Introduction

The 2014 Lexus IS 250 -- along with its buffer brother, the 2014 IS 350 -- faces a difficult task. It competes against polished, entry-level luxury sedans like the BMW 3-Series, Infiniti G37 and Mercedes C-Class, in a segment that depends on social status as much as it does on amenities, driving performance and sharp handling. It's hard to get a foot in that door -- and Lexus has been trying since the IS first came out in 2001.

The 2014 models represent Lexus's strongest, most focused attempt yet to challenge leading rivals. Outside, the IS sedan's updated lines give a bold, purposeful look. Inside, it offers new features meant to excite luxury sedan buyers. After all, entry-level luxury cars are all about giving shoppers a taste of the upscale car world -- and that's easily done with a list of standard features that outshines the competition.

But it's not all about appearance and amenities. Entry-level luxury sedan buyers also look for a top-notch driving experience. Handling has to be razor-sharp. And many of the IS's rivals are tuned for track driving, even if they're unlikely to ever spend a day there.

To that end, there's no doubt the IS still has a little work to do. While it's a big step up from its predecessor, the IS can't quite match the poise of its top rivals on a circuit. But that doesn't mean Lexus's latest sedan fails to provide a great all-around car for shoppers who want a bold new luxury vehicle with a sporty flair.

Comfort & Utility

Just like last year, the 2014 Lexus IS sedan offers two versions: the IS 250 and the more powerful IS 350. Both come standard with rear-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive is optional. For 2014, a new trim level is also added: a sporty F Sport line, which was available last year as an option package. The F Sport trim is available on all IS 250 and 350 models, regardless of drivetrain choice. Last year's high-performance IS-F sedan continues with its prior bodystyle, as do the IS 250C and IS 350C hardtop convertibles.

While pricing hasn't been set, it's safe to assume the sedans won't see a huge jump over 2013 models. That would place the IS 250 around $36,000 with shipping, while the IS 350 will start around $41,000. It also means all-wheel drive will likely add about $2,500 to the sedans' bottom lines.

The base-level IS 250 comes standard with a 2.5-liter V6 that makes 204 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. That powertrain is carried over from last year, as is the sedan's 6-speed automatic transmission. A manual is no longer offered.

The IS 250 includes a long list of standard equipment like a 7-inch display screen controlled by Lexus's center-mounted, mouse-like Remote Touch system. Lexus's Drive Mode Select feature is also standard, giving drivers a choice between Eco, Normal and Sport modes. All-wheel drive models also include a Snow setting. Standard HD Radio gives drivers weather and traffic information without a subscription, while leather seats are an optional extra available in place of Lexus's standard NuLuxe vinyl upholstery.

The IS 350 also carries over its engine from last year's model. That's good news, since it's a smooth 3.5-liter V6 that delivers a muscular 304 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the IS 250, however, the IS 350 adds a new transmission: an 8-speed automatic, said to improve both fuel economy and acceleration.

While the standard IS is plenty sporty, the F Sport trim further boosts the sedan's performance appeal. Standard features include a Sport S+ setting on the Drive Mode Select controller, in addition to well-bolstered front buckets that keep occupants in place during hard turns. F Sport models also include an LFA-inspired gauge cluster that slides the tachometer to the side to reveal an LCD display. Most importantly, the F Sport boasts suspension and steering tuned for optimal performance and handling.

On the road, any version of the IS includes a compliant ride with limited harshness over bumps and potholes. Its ride is certainly cushier than most sport sedan rivals, which will be a big plus for many drivers. The sedan's front seats are well-bolstered and comfortable, whether they're the standard front buckets or the F Sport's chunky sport seats.

Rear seats are also roomy, though several taller testers hit their heads on the sloping roofline. It's a mistake you'll make only once, but it illustrates the IS's smaller size compared to the Lexus ES and GS sedans. That point is further made clear with the sedan's trunk space, which is adequate for the segment but still not enormous. For drivers who want more room, the IS now offers a split-folding rear seat, allowing extra space for large items.

Technology

Many modern luxury cars offer a litany of cutting-edge technology, and the 2014 Lexus IS is certainly no exception. We're highly impressed by the sedan's standard HD Radio with traffic and weather. The system lets shoppers see area traffic even if they don't spring for a navigation system. And best of all, a subscription isn't required, as it is for SiriusXM traffic services.

