Review and road test of the Lexus IS (2010 - 2013)
There are used cars and there are Lexus used cars. If you really want to take the stress out of a used car purchase, it's easily done by choosing the Lexus IS. In facelifted second generation guise, the IS morphed into a car that offered its own unique blend of talents, shifting subtly away from trying to copy its German rivals. It's one of those rare executive cars that is best bought with a petrol engine, there's a rare but interesting convertible option and a thunderous IS-F sports flagship with a 5.0-litre V8 and 417bhp. The IS never sold quite as well as it deserved but here's how to pick up a used bargain.
(4dr saloon 2.2-litre diesel, 2.5-litre petrol [base, SE, SE-L, Sport])
If you want a compact executive saloon - something like a BMW 3 Series, an Audi A4 or a Mercedes C-Class - but are fed up with these typical German alternatives and want instead to find something equally stylish and prestigious on the used car market that's just that little bit different, later versions of the second generation Lexus IS offer a very interesting option. Here's a car that's beautifully styled, robustly built and flawlessly reliable with a dealer network that's routinely steeped in praise by every customer satisfaction survey going.
But if all of that is true, then why didn't this facelifted second generation version, launched in 2010, make more of an impact? Is this Lexus merely a second tier operator destined to gaze longingly up at the top table along with assorted Alfas, Volvos and Volkswagens. Or is the reality that this IS remains this market segment's best kept secret, a car that would be capable of breaking the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 monopoly if only more people knew about it? The truth is a bit more complex.
The Japanese brand has certainly tried very hard to put its product on the map, though you can't help wondering whether the effort has always been channelled in the right directions. In the case of this improved second generation IS, there are, after all, two smart but minority interest halo models - a V8 IS F super saloon and a pretty IS250C convertible - but nothing in the way of the kind of estate and coupe body styles that competitors offer. Nor is there much choice under the bonnet, with only single petrol and diesel choices at mainstream level.
With this car though, Lexus was determined to make the most of what it had, hence in the case of the second generation IS a far reaching package of changes introduced at the end of 2010 that brought us the smarter, cleaner and more cost-effective car we're looking at here. It properly developed a second generation model recipe that went all the way back to 2005. And it introduced a huge raft of changes, from styling to the diesel engine that powered the newly created IS200d diesel variant. A value-packed IS Advance trim level was introduced at the start of 2011 which proved relatively popular and at much the same time, the top IS-F super saloon got a limited slip differential and its emissions were dragged into line with Euro5 standards. An all-new Lexus IS model was announced in 2012 for a dealer roll out in spring 2013.
What You Get
This remains a very good looking car but try imagining it wearing an Audi or BMW badge. It's quite impossible. Post-2010 IS models received slight changes to the rear lamps and to the high intensity discharge headlights, which were tweaked to feature trendy daytime running lamps and flank a smarter front grille. Plus the body kit offered on F Sport variants looked even more dynamic. Otherwise the eye-catching 'L-finesse' design theme that this second generation IS model started out with in 2005 remained intact in these later cars. It's a very taut, muscular looking design with origami-sharp swage lines and very painstakingly finished detailing. The overall effect is sporty and unapologetically Japanese. It's also beautifully built: the gap between bumpers and adjacent body panels is just 0.35mm for example.
Inside, the interior is also constructed with a typically Japanese attention to detail. That means a mix of quality materials; leather, wood, plastic, brushed aluminium and chrome with customary Lexus quality but without the integrated look and feel of German rivals. Technophobes will welcome the absence of complex computer control interfaces - just an easy-to-use colour touch screen - and general ergonomics are sound. Though it's easy to get comfortable in the front, rear seat space is at much more of a premium - but then this isn't a class of car noted for looking after rear seat passengers. You certainly won't be wanting to carry more than a couple of adults back there. The 378-litre boot isn't huge either but it's pretty much the kind of size you'd expect for this class of car.
What to Look For
You're buying a nearly new Lexus and you want to know what to look for? Look for your neighbour looking a bit jealous, but aside from that there's not a lot to look out for. Build quality is very good and dealer backup second to none. Check for a fully stamped-up service record and check the hood mechanism on IS 250C models. The IS-F requires a bit more of a run over. Tyres and oil servicing are two things you should certainly check for and also make sure you don't have a whining differential. Don't worry about road noise. They all do that.
(approx. based on 2011 IS250 SE) An exhaust system on the IS250 less catalyst is around £900 and front brake pads are £80 a set. An alternator is £400 and a replacement starter motor £200.
On the Road
Climb into an IS and you feel like you're climbing into a £20,000-£30,000 car - which isn't always the case when you're buying at the bottom end of the compact executive sector. That's very Lexus-like but the diesel rumble you get after pressing the large 'Start' button in an IS200d very definitely isn't. You expect a V6 petrol purr from a Lexus, even if you buy one with hybrid power - and indeed that's exactly what you get in our favourite mainstream IS model, the IS250, its silky-smooth 205bhp 2.5-litre V6 matched to one of the world's smoothest automatic gearboxes. In the IS200d though, the pursuit of lower running costs means you must trade those virtues for those of an engine originally developed for Toyota Avensis and Verso models.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, it's not quite as refined as maybe you'd hope but it's certainly restrained enough for comfortable high speed cruising. To improve fuel consumption and emissions, Lexus cut the power of this unit from 175 to 148bhp in later IS models like the ones we're looking at here, so in this case, there's less pulling power than earlier diesel IS models offered, 340 rather than 400Nm. Still, sixty from rest is still dispatched in 10.2s on the way to 127mph, which is probably about as fast as most potential buyers will want to go. It's a performance return very similar to that of Lexus' other relatively affordable offering, the hybid-petrol powered CT200h, which costs around the same as this IS200d. It'll be interesting to see which used market buyers prefer.
If you can cope with the higher running costs of the petrol-powered IS250, the rest to sixty sprint takes 8.5s on the way to 140mph, though it's a unit that does have to be worked hard to deliver its best performance. The IS250C convertible model shares the same petrol engine, but its extra weight makes it slightly slower, 0-60mph taking 9.5s on the way to 130mph. The 5.0-litre V8 IS F super-saloon in contrast, storms through the sixty barrier in 4.8s on the way to 168mph.
So, V8 power aside, there are just single petrol and single diesel engine options. It's not the kind of choice you'd expect from this class of car but fortunately, this IS does have more definite appeal in other areas. Fast steering and limpet-like grip make it a fine machine to hurry along in, though it's a pity that diesel drivers don't get an automatic gearbox option. The multi-link suspension - especially on F Sport-trimmed models - is firm and rather un-Lexus like, which is great for spirited driving but isn't quite as absorbent as you might expect at lower speeds on poor surfaces. As for refinement, well aside from the diesel rumble, it's impressive and the IS250 petrol variant is class-leading in the outstanding peace and quiet of its cabin.
Is the Lexus IS the best car in the compact executive division? That depends on how you define 'best'. If you consider 'best' the most reliable, well finished and best value car then yes, maybe it is. Clearly the market has voted with its wallet in favour of the BMW 3 Series but if you're looking for a beautifully-built bargain that still feels relatively modern, it's hard to do much better than the IS, particularly one of these later ones. The diesel engine is this model's Achilles heel, so go for the IS 250's petrol unit and enjoy one of the smoothest powerplants in its class.