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First drive: Larger, sportier 2014 Lexus IS 250

Consumer Reports News: June 24, 2013 12:08 PM

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The redesigned-for-2014 Lexus IS will have to climb some pretty steep hills to prove itself a credible sports sedan, competing against the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Maybe the highest mountain to conquer, though, is the IS's own reputation as a worthy but not-so-sporty runner-up. Can it scale all those heights?

Our initial impressions from driving a couple of early-production loaners point to a definite "maybe." The new IS is a way nicer car than its predecessor. And thanks to a three-inch-longer wheelbase, it's now possible for someone over 10-years old to occupy the rear seats. But will it outpace a BMW 3 Series? That's a very tall order.

Here's what we know so far:

As before, the IS comes in two versions: 250 and 350. These monikers designate either a 2.5- or 3.5-liter V6. Both trim lines can be had with either rear or all-wheel drive. Lexus projects about 80 percent of buyers will choose the IS 250, whose price starts at $35,950.

Lexus has usually hit the mark with quiet, refined, and comfortable cars, but Toyota's luxury brand has had much less success at making them engaging to drive. The latest Lexus GS, however, does manage to put some sportiness on the menu. That the new IS is essentially a scaled-down GS bodes well for its sport credentials.

The IS 250 carries over the same 204-hp V6 and six-speed automatic as the last version. While that powerplant gets the job done, it's not exactly zippy. It is even less so with the added weight of the all-wheel-drive system.

The IS 350 is a different story. It packs a muscular 306 horsepower and has an eight-speed automatic that's little short of magical. If it weren't for the gear indicator on the dash, most people probably wouldn't notice it shift at all.

There's also an F-Sport package, with a slightly different grille and headlights, sports suspension, and funky configurable instruments. Select the Sport or Sport Plus modes, and the arcade-game gauge cluster transforms itself, the transmission becomes more alert, the suspension tightens, and the steering gets firmer and quicker. While those things make the whole performance spectrum more entertaining, somehow the driving experience remains a bit antiseptic. Why? Mostly because the steering fails to communicate much feedback.

Don't fear that Lexus has traded away any of its established virtues to appease a few rabid enthusiasts. The ride can still pass as a Lexus (firm yet supple and controlled) and the cabin stays commendably quiet. Beyond that, the interior is impeccably built but soft-touch materials are rather scant.

As in other recent Lexus models, controls have grown more complicated, with more types of buttons than are stocked by a respectable haberdasher: large and small, round and angular, some with a funny-porcelain color, and an array of fussy little touch-sensitive types. Unfortunately, you'll also find Lexus's pain-in-the-neck, mouse-like unified controller.

Lexus reps are frank to admit that they are aiming the IS at BMW. That hill may be one too many for this car, though, because the latest 3 Series has evolved, as well. It's dialed down its sporty quotient, upped its game in interior space and bespoke upholstering and become a fuel economy champ. We'll find out how the IS truly measures up when we buy our own and put it through its paces. Until then, check out our first drive video.

Gabe Shenhar

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