A funny thing happened since 2015, which is the last time I reviewed a Lexus IS, I bought one myself! After decades of pining, I picked a 2002 IS300 sedan with a manual transmission. I wrote a bit more about the ownership experience on my column over on Oversteer. So when Lexus asked me if I wanted to borrow a new one, I said “of course”. So this ultrasonic blue mica 2017 IS 300 F Sport showed up at my house, I was pretty excited.
And for good reason, it’s a gorgeous car. In a sea of grey and silver, the $595 paint job on this IS stands out in a crowd. “Will the owner of the beautiful blue Lexus IS please report to the concierge desk?”. That didn’t happen, but you could imagine what it would be like. This test car starts at about $40,000; but wait, before we get too far into this new IS 300, let’s take a step back and remember what was so great about the original.
Now, in my original IS 350 review from 2 years ago, I waxed nostalgic about the original IS; but that now that I’ve owned one so I’m much more prepared to compare the progress the IS has taken over 15 years. The short answer is, it’s progressed a lot. There were a lot of things that I liked about the original, first and foremost how it drove. The IS 300 brought us Americans something we hadn’t really had before, a reliable, RWD manual sedan that was fun to drive and reasonably quick. Of course, there were some things I didn’t like about it. Most of those involved some more modern day conveniences that just weren’t offered back in 2002.
Back to the new car, and stay with me here, because this gets confusing. Way back in 2017, the model year of my tester, the IS 300 fit squarely in the middle of the lineup. As you can see to the left, the IS Turbo was still on the “build your IS” menu, it’s not on the 2018 roster. Sort of. So you could get a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder as the base option and then jump up to the IS 300 shown in this article. That nets you V6 power, but less V6 power than the IS 350 like we tested a couple of years ago.
But it gets more complicated, and because as usual my goal here is valuable consumer advice, I have to let you know that I’m testing a car that you can’t buy new in the 2018 Lexus IS lineup. For 2018, Lexus simplified things, there is only an IS 300, which is has a 241 hp inline turbocharged 4-cylinder and the IS350 which, as the name implies is a 3.5L V6 pushing out 311 hp.
Now I’m confused.
So the “2017 IS Turbo” is gone, the “2018 IS 300” is now basically what the “2017 IS Turbo”, the base 3.5L “2017 IS 300” is gone and the “2018 IS 350” is still the same as the “2017 IS 350”.
That makes total sense now, right? Hopefully. Bottom line, I’m testing a car that doesn’t exist anymore; but hey, maybe you can still find a leftover new or, or just buy one used like a normal person.
Back to the review.
While the third generation, with us since 2013, is getting a little long in the tooth, the IS is still a really handsome car. Although I suppose that depends on whether you like the Lexus grill or not. It doesn’t really bother me and I personally think that the IS looks quite aggressive, and more importantly, the proportions are spot on.
Which brings me to the F Sport package. The $3,145 package is very much worth it. It gives the IS just the right level of aggro and makes an attractive car look even better. The darkened spindle grill, more aggressive bumper, updated headlights, and 5-spoke wheels all look great. The mangled New Jersey plate is optional.
Lexus has never had an issue with crappy interiors. They have been dinged for some elements of their interior, particularly the Enform infotainment system. I got a chance to test the latest generation in the amazing LC 500 recently. I will say though, the Lexus system has never really bothered me. I do find that I miss being able to touch the screen, but the mouse-based system just works. The longer you use it, the easier it is. I’ve always loved how Lexus puts it right at hand. Drop your right hand and it plops right onto a wrist-rest more comfortable than anything in your office. You can move the rectangular controller and select what you want on the high mounted screen; Lexus gives you the option to click straight down on the mouse or use a set of duplicate “enter” buttons on the side. Us journalists whine a lot, it’s pretty easy to use.
It’s also got a kickass stereo….uh….dude. The Mark Levinson audio gear, along with navigation, some app stuff, voice commands, and an auto dimming mirror tack on $2835 to the sticker. It’s all very good, but you’ll notice that our sticker price is steadily climbing. More on that in a bit.
I’ll say this up front, this isn’t how I would spec my IS. I prefer the fun of RWD and love the idea of a turbocharged 4-cylinder. So this IS is heavier, and while it has 14 more horsepowers, it lacks the torque punch (which a great band name by the way, you’re welcome) from the IS Turbo which has 22 more ft. lbs. from its 2.0L 4. I owned a 2009 IS250 AWD that reminded me a lot of this car, ours was even blue. It wasn’t fast, but it was more than capable as a daily driver.
But you didn’t come to RFD for “capable”, you came here for fun. The F Sport angle helps you get a bit closer than a normal IS would. With its upgraded suspension and “adaptive variable suspension” you get a bit more fun. Plus, it looks cooler as I mentioned earlier. Out on the highway, I found that the IS300 was more than able to get out of its own way. Merging onto busy DC highways, it got up to speed quickly and touched illegal numbers easily.
During on and off-ramp challenges, there was little drama from the AWD system, but the 225/40R18 and 255/35R18 tires probably aren’t up to your average track day. Braking was solid and straight, but again not quite track-ready. Basically, this is a perfect daily driver for someone who isn’t looking to have the fastest IS.
I alluded to it above, but this isn’t the IS I would spend my own money to own. The allure of the turbo-4 is too strong. Oh, and it gets better gas mileage, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s not cheap though, with all the kit I listed, plus a few items I didn’t (like a $389 rear lip spoiler) the MSRP on this car is $49,679.00. That’s a lot. The more powerful IS350 we tested back in 2015 rang in at $47,840 with mostly the same options.
So while this isn’t the IS I would want, it’s still a solid car. And I will say it again, the F Sport package should be on any Lexus buyer’s radar. It’s more of everything that an enthusiast likes, and at around $3000, it’s a pretty great bargain.
So Toyota/Lexus, let me know when I can try the new IS300, I love a good turbocharger.