its steering weighting implies the variable-ratio set-up lacks the crispness of the turbo-four’s steering. And the V6 engine – while respectably brisk (0-100km/h in a claimed 5.9sec) and somewhat characterful – lags well behind the best six-pot donks its rivals offer, especially considering the IS350 Sport Luxury is barely $6K cheaper than a less well-equipped, but much gruntier BMW 340i.
A new grilled-mounted camera enhances the IS’s active safety, adding steering assistance and a vibration alert to the upgraded ‘lane departure warning +’ system, while inside, Lexus claims 15 interior features have been changed.
New trim colours – Nuance Black, Noble Brown and a light-coloured Chateau hue, adding to Dark Rose (red) and another black – highlight Lexus’s beautifully supple leather upholstery, while each grade gets new trim inserts, none of which lift the IS’s quirky interior by any huge measure.
More effective in bringing the IS up to date is a much larger 10.3-inch centre screen (up from 7.0-inches), filling the dash’s top-centre in glorious panoramic colour. It also gets a tweaked ‘Remote Touch’ centre controller with external ‘Back’ and ‘Enter’ buttons, though it’s still a rather clunky system with chintzy screen graphics. It ain’t no Audi A4, put it that way.
And the IS’s cabin has a few other spoilers, including centre cupholders mounted exactly where the front passenger rests his/her elbow, and if you happen to be carrying any drinks, nowhere whatsoever to put a bloody phone! The driver’s centre armrest can also bump your elbow during enthusiastic cornering.
But overall, the Lexus IS is ageing quite gracefully, tyre noise aside. It still looks fit, its seats are cossetting and comfortable, its 480-litre boot is beautifully trimmed and useful, and in terms of standard features for the price, it knocks it out of the park.
The current IS is sized right, too – small and nimble, without severely compromising rear-seat space like the first two generations did – and that’s refreshing in this SUV-obsessed era.
Model: Lexus IS200t F-Sport
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 180kW @ 5800rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 1650-4400rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 7.0sec (claimed)
Fuel economy: 7.5L/100km
On sale: Now