October 5, 2006
The steering-wheel paddles on the Lexus IS are the nicest steering-wheel paddles I’ve ever played with. I’ve tried to figure out just what it is, exactly, about them that I find so appealing, and I think it’s that they’re balanced. They’re just the right size, big enough to be easy to reach (unlike an Audi’s, which are tiny, and like the Lexus’, affixed to the back of the steering wheel), but not so big that they’re intrusive (like a Ferrari’s, which stick straight out of the steering column like giant ears). They’re nicely shaped, and feel good to the touch, with a really nice rubberized texture on the back (BMW’s paddle shifters, for all their efficacy, have moulded-in plastic ridges where you grab them). And they have just the right amount of springiness to them, giving every shift a satisfying sort of drama as the paddles bounce back to their original position with a quality-sounding click.
Ah, if only they weren’t mostly just there for show.
See, the paddle shifters on the Lexus IS don’t control some fancy sequential-shift gearbox; they come with the six-speed automatic. And the Lexus automatic, while one of the smoothest-shifting and most responsive out there when it’s in its automatic mode, really doesn’t allow you that much manual control over it – paddles or not. You cannot, for instance, use the paddles to shift while the lever is in "D", like you can in Audis and Porsches which revert to automatic mode after you haven’t shifted for a few seconds; you have to slide the shifter into the "S" slot to the right of "D" to activate the paddles. Even then, the paddles don’t so much allow you to choose a gear as simply to limit the highest gear the automatic can shift to. When the dash display says, for instance, that you’re in 4, you may not actually be in fourth gear; it means instead that you’ve locked out fifth and sixth. If you’re in fourth, and floor the gas, the transmission will still downshift.
All of this is a little bit too bad, because having actual manual control over the IS250’s 204-hp 2.5-litre V6 would really enhance the driving experience. This is a surprisingly sporty car, and in some ways, quite unlike the buttery-smooth, ultra-refined stereotype that we normally associate with Lexus. The ride is kind of busy: its motions are well-controlled, but you do really feel the texture of the road. The steering is very quick indeed, requiring only a roll of the wrists to tackle even sharp curves. And the brakes are sensitive, almost too much so in city traffic, where you find yourself driving less smoothly than you would hope. Conversely, it’s a hoot on a winding road, where the sharpness of all of the controls makes the compact IS a lively, chuckable car, one that would really benefit from manual control of that automatic.
In the IS250, at least, you can get a manual transmission, which shifts slickly enough, but has kind of long throws. The 306-hp IS350, and the IS250 AWD that I tested, only come with the automatic. While the 350 has enough power and torque to kind of bully its way along any road no matter what gear you’re in, the somewhat less energetic 250, which is over 100 horses down, could use the extra help. The 250 isn’t a slow car by any means, but you do find it working significantly harder than the 350 (or, say, a BMW 325i) during passing manoeuvres or when climbing hills. Most of its power is delivered high in the rev range, and it’s not as quiet as other Lexus engines while delivering that power, with a raspy, kind of angry sound to it when you’re pressing on.
Where the new IS has definitely taken a step forward compared to its predecessor is inside. While the cabin has lost some of its charming character – no more chronograph-style gauge cluster, no ridged dashboard – the standard of the materials is palpably improved everywhere you look and touch, and the build quality is excellent. But while the new IS is larger than the old one, it remains very much a compact sport sedan, with a pretty tight back seat, and not much headroom, even if you’ve got the driver’s chair cranked all the way down. Some nice touches include standard pushbutton starting, an excellent 6-CD stereo, and seats that can ventilate as well as heat. Too bad that some of the ergonomics aren’t the best: the radio controls are split into two separate areas that make them tough to use at a glance (buying a navigation system gets you touch-screen controls, circumventing this problem).
While I’m a big fan of the new IS in its high-performance 350 guise – how could I not be, with all that power, pumped-up looks thanks to a staggered wheel arrangement and a lower stance – the all-wheel-drive 250 leaves me just a little bit cold. It’s a nice-driving, beautifully-made car that’s likely to also be a great ownership experience, if Lexus’ traditionally high resale values and good reliability are here as they usually are. But with a few options, its pricing starts to look just a bit ambitious when lined up against cars like the Infiniti G35X, which offers quite a bit more power and passenger space for about the same money.
The IS250 is a really nice car, and the all-wheel-drive offers you an extra measure of security and safety for winter driving (though arguably a good set of snow tires and a careful right foot would do the same, without the AWD’s attendant raised ride height and thus slightly-awkward stance). But the 350 remains the real star of the line-up, and the car I’d suggest you’d save for if you’re seduced by the Lexus’ nimble size, impressive quality, and sharp styling.
At a glance: Lexus IS250 AWD
Price (base/as tested): $41,900/$46,800
Engine: 2.5-litre V6
Power: 204 hp
Torque: 185 lb-ft
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 10.5/7.6/10.0 L/100 km
Manufacturer’s web site