Photos copyright ©2011 Jeff Glucker / AOL
The Lexus IS 250 is instantly familiar, yet ever-so-slightly different for 2011. The reason is that little has changed on the exterior, with a few minor exceptions. Some updates are hard to find, while others are immediately clear. The front bumper and grille have received slight tweaks, while subtle changes have been made to the foglight area and lower fascia opening, which benefit from sharper cutouts. In back, the IS 250 wears new taillamp lenses and redone exhaust tips.
By far, the most noticeable change has occurred out front, where a pair of bright LED eyelids have taken up residence under the swept-back headlamps. All of these changes give the 2011 Lexus IS 250 a smattering of sprinkles on an otherwise rather bland landscape of sheetmetal. The overall theme is conservative, but the new LED running lamps imbue Lexus' most affordable sedan with a bright flash of modern style, displayed brilliantly against our tester's Tungsten Pearl paintwork.
That subdued exterior style continues on the inside, as clean lines perform in concert with the surprisingly airy interior cabin. The pleasing to the eye Light Gray color scheme hangs in the background like a briefly foggy coastal morning. Against the sea of gray sits a set of bright white-faced gauges, which are easy-to-read and rather sharp, with a thin blue line underlining the ambitious 160-mile-per-hour display.
Ambitions aside, we had no desire to press that speedo into serious use. Why? Because the seats were just too darn comfortable for us to care. The perforated semi-aniline leather front thrones of our tester offered both heating and cooling features, thanks to the $2,195 Luxury Package Value Edition. It may be a bit crass to call this option grouping a "value" when it costs over $2,000, but the package does include wood trim, the aforementioned LED running lights, power everything (that wasn't already), a rear sunshade and rain-sensing wipers.
Should you require the use of those intelligent water removers, fret not, because this particular IS 250 is equipped with all-wheel drive. Though the AWD gubbins add nearly 200 pounds to the curb weight (3,651 pounds), the IS 250's small, 2.5-liter V6 remains surprisingly entertaining. We expected a droning bore of an engine coerced into working far harder than it wanted. What we found was a mill that pushed the whole works up to speed more quickly than we anticipated.
The engine produces 204 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 185 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Those numbers sound low in a world filled with 400-horsepower daily drivers (including the brand's own high-performance IS F
model) yet the IS 250 AWD simply rears back and moves at a pace capable of holding our interest. Push it above 3,500 rpm and it even begins to clear its throat something approaching a sense of authority.
The 2.5-liter is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, which features steering-wheel mounted paddles for manual shifting. This may be Lexus'
entry-level car, but the shifts could be a few degrees smoother – even if the IS represents the brand's sportier side. While we were hoping for less I-just-got-my-license and more of a Sade-like smooth operator, the setup didn't oblige. The paddles only serve to nudge the drivetrain back into sporty, slightly roughneck territory, but unfortunately they don't respond quickly enough to make the leap entirely.
This baby Lex comes across as confused in a few other areas as well. A bipolar effort, the IS 250 suffers from overboosted steering and mushy brakes. When driving, those factors make us think the IS 250 is pining to be a true luxury sedan, yet the ride, while smooth, is stiffer than we'd expected it to be. Vigorously bouncing over a rough section of Southern California tarmac makes one think the IS has changed its mind, suddenly wanting to be a sports car. It's a little confused, and so are we.
At the end of the day, the slight redesign for 2011 doesn't help a conflicted vanilla offering stand out in a display-case full of capable entry-level luxury sedans. The Lexus IS 250 AWD's $35,775 base price is on par with its classmates, but fails to stack up as well in other areas. The Infiniti G25x
is less costly ($34,900) and offers a more engaging driving experience, though its interior falls short. For $34,500, you might find yourself in a 2011 Audi A4 Quattro
, with its top-shelf all-wheel-drive system, 7 more horsepower, 73 more pound-feet of torque available and better fuel economy ratings (21/31 miles per gallon versus the Lexus' 20/27 mpg). The 2011 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic
starts at $37,900 and makes more power, but is only rated at 17/24 (an updated 2012 model is just around the corner). We could add the Lincoln MKZ
, BMW 328i xDrive
, Cadillac CTS
and Acura TL SH-AWD
to the list of competitors to further muddy the waters.
The entry-level luxury sedan category is chock full of viable options and the 2011 Lexus IS 250 AWD is a perfectly acceptable (if run-of-the-mill) choice. The styling is conservative, the driving dynamics are a mixed bag of sport and luxury, but the engine is better than we anticipated. It's priced exactly where it should be and, were you shopping in this segment, you wouldn't be embarrassed to put one in your driveway. And yet... while we'll happily concede that vanilla ice cream is enjoyable from time to time, we can't help but think that Audi, BMW, Infiniti and Cadillac buyers are paying about the same to enjoy all 31 flavors every single day.