6

The Lexus IS is a sleek junior exec that makes for an interesting alternative but lacks a decent diesel option

Find Used Lexus IS 2005-2013 review deals
Offers from our trusted partners on this car and its predecessors...
Used car deals
From £1,390
Sell your car
In partnership with
Powered by

By its own admission, Lexus has been happy to be the luxury brand with the least easily defined image during its time in the UK market, particularly with the IS. It has meant that while you need to be a certain sort of person to want, say, a BMW, anyone might have a Lexus on their shopping list.

It’s more than a little telling that not only do lead characters in shows as gritty as Spooks and Waking The Dead drive Lexus cars, but so, too, do rather more lightweight comedic small screeners such as Martin Clunes in Doc Martin and that most famous of all fictional Lexus – or Lexi – drivers, Alan Partridge.

Huge wing mirrors look a little odd on this sleek design, but do give excellent rear three quarter visibility

These product placements have been made because Lexus has twigged that to want a Lexus, first you must know what one is. And this very anonymity with which Lexus had been so comfortable is responsible for the fact that, in the UK, the marque had a brand recognition of just six percent before this generation of the IS turned up.

Lexus decided that it needed to embrace the automotive mainstream and with this IS, a car that brought with it Lexus’s first diesel – and four-cylinder – engine. Other firsts include a convertible version and a V8 sports saloon to rival the BMW M3.

In the case of the big-selling diesel, is this a big leap for the Lexus faithful, brought up to believe that refinement was the one Lexus immutable? Maybe, but we have seen already that Lexus needs to widen its scope beyond the narrow traditional confines.

Advertisement
Back to top

DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus IS 19in alloy wheels

There’s no doubting that, on paper, Lexus has come properly prepared with the IS to battle Audi, BMW and Mercedes in one of Europe’s most fiercely contested premium segments.

It doesn’t matter whether you look at the multi-link suspension, six-speed gearbox, eight standard airbags or the plethora of active safety equipment, the IS is right at the cutting edge of customer expectation.

In 2003 the same engineers experimented with the previous-generation IS to create the IS430 project car, with a 340bhp V8, adjustable dampers and a six-speed manual

And with those attractive looks, Lexus quality and likely glacial depreciation, the showroom charms are as manifest as they are multiple. But Lexus’s first proper foray into the mainstream has by no means been without its problems, as we shall see in a moment.

The IS range does offer one model outside the mainstream: the V8-powered IS-F, Lexus’s answer to the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. In addition to the beefed-up bumpers and bigger wheels (in this case 19-inch items), the IS-F has a bonnet bulge that makes even the M3’s power dome look inadequate, broader sills and pumped-out front wheel arches with cooling gills.

The front suspension arms and steering knuckles are now constructed from lighter materials to reduce unsprung mass, the spring rates are increased, the anti-roll bars are thicker and the bump stops activate earlier. The IS-F wears thicker and broader brakes (360mm at the front and 345mm at the rear) but, unusually for a car with such driver-focused intentions, it employs electric power steering and not a hydraulic system.

INTERIOR

Lexus IS dashboard

There’s no evidence of cost cutting in the quality of the IS’s construction; nor is there any doubting that it possesses a genuine luxury feel fully in keeping with the price and Lexus badge.

The touch-screen infotainment system is largely simple to use and, at the Lexus base price, comprises all the kit you would expect to be standard and a bit more besides.

Shame the interior doesn’t feel more special, like it does if you’re sitting in the M3 and C63.

However, why did Lexus feel the need to chuck the entire palette of interior materials at the cabin? In the top-spec SE-L model, leather, wood, plastic, brushed aluminium and chrome all play their part in compromising the cohesion of what would otherwise be a very smartly designed and well-executed interior.

The seat and wheel can be widely adjusted for an ideal driving position, from where you’ll find excellent ergonomics and electronically illuminated dials that are paragons of clarity. Interior room? It’s at a premium in the rear of the cabin, but the boot is average for a car in this class.

Much like in the M3 and C63, the hot IS-F’s interior pretty much follows the themes set by the standard car. Dashboard architecture and materials are largely unchanged, save for some faux-metal finish on the centre console. Unlike in the BMW and Mercedes, though, changes to the Lexus don’t amount to serious alterations to the driving furniture. Granted, the IS-F’s front chairs are subtly different from a standard IS’s, but not by enough – they don’t drop low enough and have insufficient lateral support.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus IS cornering

Well, this is unusual. For the first time that we can remember, the desire to boost environmental credentials by Lexus has come at the expense of power and performance for the IS, and you have no choice in the matter.

The IS200d, which replaces the IS220d, retains the same 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine but with changes to its combustion chamber and piezo-electric fuel injectors. It also now has a diesel particulate filter to meet Euro 5 emissions standards. The result is a claimed combined economy figure of 55.4mpg (up from 50.4mpg) and a CO2 figure of 134g/km (down from 148g/km). However, power and torque have also been reduced. The IS200d's 148bhp and 251lb ft are 27bhp and 44lb ft down on the model it replaces.

After repeated high-speed stops the brakes get a little grumbly, but don’t seem to lose their power, nor does the pedal get long.

