2015 Lexus IS: Entry-luxury sedan for younger buyers

Associated Press

A showy exterior, V-6 power, nimble handling and the lowest starting price tag of any Lexus sedan are proving to be a winning formula for the Lexus IS compact sedan.

Through the first eight months of this calendar year, sales of the IS four door are up a whopping 77 percent from the year-earlier period. In fact, IS sales of 33,427 in the United States so far in calendar 2015 nearly equal all the U.S. sales that the IS had last year.

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The gains come after a major redesign of the entry-luxury model that targets younger buyers and competes with the longtime entry-luxury leader, the BMW 3-Series.

Even a Lexus price increase for 2015 to $37,475 for the base IS 250 is not likely to break the momentum.

For this starting retail price, buyers get a rear-wheel drive, 2015 IS 250 with a V-6 delivering 204 horsepower. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and there are a host of standard features.

They include power moonroof, push-button start, dual-zone, automatic climate control, backup camera, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, a 293-watt audio system with eight speakers, light-emitting diode running lamps, and turn signals and puddle lights that are integrated into the outside mirrors.

Seat material in the base IS is Lexus' NuLuxe faux leather, but many passengers won't be able to tell it's not leather. It looks and feels that good.

The lowest starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a 2015 IS sedan with all-wheel drive is $40,010 with the 204-horsepower V-6. The lowest starting retail price for the 2015 IS 350, which has the uplevel, 306-horsepower V-6, is $40,990.

In comparison, the base, rear-wheel drive, 2015 BMW 320i sedan has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $33,900. But that's with a 180-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder. It's mated to an eight-speed automatic.

A 2015 BMW 335i with a 300-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic has a starting retail price of $44,700, which is higher than either of the IS V-6 models.

Plus, the base 320i and 335i, which come with BMW's SensaTec faux leather, don't include a standard backup camera. A moonroof also is an extra on the base 320i.

The BMWs can, however, be ordered with manual transmission, while there is no manual offered by Lexus on the IS.

Meantime, the rear-wheel drive, 2015 Cadillac ATS, which is a relative newcomer to the entry-luxury sedan segment, has a $34,210 starting MSRP, including destination charge. This is for a base ATS with 202-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic.

A 2015 ATS with 321-horsepower V-6 has a starting retail price of $42,335.

The IS with either V-6 engine is smallish in size — stretching some 15.3 feet in length from bumper to bumper. This is just 4.3 inches longer than a 2015 Honda Civic sedan.

The IS size, however, is dwarfed by Lexus' bold front face with spindle-look grille that some people liken to the lower part of a Darth Vader mask.

The creases and lines in the sedan's metal on the hood and through the sides make the IS look like it's moving even when it's not.

The styling, while jazzy, isn't cheap looking.

The compact proportions and responsive, rack-and-pinion steering make for agile handling, and there was no problem fitting the test, 2015 IS 250 into compact spaces in parking lots.

Passengers, however, felt vibrations from the road nearly all the time as the test car rode on optional, 18-inch summer tires. There was some road noise, too, that came into the cabin.

The IS 250 was easy to drive on daily commutes as it tucked into breaks in traffic without fuss, braked strongly when needed and maneuvered around stopped vehicles without a lot of effort.

On two-lane roads in the mountains, the IS 250 held its line well in long, sweeping curves, and passengers barely noticed shift points except when the engine downshifted to dig for more power.

The base V-6 that's in the IS 250 has, as its name implies, only 2.5 liters of displacement, which is what some four-cylinder engines have. But this double overhead cam six has variable valve timing to maximize power. It's not overtly sporty, but it's no laggard.

Torque peaks at 185 foot-pounds at a high 4,800 rpm. In comparison, the base BWM 320i generates 200 foot-pounds of torque at a low 1,250 rpm from its turbocharged, 2-liter four cylinder.

The IS with either V-6 is not a fuel sipper, particularly given the car's smallish size. The U.S. government rating for the test IS 250 is 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 on the highway. But the test car, driven somewhat aggressively and a majority of the time in the city, delivered just 22 mpg even though the drive select mode was mostly in Eco.

In comparison, the 2015 BMW 320i with turbo four cylinder is rated at 24/36 mpg.

Premium fuel is required, so filling the 17.4-gallon tank in the IS can cost $64 at today's prices.

Controls and instruments in the IS are well laid out, and the standard audio system put out awesome sounds.

But rear-seat legroom of just 32.2 inches can feel confining, and three adults are a tight squeeze back there.

On the other hand, the IS trunk is a sizable 13.8 cubic feet and compares with the 10.4 cubic feet in the ATS. The IS rear seatbacks also fold down for more cargo space.

With 10 air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes and traction control all standard, the 2015 IS 250 earned an overall five out of five stars in crash tests by the federal government.