The Lexus IS is rumoured to be at the end of its life in North America after the 2012 model year with no hint of a replacement in the wings.
Before it drives off into the sunset, let’s take a look at this compact luxury car that for many years served as the entry point to the Lexus line and, in "F" guise, was the first Lexus to boast performance credentials.
The IS first appeared in the 2000 model year as the IS 300 and it received a major makeover for 2006.
Based on a rear-wheel-drive platform used extensively in other markets around the globe the IS broke with Toyota's practice of developing front-wheel-drive cars for every segment.
Its rear-drive platform, compact size and impressive balance resulted in a car that was impressive for its handling prowess, if not its performance or appearance.
The IS was one of the first Lexus models to get what the company has dubbed the L-finesse design motif, now common across the Lexus line.
Its low hood and rising beltline result in a wedge-like stance. In the IS350 guise of my tester, its large (18-inch) alloy wheels and big dual exhaust outlets help provide further attitude.
The interior is full-on Lexus with exceptional fit, finish and attention to detail, although it is a little dark.
Its sport front seats can be adjusted to fit almost any shape and offer exceptional support. The rear-quarters are cramped however, especially in terms of legroom, and are best left to smaller passengers or short sessions.
Choice of models and drivetrains
For 2012 the Lexus IS is available in coupe/convertible and sedan formats with engines putting out anywhere from 204 to 416 horsepower, price tags ranging from $33,000 to $70,000, manual or automatic transmissions and rear or all-wheel-drive – a little something for everyone.
Lexus has a variety of global drivetrain choices to pick from but the marketing department decided the diesels and four-cylinder engines popular elsewhere were not suitable for the luxury image established by Lexus in North America.
The IS was thus equipped with six-cylinder engines in small and larger capacities and a V-8 was subsequently added under the hood of the heavily modified IS-F model.
IS 350 AWD
The IS 350 AWD was new for the 2011 model year. It resides in the middle of the choice range – an all-wheel-drive four door sedan with the larger of the two sixes and an automatic transmission.
Standard equipment includes leather seats, tilt & telescope steering wheel, alloy wheels, dual zone automatic climate controls, 13-speaker audio system with aux and USB inputs and the usual array of power assists.
My test car also had a $7,900 'Luxury with Navigation' package that included a Mark Levinson audio system, driver seat memory, premium leather, heated and ventilated front seats, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, clearance and backup sensors, power rear window sunshade and an HD-based navigation system with backup camera and reverse auto tilt.
The 3.5-litre V-6 engine is a familiar unit, found beneath the hood of numerous Lexus and Toyota products. Silky smooth and silent, it produces 304-horsepower in this guise, more than enough to propel this compact sedan with authority, either from rest or while passing or climbing long grades.
The smaller 2.5-litre engine produces 204-horsepower, the hot-rod IS-F’s V8 416.
The all-wheel-drive system mandates the use of a six-speed automatic transmission whereas the smaller six gets a five-speed and the V-8 an eight-speed.
Lexus says the IS stands for "Intelligent Sport" and from the outset that was the image earned by the little rear-driver. It has the usual Lexus level of fit, finish and material quality, but an impishness not otherwise associated with the brand.
It can indeed play the Lexus card with a smooth, refined and quiet demeanour. But if you mistakenly, or purposely, arrive at a corner with a good turn of speed, the steering and suspension respond with a most un-Lexus-like alacrity.
The all-wheel-drive version loses a little of that ""light on its feet" feel, exhibiting more understeer than the rear-drive versions. But it allows greater year-round flexibility thanks to winter-friendly traction from all four wheels.
One look at tire sizes and you can tell the engineers were interested in retaining a balanced car – the 40-series tires wrapped around the rear alloy wheels are 245-mm wide while those up front are 225-mm wide.
Aiding and abetting this prowess in the twisties is a rock-solid platform. It may be old by industry standards, but it has aged very well indeed. With all this talk of handling I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the IS350 provides Lexus-like supple and quiet ride as well.
Although I was surprised by the level of road and tire noise that intruded into the passenger compartment.
The combination of more than 300-horsepower and a relatively svelte mass of 1680 kg (3700 lb) is rewarding if you are the type to push the right-hand pedal a little further and longer and enjoy roads with lots of corners.
Lexus has provided a pair of shift paddles at the back of the steering wheel so you can feel more involved. But the shifting algorithms programmed into the control unit are so well done you usually find yourself in the right gear when you need it without shifting for yourself.
The IS will be missed by those who appreciate a nimble, luxurious and all-but-invisible sedan. If that description fits you, check one out while you still can.