In urban use, this isn't so much of a problem, because the spread of torque is sufficient for smooth progress. But out of town, the IS200d needs to be worked for its performance and, even then, it is slower than some rivals.

The mainstream petrol choice is a 2.5-litre V6. Despite the impressive capacity and number of cylinders, it produces just 205bhp and a feeble 186lb ft of torque, and then only at 4800rpm. Try anything more pressing than wafting and it really isn’t interested. Switching to Sport mode does improve the situation, but only slightly.

The saving grace in the range is the IS-F. Freed from the refinement and economy shackles of its hybrid applications, this 5.0-litre V8 is far and away the most engaging motor Lexus produces. The delivery itself is relatively peaky. Maximum power arrives at 6600rpm, after the torque peak at 5200rpm, and the red line is at 7000rpm, so this is a high-revving engine. At MIRA’s test track, the IS-F couldn’t quite match Lexus’s acceleration claims, although 5.2sec to 60mph and 12.3sec to 100mph are very respectable figures.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus IS front quarter

The standard Lexus IS saloon offers excellent body control even without sport suspension and well-weighted, precise and direct steering. Blank out the limitations of the engine and transmission and there’s genuine fun to be had. The ride quality is fairly decent but is unsettled over more broken surfaces at lower speeds.

Find a series of bends with a sufficiently long preceding straight and the IS250C convertible reveals a competent but remote feeling chassis. Despite the soft set-up, it grips well and keeps body movements in check, but there is very little enthusiasm or satisfaction on offer.

IS-F’s more muscular add-ons seem to work best under city lights

The F rides just like a regular IS. It feels quite softly sprung but not softly damped. There’s a certain harshness and patter that, much like in the standard car, causes its ride to feel unsettled at any speed, except on the smoothest of asphalt.

So on a demanding road, the IS-F is slightly compromised. It is refined but does not quite control its body movements well enough. If it’s just the poise you’re after, the M3 and C63 deliver more here. The IS-F’s overall chassis balance is very good, however. On smooth asphalt or a race track, it is enjoyable and extremely exploitable. It turns in crisply, and although the steering is not overly engaging, it is accurate and direct.

The IS-F’s brakes are excellent. Their feel and progression are good and they have no problem routinely stopping this 1720kg car on a circuit.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus IS 2005-2013

It’s hard to list the IS as anything other than an also-ran in this department. Lexus's asking price of under around £29,000 for the desirable F Sport trim is barely changed from the price of the equivalent IS220d that came before it as part of a series of mid-life revisions. That makes it more expensive than the new BMW 320d Sport.

In every other respect, the BMW (181bhp, 280lb ft, 61.4mpg and 120g/km) also trounces the Lexus. As does the Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI Sport, even though it is more expensive still. Going in the opposite direction on price, the BMW 318d Sport, although less powerful than the IS200d, is still faster and more economical.

Seats are too much like a standard IS’s. There’s not enough lateral support and they don’t go low enough, especially for tall drivers

The IS can be had from around £25,000 in its cheapest SE guise. All IS diesels sit in insurance group 25, whilst the petrol IS250 sits in insurance group 29, and offers 33.6mpg economy and 194g/km CO2 emissions.

A £9000 premium over the saloon may look rich for a folding metal roof, but it places the IS250C broadly in line with the equivalent BMW or Mercedes. Ignore the top-spec models and look instead at the still-well-equipped SE-I model at under £37,000.

Lexus hasn’t been shy in its pricing for the IS-F. At £58,000, it is more expensive than both established rivals from Mercedes-AMG and BMW M. What does set the Lexus apart is that, typically, it wants for nothing in terms of standard equipment. If the IS-F maintains Lexus’s traditional ownership traits – and there’s no reason to think that it shouldn’t – then running an IS-F should be a remarkably easy, fault-free and fuss-free experience, albeit at a cost in depreciation. After just two years, the IS-F will have lost almost half of its value.

VERDICT

3 star Lexus IS

If you can get past the fact that the Lexus IS200d is competitively outmanoeuvred, it remains an interesting alternative – one that we still find subjectively more satisfying than objective testing would suggest. Even near the end of its lifecycle, it remains an attractive car. The ride and handling mix satisfies more than many modern rivals’, and the transmission on this model is far better than our original IS220d road test car. Sadly, our criticisms at the time of poor rear seat and boot space, plus a relatively unrefined engine, still remain, and are now supplemented by the fact that it feels too slow.

As an alternative to the established premium set, the Lexus IS250C convertible is an interesting addition. That it doesn’t offer the last word in driver involvement is disappointing but entirely acceptable. However, the leisurely performance is not. Likewise, the need to work the engine hard harms economy and emissions. All of these deficiencies might not matter to those living in The OC, but this side of the Atlantic, they could prove more of an issue.

Do away with the electronic assistance and what happens after initial turn-in is very surface-dependent

The IS-F is a credible effort for a company whose stock in trade is luxury and refinement, and there is much that Lexus has absolutely nailed. The V8 powerplant stands comparison with any of its rivals’ and the overall balance of the IS-F’s entertaining and adjustable chassis is wonderful. Those are the basics and they’re spot on. In the end, then, it’s details that set the Mercedes C63 and BMW M3 apart from the IS-F. But they’re the details that separate excellence from mere competence.

Lexus IS 2005-2013 First drives