The Lexus IS range gets updated for 2017 but can it match its fast-paced German rivals?

What is it?

A cosmetic, material and value upgrade to Lexus’s IS model range. On the outside these changes emphasise a sportier stance while playing a bigger role in smoothing the aerodynamic airflow around the body. Some changes are subtle, like colour coding the headlight washers, while redesigned alloys have a powerful effect on overall appearance.   The Lexus IS was always a striking design but now it packs a bit more substance between those LED light clusters.

What’s it like?

Few competitors manage to bridge sportiness with luxury quite like the 2017 Lexus IS. Ensconced in a driver-focussed cabin, Lexus’s premium fit and finish is in abundance through quality stitching and supple leather caressing every touch point, aided by a contemporary design in a organised fashion. New textures result in fewer finger marks –  a common occurrence on those still-brilliant touch sensitive sliders for the temperature control.

EX and F-Sport models receive a high-definition 10.3-inch screen (up from 7-inch) but even the lower-grade E models are well equipped with LED lights, smart entry and heated/cooled seats.

Buttons on the steering wheel are resized and repositioned for an improved experience while models with the (schizophrenic) Remote Touch Controller get a separate ‘Enter’ button neatly incorporated into the centre armrest. The cupholders are now joined by a little gully that’s perfect for holding cell phones and the Pioneer audio system includes 10 speakers as standard.

Amongst the glut of standard features, there are some items simply not available to Lexus owners; Heads-up display, Lane Keeping Assist, self-parking, wireless charging and hotspot connectivity to the internet. For a price these driver-assist systems are available in rival brands, forcing one to question where Lexus sees itself in a technologically-driven market.

Consider the antiquated foot-operated handbrake for a second and how it juxtaposes this beguiling interior design… there are some conservatively old-fashioned features in the IS, but only once you start scratching beneath the surface.

Lexus has retained its 233kW/378Nm 3.5-litre V6 normally aspirated engine but the slightly less powerful 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo charged engine in the E and EX models feels quicker in day-to-day conditions, especially up at altitude.  The 3.5-litre engine is lazy in the low rpm and despite a throaty sound, should not be marketed as a high-performance engine. The 2.0-litre is by contrast nippy, enthusiastic and has all the fuel saving modcons of a downsized engine.

But here’s the bombshell; you can’t have the muscular F-Sport package with the 2.0-litre engine even though the combination is available in other markets. In a time when new car buyers are demanding choice, the rather restrictive packaging options from Lexus could steer customers away.

Driving the twisty Long Tom Pass in the 2.0-litre EX, I was reminded of how good the chassis is on the Lexus IS. The secret is in its softness – a contradiction to sporty lore – but the way its soaks up bumps helps the body stay neutral and fluid. The F-Sport model comes with adaptive suspension firmness but why bother when the standard configuration is this sweet?  By setting out to create a comfortable, safe and predictable chassis, Lexus has inadvertently created a car that doesn’t need to transmit every pimple on the road’s surface to be rewarding.

Should I buy one?

A shame that the one you really should get is not available but the 2017 Lexus IS remains an underrated car. We do worry that Lexus is slipping quite far behind other German brands in terms of the technology and while that gap is manageable now, it could also rapidly outdate the Lexus IS range.

But as a customer what do you value? While driving the Lexus IS I pondered that very question, coming to the conclusion that perhaps there’s still much to be said for a well-made car that’s not complicated by costly options.


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