The aging starlet of the entry-luxury crowd, the 2013 Lexus IS enters its final year of production in advance of a complete redesign. Three models are offered: the IS 250, the IS 350 and the performance-tuned IS F. The IS 250 and IS 350 are offered as a 4-door sedan or a retractable-hardtop convertible, while the IS F is available solely in sedan format. We cover the IS F in a separate review.
Thanks to its timeless, wedge-shaped profile, the IS looks almost as sharp today as it did when it debuted in 2006. But there's no stopping Father Time. For example, 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.
Still, we think the IS sedan remains one of the best-looking cars of its ilk, and most versions of this car still bring smiles to our faces.
What's New for 2013?
The IS 250 model's manual gearbox is canceled, which means every 2013 IS has an automatic transmission and paddle shifters. Lexus Enform telematics service is added to models equipped with a navigation system and includes App Suite technology, HD Radio and iTunes song tagging capability. The optional F Sport Package is now offered for the IS C convertibles models, and Ultrasonic Blue paint debuts for models with that package. The Lexus IS C also can be fitted with red premium leather seats, a redesigned 18-inch aluminum wheel choice and Silver Lining Metallic paint.
What We Like
Great power in IS 350 trim; high-quality interior; agile handling; available all-wheel-drive and hardtop-convertible variants
What We Don't
Substandard small overlap frontal-impact crash-test rating; cramped back seat; weak and inefficient V6 in IS 250 trim; convertible's tiny top-down trunk
The IS 250 sedan and convertible feature a 2.5-liter V6 rated at 204 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. A direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 rated at 306 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque is standard for the IS 350 sedan and convertible. Both versions of the IS include a 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters that deliver power to the rear wheels. All-wheel drive is optional for the sedans.
Fuel economy for the IS 250 is EPA-rated at 21 miles per gallon city/30 mpg hwy and 21 mpg city/27 mpg hwy with all-wheel drive. The IS 350 is only marginally worse at 19 mpg city/27 mpg hwy, while all-wheel drive drops those figures to 19 mpg city/26 mpg hwy. Both engines require premium unleaded fuel.
Options & Standard Features
The Lexus IS 250 (Sedan: $35,960; Convertible: $43,505) is equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, 10-way power front seats, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power sunroof, and a premium audio system with a CD changer. Although it's getting on in years, the IS has managed to keep up with the Joneses on the technology front. Standard equipment also includes the all-important iPod/USB and Bluetooth trifecta, as well as keyless access with push-button ignition. Convertibles include a power retractable folding hardtop.
The IS 350 (Sedan: $41,215; Convertible: $47,785) adds nothing more than a more powerful engine, larger brakes and xenon headlights with LED accents.
All-wheel-drive is optional for sedans, while any IS is offered with a hard-drive navigation system including a reversing camera and, for 2013, Lexus Enform telematics with App Suite technology. Additional options include 18-inch wheels, parking sensors, dynamic cruise control, heated and cooled front seats, a power tilt-telescopic steering column, perforated leather upholstery, a rear window sunshade, and a top-shelf Mark Levinson surround sound system.
There's also an F Sport Package that includes special 18-inch alloys, a sport-tuned suspension, sporty styling cues and sport-bolstered front seats. Lexus can equip the IS with an Intuitive Park Assist system, too, which steers the car into a parallel parking space while the driver operates the pedals and transmission.
The Lexus IS sedan comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel-disc anti-lock brakes, and eight airbags. The convertible features six airbags (front, front side, front knee). All models include Safety Connect service, which uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get help to you if the unexpected occurs.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tested the Lexus IS sedan, giving it a 4-star overall rating. In testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the IS sedan receives the highest rating of Good in the moderate offset frontal- and side-impact tests, while rear-impact protection and roof strength are deemed Acceptable (the second-highest rating).
IIHS began conducting a new small overlap frontal-impact crash test in 2013, measuring protection levels in a head-on collision with a pole, a tree or oncoming traffic on the tested vehicle's left front corner. In this new test, the aging Lexus IS received a Poor rating, the lowest possible score.
Behind the Wheel
The Lexus IS 250's little V6 engine has been around for a number of years, and most rivals have passed it by. Here's a sign of the times: The Hyundai Sonata family sedan gets nearly as much power from its base 4-cylinder engine. As a result, the IS 250 sedan is hardly quick, but it could be worse. The optional all-wheel-drive system adds a couple of hundred pounds, and the IS C's power retractable convertible roof a couple of hundred more.
That's why the IS 350 is a much better idea. This version of the IS can really scoot, hitting 60 miles per hour from rest in under six seconds. Refinement is superb, which isn't surprising given this engine also sees duty in the fancy GS 350 sedan. We can't really lament the absence of the manual shifter given how well the IS 350 performs.
Regardless of the model chosen, 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. While it's still clearly upscale and the ergonomics are excellent, there's no doubt it hails from a bygone era. Just know that most rivals have considerably more modern cabins.
The standard front seats are comfortable but lack the lateral support we expect in a sporting car. Although the F Sport Package promises "sport-bolstered" front seats, they're basically just the standard seats with 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 cu ft in the sedan, but while the convertible starts with 10.8 cu ft with the top up, that figure plummets to a laughable 2.4 cu ft with the top down. As for the convertible's folding hardtop, we're impressed Lexus figured out how to shoehorn it into what was planned to be a sedan.
Though the 2013 Lexus IS is a small car, the compact dimensions pay off during the daily commute and on winding roads. In either environment, the little Lexus displays an endearing athleticism. Thanks to its rear-drive powertrain layout and well-balanced weight distribution, the IS is more fun to drive than front-drive competitors such as 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 the added agility without advertising it to the world.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A4 -- Though it's based on a front-wheel-drive architecture, the current A4 is great fun to drive; however, its turbocharged 4-cylinder engine can't hold a candle to the IS 350's powerful V6. Most A4 models have Quattro all-wheel drive.
BMW 3 Series -- Recently redesigned, the 3 Series sedan is bigger and softer. Its interior is thoroughly up-to-date, though, and when properly calibrated, remains a blast to drive.
Cadillac ATS -- Cadillac is fielding a genuine entry-luxury sports sedan in the new rear-wheel-drive ATS. Its optional 3.6-liter V6 engine is more powerful than that of the Lexus IS 350 but not as refined.
The IS 250 is a no-go because of its weak engine, so leave that model to cash-strapped buyers looking for a cheap lease payment. Our pick is the IS 350, which despite its age remains a compelling product thanks to its robust V6 and timelessly tidy styling. We'd happily drive one every day, if not for that Poor crash-test rating from IIHS.