The center-mounted screen is easy to use once you get accustomed to Lexus's Remote Touch controller. Unlike touchscreen systems in many cars, Remote Touch uses a mouse-like device mounted in the IS's center console that lets drivers "click" on their choices. While it can be frustrating at first, the main benefit is drivers don't have to take their eyes very far off the road to use the navigation system or Lexus's Enform app suite.

That's good news, because many drivers will likely spend a lot of time using Enform. The system includes apps for Microsoft's Bing search engine, as well as OpenTable for restaurant reservations, MovieTickets.com, Facebook Places and Pandora Internet Radio. For shoppers who don't want to take their eyes off the road at all, nearly every Enform app is voice-activated.

The IS also offers two neat tricks sure to wow gadget lovers. One is the aforementioned F Sport gauge cluster, which can electronically move the tachometer to reveal a hidden LCD display. Even more exciting is the capacitive-touch climate controls, which lets occupants slide their fingers up or down to change the temperature. That makes repeatedly pressing "up" and "down" arrows a thing of the past.

Performance & Fuel Economy

With its engine carried over from last year's model, the 2014 Lexus IS 250's straight-line performance is little changed compared to its predecessor. Although it doesn't offer a turbocharger like many rivals, the IS 250 is surprisingly spry. Its 204 hp rarely leaves us wanting more, except in occasional highway passing situations.

Of course, the IS 350 is a little quicker than its 2013 counterpart because of the new 8-speed automatic. But the increase in speed is hardly noticeable in the passenger compartment. The IS 350 is certainly muscular enough for all situations, though drivers may feel like the BMW 335i is a little faster. That's probably because of the 335i's turbocharged power delivery, since the IS 350 actually holds a slight horsepower advantage.

Fuel economy is largely unchanged compared to the current IS. That means the IS 250 will return 21 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway for a combined 24 mpg average - figures that decrease slightly when shoppers opt for weighty all-wheel drive. The IS 350 gets 19 mpg city and up to 28 mpg highway. That's an increase of one mpg from last year's model, no doubt due to the new transmission.

Safety

The 2014 IS comes standard with traction control, stability control and ten airbags. A reversing camera and parking sensors are optional, as is a lane departure warning system that alerts drivers straying from their lane. Other optional safety features include a rear cross-traffic detection system that helps drivers back out of parking spots and a pre-collision system that alerts drivers to an impending accident. If the collision is unavoidable, it applies the brakes and tightens occupants' seat belts.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has put the latest Lexus IS through crash tests. Last year's model received a 4-star overall NHTSA rating that included a perfect five stars in the side and rollover crash tests along with four stars in the frontal impact test. But with the IS's new design, those scores are likely to change.

Driving Impressions

It's true that the IS 350 isn't quite a dynamic match for segment leaders like the BMW 335i in a high-performance, race track setting. But for most shoppers, track driving won't matter. To that end, the IS combines refinement that's close to the Mercedes C-Class with drivability that's close to the BMW 3-Series. It's a compromise of good handling and good ride quality, with a comfortable interior and a tech-friendly cabin thrown into the mix. And while it doesn't have the turbo punch of rivals, its smooth, linear power delivery makes the IS an easy car to drive in all settings.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW 3-Series: Offered as a coupe, convertible, station wagon or 4-door sedan, the 3-Series is the dynamic star among the IS's rivals. Horsepower is similar to the IS, while pricing is higher -- but many drivers pay the premium for its badge and handling prowess.

Infiniti Q50: The popular G37 is redesigned and renamed the Q50 for the 2013 model year. The Q50 doesn't offer an IS 250 competitor, but now touts a hybrid variant which may interest environmentally-conscious shoppers.

Mercedes C-Class: The relaxed C-Class is also updated for 2013 to include a revised interior and new powertrains. While it's not as sporty as the IS, many shoppers prefer the Mercedes brand cachet and its upscale interior. Plus, the turbocharged C250 model packs a sporty punch.

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The best IS really depends on your driving needs. For drivers who don't need power or performance, the IS 250 is more than adequate. Shoppers who need a little more muscle will upgrade to the IS 350, while those who want the ultimate in handling and performance will find the IS 350 F Sport an easy choice. Best of all, shoppers who live in areas with harsh weather or rough roads can get each of these models with all-wheel drive.

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