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2011 Lexus IS 250 AWD Road Test

Is the Lexus IS 250 AWD as good as it looks?

What It Is/Who It's For: The IS 250 is the young professional's entry-level, sport-luxury sedan.
Best Thing: As sexy now as it was seven years ago.
Worst Thing: It's not a sporty sport-sedan.
Snap Judgment: The IS 250 AWD sport sedan is short on "sport" and "sedan," but offers tempting buy-in to Lexus brand.

Introduction

It's a Friday evening in late September and I'm stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. I've got the moon roof open and the windows down. The weather is calm and cool, and a perfect late summer sunset hangs in the rearview mirror. My loaner for the weekend and the subject of this review -- a 2011 Lexus IS 250 all-wheel drive -- is not moving, but it's hardly quiet.

Perhaps it's the Hair Nation power ballad blasting from the SiriusXM satellite radio that awakens me to my surroundings (and not better taste), but for whatever reason, as I'm inching closer to the weekend, I become conscious that other people are people-watching me.

It dawns on me that I am, or may be, the target audience. I'm a young professional; I'm aware of the status that comes with the Lexus name; I enjoy an enthusiastic daily drive; I love the sporty exterior styling; and I can't afford a higher end model. But is this an accurate assessment of who the IS 250 is for? Is it really a sporty car, a luxurious car, or both? And, where did this newfound self-consciousness come from?

Safety and Technology

The IS line starts at $33,595, but our test car, equipped with all-wheel drive, begins at $35,775. That car, however, is not how ours arrived. We received the Luxury Plus Value Edition package, a $2195 option which includes wood interior trim, a power rear-sunshade, rain-sensing wipers, and LED daytime running lamps. For an additional $2465, we sampled the optional Navigation System with backup camera. That puts our price-as-tested, entry-level Lexus at $41,947. That's some serious coin for what is, essentially, Lexus' most accessible sedan.

The IS 250 AWD comes standard with electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, which controls front to rear brake force, enabling a more responsive anti-lock brake system; collision notification, which, in the event you are involved in an accident, or if your airbags deploy, will immediately contact an emergency response center; a LATCH child restraint system, and multiple front, rear, curtain, and knee airbags. Other features include a tire pressure monitor system, a first aid and tool kit, a stolen vehicle and emergency assist button, and a one-year trial subscription for Lexus' roadside assistance. Aside from the roadside assistance, these federally mandated features are common to most cars since about 2008.

Our $2465 Navigation System option also includes destination assist, Lexus' 24-hour live response center for location directions and recommendations (Zagat-rated destination and dining); a parking assist option with a fancy backup camera, enabling safe parking in tight or cramped areas. Unfortunately, this $500 option becomes an almost required no-brainer since outward- and rearward-vision are unacceptably low.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the IS line as Good -- its highest crash test rating -- for frontal offset and side impact crash tests, and Acceptable in roof strength tests. The IS ranks toward the bottom of the middle in its segment, according to IIHS.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Commute

The 405 and 22 freeways are notoriously bouncy, and I've got 43 miles of them each way. This stretch of road offers high-speed, banked bridge extensions, perpetual lane closures, construction overhauls, and a tarmac minefield of craters and hastily paved patch jobs -- plus plenty of traffic. I usually drive side streets before entering my favorite on-ramp, a near 360-degree loop that throws you into the middle of traffic. It's a great marker for road feel and a car's merging prowess. But the IS 250 AWD is a mixed bag. Its 17-inch wheels are fitted with grippy, all-season tires, and the all-wheel drive system comes alive when cornering. Yet the 204-horsepower 2.5-liter V-6 struggles to push the IS 250 to freeway pace. It's not slow, but it is underwhelming.

With a comfortable ride, though, we're willing to overlook modest power on a long commute. Unfortunately, the IS 250 AWD rides harsh, due mostly in part to the short distance between the front and rear wheels. A short "wheelbase" accentuates wheel hop, and our tester displayed the kind of bounce that many would find jarring. And for a luxury sedan, the suspension felt unsettled, its too-firm ride a joy kill. Mostly. On a weekend trip to the mountains, I drove State Route 91 through the Santa Ana Canyon (a four-plus lane freeway through a canyon, mind you). My kids had a great time in the backseat vocalizing a steady "uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh" staccato-vibration for an hour of endless enjoyment. I wasn't as cheery up front.

Worse yet, the six-speed automatic transmission also leaves much to be desired. In regular Eco mode, the IS 250 is smooth at low engine speeds in and out of traffic at freeway speeds, and the lower the engine speed (or rpm), the better potential mileage. But in stop-and-go traffic, the first- and second-gear up shifts are jolting, too frequently shifting at a low rev range that prohibits acceleration while the traffic speeds away. Stomp the gas pedal to catch up with traffic, and your neck lurches into the seat back. Try a more subtle approach by feathering the gas pedal, and your frustrations increase with the lack of response from the engine. Sport mode, though not as efficient with fuel, should remedy this by allowing the driver to shift as smoothly as he is able. Unfortunately, the transmission decided it again knew best -- to the detriment of our necks.

Feature-wise, the IS 250 AWD immerses the driver in a canopy of perforated leather. We loved sitting in the seats as opposed to on them. From the driver's position, the touch screen navigation display is accessible, and offers sharp and well-lit graphics. And the powerful 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system envelops the driver within the IS 250's lush, acoustical charm. These are the features of a smart sedan, but as a luxury sedan, the IS felt cramped and intrusive. For example, more than one editor complained about the bulging lump on the driver's side floor, an unfortunate necessity to accommodate the car's all-wheel drive system. Our knees and calves weren't the only things cramped, either. Those stunning exterior looks mean poor rear visibility -- and from a heightened seat position that had some of us looking down the windscreen instead of out. But like a broken-in pair of flip-flops, the IS 250's interior conforms to your body. If you can stand the poor visibility, the hump in the floor, and the lackluster power, it's a good bet many will find Lexus' trademark silence rewarding after a long day in the office.

