2015 Lexus IS 250 review: Lexus' entry-level sport sedan wants to carve corners, lacks the confidence

Pricing Unavailable
  • Available Engine Gas
  • Body style Sedan

Roadshow Editors' Rating

7.4 Overall
  • Performance 7
  • Features 8
  • Design 7
  • Media 8

The Good The 2015 Lexus IS 250 starts with a solid platform and a well-damped suspension that makes cornering predictable, neutral and fun. The 2.5-liter V-6 is quiet and smooth on the highway and around town, delivering reasonable efficiency. The Enform navigation suite gets the job done with a solid lineup of features and amenities.

The Bad In standard trim, the stability control system is far too intrusive for sporty driving and can't be deactivated. The Enform Infotainment system is starting to show its age with pixelated graphics and a weird control scheme.

The Bottom Line The 2015 Lexus IS 250 is a solid choice for a sporty commuter, but its nagging electronics keep it from reaching its potential as a true "sports sedan."

I won't spend a lot of time talking about the 2015 Lexus IS 250's style because, well, look at it. Lexus' L-Finesse design language speaks boldly and loudly for itself, for better or worse. You'll either love it or hate it at first sight and there's not much I can do to influence that. I will say that my initial distaste for what I called an overly busy front fascia has subsided slightly. Dare I say it? I think I may eventually come around to liking the look. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Pretty small for V-6

Behind the divisive grille and headlamp treatment you'll find the IS 250's power plant, a 2.5-liter direct-injected V-6 engine. Code-named the 4GR-FSE, this smallish V-6 is good for a stated 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Lexus has been using some version of this engine in the IS 250 dating all the way back to 2005, so odds are good that the automaker has all of the kinks worked out.

The 2.5-liter V6 is a holdover from the previous generation IS sedans. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The engineers probably could have used a four-cylinder engine of similar displacement and gotten similar levels of power, but the V-6 revs more smoothly, with less vibration and harshness, which makes the IS feel more like a Lexus. The 4GR-FSE is a quiet engine when cruising and tooling around town; it's easily drowned out by the IS' standard stereo, which we'll discuss in a bit. There's a healthy amount of torque available at throttle tip-in, which makes the sedan feel responsive when pulling away from traffic lights and at moderate speeds, such as when maneuvering through traffic. However, the engine gets rather breathless at higher speeds, taking longer than I'd like for highway passes.

The 250's engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the sedan's rear wheels and features sport and manual shift programs, the latter making use of standard steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. In addition, on the center console you'll find Lexus' Drive Mode Selector, a round knob that can be twisted to choose between Normal, Sport and Eco settings for the power train and vehicle systems. Sport mode adjusts the throttle mapping and transmission program for the most responsive acceleration, while Eco mode changes theses systems for less response and more fuel efficiency. Normal is the baseline between them.

I rarely used the Eco Drive Mode setting, which made the throttle feel numb, but I'd wager that it could help to eke an extra mile or two per gallon out of long freeway cruises. Over the course of my testing, which included many miles of sporty driving around my favorite back roads, I averaged about 23 mpg, which falls in line with the EPA's guess of 21 city mpg, 30 highway mpg and 24 mpg combined average. So it's not like you strictly speaking need the Eco mode to get reasonable economy out of this power train.

At multiple times during my testing, I found myself wondering how swapping the Lexus NX 200t 's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine into the engine bay would affect efficiency and performance. Alas, that question will have to go unanswered for now.

On the road

Settling into the IS 250, two things sprang to mind. The first was how familar the Lexus interior design is. Broad and very horizontal, the IS' cabin looks a lot like the RC's cabin which looks a lot like the NX's. I'm not a fan of the look, but I think i prefer the chunky, blocky elements to the overly aggressive exterior design. The second thing that springs to mind is just how well sorted the IS' touch points are. Love or hate the aesthetic, it's hard to argue with the supportive but comfortable sport buckets and the driving position that places the steering wheel and its paddles, the shift lever and infotainment controls nicely at hand. The materials are top-notch and don't feel at all cheap.

The IS' cabin is driver-centric and uses quality materials for the touch points. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

From the IS' supportive seats, you can enjoy the sporty ride. The suspension is firm, but not punishing, soaking up all but the most severe bumps while still being firm and communicative in the corners. Though the cabin does a good job of keeping engine and wind noise out, there is a bit of road noise transmitted from the tires and suspension via the floor.

The IS 250 presents the driver with an excellent platform for performance driving, even if the driver aid electronics conspire to suck all of the fun out of each corner. The IS grips and corners neutrally, its deeply bolstered seats keeping the driver planted while dealing with the business of steering. The steering isn't the most communicative that I've tested, but the sedan certainly went where I pointed the wheel and had a nice and quick response to turn-in.

