2019 Lexus IS Review

2019 Lexus IS - Lexus sport sedan creates own niche


Never rating as a volume leader within the Lexus lineup (and never designed as such), IS (pronounced by sounding out each individual letter one at a time, not combining letters into word form) was born and designed as a sedan with a sporty-coupe attitude.

The first generation IS sedan debuted in the 2001 model year with Gen II launching down the road in 2006. The third-generation effort, of which our 2019 tester is based, arrived for duty in the 2014 model year.

The challenge for Lexus the luxury arm of Toyota was the division already possessed a successful compact sedan, the ES, donning dealerships since the division's 1989 inception when IS entered the fray.  The idea of a second compact four-door within the lineup seemed redundant to a certain extent.

However, sales of IS through the first six months of 2019 totaled 8,362, far from the higher-volume ES with numbers reaching 23,980, but respectable.

The IS continues offering a variety of powertrain choices starting with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo channeling 241 horses to rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.  It's designated as the IS 300 rear wheel drive. The IS 300 all-wheel drive opts for a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 260 horses.

The big boy IS engine remains the 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V-6 promoting 311 ponies (IS 350).  Rear-drivetrains run in time with a six-speed automatic transmission with all-wheel drive selections opting for a six-speed automatic. The electronically-controlled all-wheel drive system automatically varies front-to-rear torque distribution. All engines crave and require premium 91-octane fuel.

New-for-2019 items remain scarce save for a new exterior color (Liquid Platinum replaces Silver Lining Metallic) and triple-beam headlights (a $300 option).  Both are available across four and six-cylinder choices. Also new for 2019, the four-cylinder IS300 comes with a limited number (900) of F-Sport Black Line Special Editions with black vapor chrome wheels, black side-view mirrors and red interior accents.

A rear-drive IS 300 starts at $38,310. Our ultrasonic mica blue IS350 all-wheel drive started a few shillings higher at $44,095. The bottom line ended at $51,875 after factoring a $1,025 destination charge and options.

Of the half-dozen or so options included in our tester, the 'F-Sport' package comes highly recommended.  For a relatively reasonable $2,365 the package includes a 'motion-able' instrument cluster, supportive heated and vented sport seats, five-spoke wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and upgraded suspension.

Also included with F-Sport: an additional 'Sport +' drive mode joining Eco, Normal and Sport.  These allow drivers to specify desired steering response and throttle input via a chrome twist knob between the front buckets.

All Lexus vehicles, IS included, now support the 'can't miss' spindle grille upfront with F-Sport trims donning its own, dedicated fill pattern inside.

Not only is the spindle grille a staple, but all Lexus models include as standard fare a competent list of radar-centric safety nuances branded under the 'Lexus Safety System' umbrella. These include a very handy dynamic cruise control, automatically speeding and slowing down IS during jaunts above 30 miles per hour dependent upon the distance of the vehicle ahead. Lane departure alert keeps IS between road markers preventing an unintended drift into the next lane over while pre-collision systems intervene prior to an impending impact.   Intelligent high-beam headlights sense when to dial back to regular intensity with no driver input.

F-Sport's instrument panel's unique in-motion center ring activated by a 3 o'clock steering wheel push button sends the center orb motoring to the right and upsizes certain multi-information factoids. Unseen but appreciated from behind the wheel, F-Sport's adaptive dampening system and aggressive coil springs helping smooth out pesky pavements below.

Dual chrome-tipped square-ish exhausts adorn the lower back end. A large rear window joins with a stout deck lid with an end uptick creating a spoiler-like flair. Chrome highlights frame side windows.

One instantly senses IS qualifies as a sporty driving experience once positioned behind the wheel and noting the front bucket seating position resides eerily low to the ground. This positioning offers a different perspective than traditional family sedans. The IS delivers a firm ride enhancing road imperfections and delivering mini stomach thrills during elevation changes.

Push-button electronic start comes standard and the circular button locates conveniently up and away from the steering wheel and accompanying stalk interference.

The straight-across, east-to-west black dashboard top is not of the wrap-around variety, but includes multi-levels. Centering the midlevel region is a welcome, stately, analog clock with face and arms flanked by narrow horizontal air vents. Above the clock and indented deeper into the dash, the non-touch multi-display four-color window. Storage opportunities remain minimal.  Locating a good resting spot for cell phones is tricky.  

A big challenge IS faces comes from European luxury automakers with fresher product (Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3-Series), most of which have cycled through a next-generation effort since 2013.The IS specifically and Lexus in general remains late to the Smartphone interactive party since popular Android Auto and Google Car Play are not available in this year's IS.  Pricewise, however, a comparably equipped IS outshines its three key German compact rivals creating a value proposition.  

Remote touch interface returns in2019, so IS owners would be wise setting aside extra practice time to master this sometimes laborious interplay with the non-touch display screen. Between IS's very comfortable, well-bolstered front bucket seats, resides a long narrow, contoured vertical wrist rest comforting the driver's right hand. A square wiggle pad positions ahead of the wrist rest and interacts with the deep-set color screen.  A downward push of the pad acts as a select option while a curser darts around the screen with every pad wiggle and twitch. A couple quick-select buttons reside ahead of the pad allowing fingers to summon the home screen or map. The screen does include a convenient split perspective when ordering up the optional (and larger) 10.3-inch display (part of our $2,845 in-dash Navigation/Mark Levinson audio package).  

Secondary audio and steering wheel buttons help minimize interplay with the remote touch interface. Bushed aluminum twist dials also come in handy to regulate volume and station selections. Climate regulates through the screen and remote touch interface or via a lower dash row of buttons controlling fan speed and direction.  Updating dual-zone temperature changes requires interacting with touch-sensitive vertical bars.

Not to be confused with our optional F-Sport performance package, Lexus launched the high-performance 'F Line' sub category in 2008 to battle similar track-ready designs from rival luxury nameplates. In 2019, two Lexus vehicles offer high-output F line derivatives with V-8 power stoked under hood: the GS F sedan and RC F coupe.

At a Glance

2019 Lexus IS 350

Price as tested:  $51,875

Engine:  3.5-liter V-6

Horsepower: 311

Wheelbase:   110.2 inches

Overall Length:  184.3 inches

Overall Width: 71.3 inch

Overall Height: 56.3 inches

Fuel Economy:  19 m.p.g. city, 26 m.p.g. highway

Curb weight:   3,593 pounds

Powertrain warranty: 70,000 miles/72 months

Assembly:  Japan

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.