The Grocery Run

On appearances alone, the IS 250 looks like a mid-sized car. But judging by the exterior dimensions, the IS 250's interior space is misleading. In fact, the IS lineup is surprisingly labeled "sub-compact," a measurement based on interior volume. For example, consider the trunk. Its 10.8-ft of cargo space is 1.5-ft less than a Toyota Corolla, a difference the size of a suitcase. For the single types, this may not be an issue, as long as Ikea and yard sale arrangements can be made with another vehicle. But for a small family of four, there likely is not enough room for a stroller and the contents of a trip to Costco.

In the back seat, you'll have no problems strapping two children into their child seats using the LATCH system. After a short drive, though, you'll find dirty footprints on the plastic front seatbacks, which at least wipe off easily. For adults, this translates into nonexistent knee room. Backseat viewing is limited, too. Since the IS 250 is a small car with a low roof, high door-sills, and narrow windows. Instead of looking out of the backseat, smaller kids can only see up. This issue resonates in front as well: it's cramped. Getting in and out for multiple errands, you're constantly reminded of the all-wheel drive housing at your feet, and the pod-like driver's enclosure impedes rear visibility.

Around town, the IS 250 AWD is more comfortable than on the bumpy highway. And its small V-6 offers 4-cylinder city mileage, only 1 mpg worse than the non-AWD IS 250, and the same mileage as the much more powerful IS 350. If you don't have a family, the interior space is a non-issue. Thus, back to my original question -- who is this car for?

The Weekend Fun

The IS 250 AWD presents an intriguing mix of sport and luxury. Yet, for the most part, it's not a great sport sedan, or a great luxury car, though it has elements of both.

The seats are the first indication. Like Lexus' upscale GS and LS models, the IS 250 features soft, perforated leather seats. They're great, but without proper side support, you wind up sliding from side to side on a spirited drive on a twisty road. That's fine for commuters who do little other than sit in traffic, but then there's the engine. The small 2.5-liter V-6 aims to deliver good fuel economy while retaining luxury car levels of smoothness and refinement. The problem is that its 204 horsepower output is no match for the IS 250 AWD's 3651 pounds. The statistics back this up, with the IS 250 AWD taking a half-second longer to get to freeway speed from a standstill than a Toyota Corolla XRS.

But straight-line acceleration isn't everything, and few people, if any, will be racing the base model IS. So, if it's not a stoplight brawler, is it at least fun? In traffic, the IS 250 requires courage and a strong right foot to change lanes since accessing the 2.5-liter V-6's power requires revving the engine nearly to redline. Try it with a full load of spouse and children on a weekend getaway, and the IS's passing speed lags further. However, the suspension was well-suited to mountain roads -- at least, when it's just the driver. With gravity assisting a downhill run, the IS 250's all-wheel drive system felt sure-footed and nimble, belying the car's excessive weight. The steering and suspension felt crisp, composed, and comfortable turning into the mountain curves. For the first time, I smiled -- until I found myself scanning the road ahead, looking left and right to see beyond the obnoxious windshield-pillars that were somehow unobserved on the commute. They're perfectly situated to obstruct upcoming bends and cars on a curving road, frustrating its best sporty-redeeming feature.

Summary

The Lexus IS 250 AWD is a dressed-up compact sedan aimed at young professionals -- a market with often contradictory demands. It offers up a plush but small interior for two adults and a couple of kids, but little in the way of cargo space. Its small V-6 gets the fuel economy of a four-cylinder, but offers few of the sporty benefits you'd expect from the two extra cylinders. Though its all-wheel drive performed well on mountain roads, its suspension, steering, and poor visibility are less than ideal for enthusiasts and commuters alike. Thus, the IS 250 AWD is almost sporty, and it's almost great. Compared to the competition, however, the IS 250 is a seven-year-old car in a field of fresh faces. We'd probably opt for the less-expensive IS 350 with its brawnier engine and 1-mpg tick from highway fuel mileage. But even this recommendation is difficult with strong competition from the Audi A4, and revamped efforts from Heruclean German competitors BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Despite this, though, Lexus has made the IS accessible thanks to leases starting at less than $400 a month, comparable to a Toyota Camry.

If you care more about status than an engaging ride, or don't mind its spatial shortcomings, the IS 250 AWD is a fine car. If it was our money, however, we'd be looking across the pond, or waiting for the rumored 2013 redesign.

Spec Box

$41,947
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 20 mpg
EPA Highway: 27 mpg
EPA Combined: 22 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 378 miles
Intellichoice Value Rating: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"The right-calf 'support-bump' is supportive." - Joel Arellano
"The cabin is quiet and composed. But it's a good thing this car has a backup camera and sensors, as visibility is really compromised." - Jacob Brown
"Side storage consoles in the door are near useless. Cup holders can fit a straw, and access is awkward, but I love the dual-tone trim, heated and cooled seats, LED lights in the cabin, and the attractive sporty dash. And I barely notice the foot-obstruction on the second day." - Matt Askari
"The steering is dull and squishy, and in regular drive mode, the transmission is reluctant to shift, or kick down under acceleration. The sport mode is surprisingly unobtrusive." - Blake Rong
"Once settled, it's typical Lexus, so things work nicely, ergonomics are great, the touchscreen navigation display is big and clear, and the system sounded good... But the IS 250 isn't a very satisfying engine to rev, the engine's drone isn't very sporty... it's a sad, somewhat confused little car, and I'm not a fan." - Keith Buglewicz

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view
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