Slap the shift lever into the manual position and twist the Drive Mode Selector to Sport and things get a little livelier, but not much. Winding up the revs, I was disappointed to hear that the engine note sounds slightly artificial, like what you'd hear in a video game like Forza Motorsport. It's not a terrible sound, just not what gets my pulse racing. In the IS' defense, the 250 model isn't meant to be as sporty as the IS 350 or the RC F .

Wet-blanket stability control

However, the engine's weird sound and middle-of-the-road power weren't the biggest performance roadblocks, the stability control system was. During the sportiest parts of my testing, on curvy but bone-dry back roads, I kept noticing that the stability control system kept intervening as I applied the throttle when exiting a corner. This wasn't a gentle correction, but a dramatic power cut. What was most confusing was that I wasn't asking the chassis and engine for near what I thought this platform and power train could handle; it's not like the 2.5-liter has enough power to spin the tires in these conditions. I understand the need for a safety net, but leaving the training wheels on this Lexus seriously limits the performance.

I tried disabling the stability control, but the system just kept throwing a wet blanket on my fun and keeping me from really taking advantage of more than six-tenths of the ability of this sport sedan's chassis. IS F-Sport models offer a Sport+ mode with a less intrusive setting stability control system (along with other suspension and styling tweaks); consider the upgrade if you're interested in cornering quickly.

Enform-ed tech

The IS isn't really a tech powerhouse at its best, but even at its base level the sedan is fairly well equipped.

Our model had an odd assortment of options that didn't exactly line up with anything that we could find on Lexus' website -- so those recommended packages don't seem to be set in stone.

First we have the Enform Apps and Navigation system, which Lexus has been using in its vehicles for years. The graphics are starting to look a bit dated and pixelated as the Enform software ages, but it still gets the job done. With the help of the Lexus Enform App, which is installed on a Bluetooth-paired smartphone, the infotainment system gains the capability to stream music from Pandora and iHeart Radio, search the Web for destinations, and make dinner and movie reservations via OpenTable and MovieTickets.com.

I've had a love/hate relationship with the Remote Touch Controller, but I think I prefer it to the trackpad in Lexus' newer models. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

You interact with the various areas of the infotainment system (navigation, phone, audio sources and vehicle info) with Lexus's Remote Touch Controller. I've had a rollercoaster of a relationship with this controller, part touchpad, part joystick, and its haptic feedback. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I don't. This time, I found that I preferred the physicality of the joystick to the haptic trackpad that you'll find in the newer Lexus RC and NX vehicles. My passenger agreed.

A premium Mark Levinson surround system is available, and our IS was so equipped. The audio sounds good with decent bass that fills the cabin. Settings for stereo output or surround allow you to adjust the characteristics of the sound. I found that podcasts and audiobooks staged better in stereo, while music sometimes filled the cabin more uniformly in the system's surround mode. Audio sources include HD Radio, satellite radio and a full suite of digital audio sources that includes CD, USB and Bluetooth streaming.

In sum: Sporty enough

The 2015 Lexus IS 250 starts at $37,475, including destination charges. The navigation and Mark Levinson audio add $2,995 to the bottom line. We've also got optional 18-inch wheels, a $500 option that brings the as-tested price to $40,970. In the UK, the IS 250 starts at £26,495. Meanwhile down under, the Australian buyer can expect a starting drive-away price of about AU$63,726. However, trim levels and packaging may not exactly line up between the three markets.

Drivers looking to go CNET-style, as a certain editor-at-large likes to put it, also have access to a $3,985 Luxury and Tech package that adds lane departure warning, automatic high-beam headlamps with LED illumination, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and heated and ventilated front seats. There's also an all-wheel-drive power train option ($2,535) for drivers in areas where weather requires more grip than rear-wheel drive can offer.

The IS 250 is pretty sporty and well equipped, but faces stiff competition from the entry-level BMW 320i. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 2015 Lexus IS 250 (RWD) is, as tested, as sporty sedan, but not what I'd consider a true "sports sedan." I had more fun rounding bends in BMW's entry-point 320i sedan, which boasts levels of power, efficiency and performance similar to the Lexus' for about the same $40K price tag, but a much more reasonable stability control system. Prospective IS owners looking for a touch more fun could opt the F-Sport package, which for $5,690 tells the stability control system to relax, and upgrades the suspension, brakes, seats and styling. This package also adds the very cool LFA-inspired motorized digital gauge cluster.

However, for the average driver who doesn't plan on spend a lot of time blasting up mountain switchbacks or autocrossing at nine-tenths of the vehicle's ability -- for the commuters, cruisers and those just looking for a well-appointed, entry-luxury sedan -- the level of power and performance that you get in the Lexus may just fit the bill.

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