August 7, 2007
Ottawa, Ontario – Regular readers probably have a sense of how rarely we test cars with manual transmissions. It’s a strange thing, considering that most automotive journalists (assuming most are like me) got into the field because they’re car nuts.
So it was an extra special surprise when I found out I’d be reviewing a Lexus with a manual transmission. After all, the second-generation IS sedan is just the third Lexus that’s been offered here with a manual. The others were the first-gen IS (available with a stick from 2002) and the 1992-1993 ES 300.
I think the fact that the original IS with a manual transmission sold in relatively small numbers reveals that it never really became the BMW 3 Series fighter it was conceived to be. With the second-generation car, Lexus’ goal was to come closer to that benchmark.
The problem is, the thing that makes German cars feel German is almost intangible, and it’s awfully hard to reverse-engineer intangibles. Suffice it to say then, that like the GS 350 I drove in January, this Lexus doesn’t drive like a 3 Series. In the GS’ case, the overall experience translated into a number of negatives, key among those being tight interior space and a sterile driving experience.
Given my test car’s rather basic specs – 2.5-litre V6 (the IS can be had with the wicked 3.5-litre as well), cloth seats with manual adjustments, no sunroof – I didn’t have great expectations for this Lexus, either. But the car made a good first impression. No sunroof meant lots of headroom for me, though taller drivers might not agree. Same goes for legroom: decent, but the transmission tunnel occupies some of the space that might be available in a front-wheel drive car. The front seats, though they lack a lumbar adjustment, are quite comfortable, and managed to please occupants of varying shapes.
The back seat is far from huge, but it’s roomier than the coach accommodations in the larger GS. Like many rear- and all-wheel drive cars, though, the IS’ driveshaft tunnel cuts into legroom for a centre passenger, and the raised centre seat cushion means headroom is at a premium, too.
As mentioned, the seats here are covered in cloth: a rarity for a Lexus, to be sure, but the fabric has a quality feel to it. So does the rest of the interior, where the materials and controls will be familiar to owners of other recent Lexus models.
Trunk space is alright, if a little shallow; the rear wheel wells intrude some, however, and 378 litres of cargo space isn’t much more than many subcompact sedans can carry. Another gripe is that the rear seatbacks don’t fold, leaving just a pass-through for long, skinny stuff.
My tester’s sport suspension – part of the $1,950 X1 option package that also brings 18-inch wheels with 40-series tires – only made the ride harsh over the worst roads. That’s particularly surprising given that low-profile tires like these can often make for a choppy, noisy ride.
Where the IS excels as a sports sedan is in its handling, with crisp turn-in and minimal body roll. What it lacks is the super-solid on-road feel of a 3 Series; the IS just doesn’t feel as substantial as the German sports sedan benchmark.
While a manual transmission is typically the gearbox of choice for enthusiasts, I didn’t feel much love for this car’s six-speed. The shifter and clutch both move with a light, fluid feel, but they’re tough to coordinate, making it hard to execute smooth first-gear launches and 1-2 shifts. Moving from one stickshift car to another always requires some adjustment, and I thought a day or two behind the wheel would have me shifting this car like a pro, but sadly, this wasn’t the case. Getting used to driving a manual BMW takes about two blocks’ worth of driving; I doubt I’d have nailed consistently smooth shifts in the Lexus after two weeks.
The 2.5-litre V6 – the only motor that can be matched up with the IS’ manual transmission – feels well-matched to the car. It’s smooth at any speed and good sound deadening keeps mechanical noises from getting into the cabin. Again, German-car diehards will miss the more engaging soundtrack offered in a BMW or V6-powered Audi.
Other than that, the only problem is that this smaller Lexus motor is a little lean on low-end torque. And despite my reservations about this car’s manual transmission, I’d be hesitant to match this motor to the optional six-speed automatic (which is standard in the all-wheel drive IS 250). At least the motor likes to rev: take things all the way up to the 6,500 rpm redline and there’s useful power to be had right up until the fuel cut-off shuts things down.
Given all that, I think the pick of the line-up is the 306-hp IS 350. I’ve driven several Lexus and Toyota models fitted with that car’s 3.5-litre engine, and have been impressed every time by its smooth power delivery; I can see it being a good fit in this car, even if it only comes with an auto tranny.
There are a lot of BMW references in here, but I think comparisons between the IS and 3 Series are inevitable. And while the IS is a great car in its own right, I think the fact that the best model in the line-up (in my opinion) is the one that comes exclusively with an automatic (manumatic with paddle shifters) transmission speaks to the fact that the IS is still not the 3 Series-fighter that Lexus wants it to be.
What would bring the IS closer to the 3 Series’ level? A better manual transmission would be a good start, and offering that hypothetically-improved manual with the more powerful engine would be a good follow-through. After all, you can get a manual transmission in a 3 Series with 300 horsepower (the 335i) just as easily as you can in the 200-hp 323i.
There’s an unpretentious feel about this least-expensive Lexus that I really like. But without some mechanical massaging, I think many car enthusiasts – this one included – will continue to like the 3 Series more.
Pricing: 2007 Lexus IS 250, 6-speed manual
Base price: $36,550
Options: $1,950 (X1 package of sport tuned suspension; 18-inch wheels and tires; illuminated stainless steel scuff plates)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $40,275
Manufacturer’s web site