Pros: Great V6 power in IS 350 trim, high-quality interior, agile handling, available all-wheel drive and hardtop-convertible variants.
Cons: Yesterday's interior, cramped back seat, weak and inefficient V6 in IS 250 trim, convertible's tiny top-down trunk.
The 2012 Lexus IS is the aging starlet of the entry-level-luxury crowd. Thanks to its timeless wedge-shaped profile, the current IS looks almost as sharp today as it did when it debuted way back in '06. Moreover, whereas the IS used to be just a sedan, there's now a glamorous hardtop convertible in the mix as well. And although the IS remains largely unchanged under the skin, the 306-horsepower IS 350 is fine just the way it is, as it's got one of the best V6s in the world.
Ah, but there's no stopping Father Time. Look closely at the spec sheet, for example, and you'll see that the IS 250's V6 is hopelessly outclassed by current standards, adequate though it may have been in the mid-2000s. Similarly, while compact back seats were more the norm back then, numerous rivals have since added appreciable rear-passenger space, leaving the IS alone with its coupe-sized rear quarters. Another sign of age is that Lexus's "Remote Touch" mouse-style controller is not available in the IS. The optional hard-drive-based navigation system uses an older touchscreen interface instead.
Still, the IS 350's V6 always brings smiles to our faces, and we think the IS sedan remains one of the best-looking cars of its ilk. There are plenty of younger options, but the wizened 2012 Lexus IS isn't too far past its prime.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Lexus IS is offered in two main trim levels that are differentiated by engine: the IS 250 features the 2.5-liter V6, while the IS 350 gets the 3.5-liter V6. Each trim level is offered as either a four-door sedan or a retractable-hardtop convertible.
Standard features on the IS 250 include 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a manual tilt-telescopic steering wheel, 10-way power front seats (with standard heating on AWD models), leather upholstery, electroluminescent gauges, a trip computer, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a 13-speaker (eight in the convertible) audio system with a six-CD changer and iPod/USB connectivity.
The IS 350 steps up to standard xenon headlights with LED accents, larger brakes and a smog filter.
Optional are 18-inch wheels, parking sensors, dynamic cruise control, heated and cooled front seats, a power tilt-telescopic steering column, driver memory functions, perforated leather upholstery, a 14-speaker (12 in the convertible) Mark Levinson audio system and a hard-drive-based navigation system with a seven-inch touchscreen interface, a rearview camera and voice-command functionality.
There's also an F Sport package for RWD sedans that includes special 18-inch alloys, a sport-tuned suspension, sporty styling cues and sport front seats with grippier side-bolsters. The convertible can be outfitted with various F Sport accessories, but there's no F Sport package per se.
The IS's interior is plenty luxurious, featuring rich-feeling materials throughout. Lexus's standard electroluminescent gauges are as crisp as ever, but the IS gives them a sporty twist thanks to numerals that follow the gauges' curvature. We're torn about the dashboard, however, because while it's still clearly upscale and the ergonomics are excellent, there's no doubt that it hails from a bygone era. Just know that most rivals have considerably more modern cabins.
The standard front seats are quite comfortable but lack the lateral support we expect in a sporting car. Although the F Sport sedan advertises "sport-bolstered" front seats, they're basically just the standard seats with some grippy microfiber and leather inserts. We prefer the optional perforated-leather upholstery.
If we had to pick the IS sedan's Achilles' heel, the back seat would be a strong candidate, as it's so cramped that lanky rear passengers will feel like they're in a coupe. The convertible's rear quarters are even tighter. Trunk space is an average 13 cubic feet in the sedan, but while the convertible starts with 10.8 cubic feet with the top up, that figure plummets to a laughable 2.4 cubic feet with the top down.
As for the convertible's folding hardtop, we're impressed that Lexus figured out a way to shoehorn it into the originally sedan-only IS, even if it results in a Sir Mix-a-Lot rear end. The top goes down in a pretty quick 21 seconds.
Although it's getting on in years, the IS has managed to keep up with the Joneses on the technology front. Standard features include the all-important iPod/USB and Bluetooth trifecta, and we were surprised to find push-button ignition on that list, too. The available hard-drive-based navigation system is an up-to-date offering as well; the IS used to have a slower DVD-based system. However, the IS's nav system uses a touchscreen interface instead of the mouse-like Remote Touch controller found in the latest Lexus models, and the seven-inch display lacks the color and clarity of, say, the new GS sedan's widescreen display.
The navigation system includes the Enform telematics suite, which lets you either plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the downloadable Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the IS's navigation system.
Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, isn't available in any Lexus for the 2012 model year.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The IS 250 sedan and convertible start with rear-wheel drive and feature a 2.5-liter V6 rated at 204 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard. Optional here and standard on the all-wheel-drive IS 250 (sedan-only) is a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. This little V6 has been around for a number of years now, and pretty much every rival has passed it by. Here's a sign of the times: the Hyundai Sonata family sedan gets nearly this much power from its base 4-cylinder engine. The IS 250 is hardly quick even in RWD sedan form, but it could be worse: to wit, the all-wheel-drive system adds a couple hundred pounds, and the convertible a couple hundred more.
The IS 350 is a much better idea. Boasting a direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 rated at 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, the top-shelf IS can really scoot, hitting 60 mph from rest in under 6 seconds. Refinement is superb, which isn't surprising given that this engine also sees duty in the fancy GS 350 sedan. The sole transmission is that six-speed automatic with paddle-shifters, but we can't really lament the absence of the manual shifter given how well the IS 350 performs. All-wheel drive is again offered only in the sedan.
Fuel economy for the IS 250 is EPA-rated at 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway with the automatic transmission, 19/28 mpg with the manual and 20/27 mpg with AWD. The IS 350 is only marginally worse at 19/27 mpg, while AWD drops those figures to 18/26 mpg.
The 2012 Lexus IS sedan comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and eight airbags (front, front side, front knee and full-length side-curtain). The convertible features six airbags (front, front side, front knee). All models include Safety Connect, which uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get you the help you need if the unexpected occurs.
The government has not crash-tested the IS using its latest methodology. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the IS sedan its highest rating of "Good" in frontal-offset and side impacts, while rear-impact protection and roof strength were deemed "Acceptable" (the second-highest rating).
The 2012 Lexus IS is a small car, and that pays off on winding roads, where the little Lexus displays an endearing athleticism. Thanks to its proper rear-drive dynamics and 53/47 front/rear weight distribution (52/48 for the convertible), the IS is more than a match for front-drive wannabes like the Acura TSX. It's too bad you have to get the gaudy F Sport package if you want a sport-tuned suspension, though. Some people might like to have the added agility without advertising it to the world. The IS is a strong choice for the daily commute, too, as the firm dampers nonetheless manage to blunt most impacts, and road and wind noise are kept to a minimum.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A4 - Though it's based on front-wheel-drive architecture, the latest A4 has been whipped into shape by Audi's handling specialists. It's great fun to drive, though it can't hold a candle to the IS 350's acceleration.
BMW 3 Series - Redesigned for 2012, the 3 Series is bigger and a bit softer than before. Its interior is thoroughly up-to-date.
Infiniti G - Perhaps inspired by the IS 250, Infiniti has lately been selling its G sedan in toned-down G25 trim with a 2.5-liter V6. Of course, the 330-horsepower G37 is still around in both sedan and convertible form to compete with the IS 350.
The IS 250 is a no-go because of its weak engine, in our opinion, and we're not fans of the convertible's styling. But the IS 350 sedan is still a compelling product thanks to its robust V6 and timelessly tidy styling. We'd happily drive one every day.