2018 Lexus IS 300 AWD

2018 Lexus IS 300 AWD

In the compact luxury sedan segment, only five out of the 14 models available found more buyers in calendar year 2017 than the year prior. Making matters worse, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which actually includes sedan, coupe and convertible sales in its total, and only grew by a scant 0.3 percent, plus the Audi A4, which was all-new yet only grew sales by 1.8 percent, were the only two cars of this five that weren’t experiencing their first year of sales—the three others were the Jaguar XE, Alfa Romeo Giulia, and Tesla Model 3.

This is the second year this category has seen such a dire downturn, its results partially due to a dip in overall new vehicle sales, plus growth among compact luxury SUVs. This said, the best-selling compact luxury SUV was the Lexus NX that sold 59,341 units in 2017, while the most popular compact luxury car was the aforementioned C-Class at 77,447 deliveries, so this segment is still very important to premium carmakers, especially Lexus that when combining its ES model sales (due to its approachable pricing the mid-size front-drive model is included in this near entry-level category) totals 77,880 units (26,482 for the IS and 51,398 for the ES).

While the ES is third most popular in its class, behind the C-Class and BMW 3 Series, the IS ranks fifth, behind the Infiniti Q50, albeit ahead of the Acura TLX. That’s impressive when factoring in the 14 nameplates it’s up against.

Aiding last year’s IS series sales success was a dramatic refresh for the 2017 model year, this being the first significant update since this third-generation model was completely redesigned for 2014. F-Sport trim already boasted a fairly aggressive front fascia as seen in my 2014 and 2016 IS 350 F-Sport reviews, but last year’s update made it more akin to the RC F Sport, which left room to beef up the non-F Sport trimmed IS 200t and IS 300 AWD models.

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The result is a look that might even be more eye-catching than the previous F Sport model, with Lexus’ trademark spindle grille growing in size, the headlamps reshaped to a simpler design and equipped with standard LEDs, and the lower front fascia now much bolder thanks to larger, deeper and considerably more pronounced corner “brake” ducts.

That these faux vents only look cool is a shame. Rather than forcing cooling air onto those brakes, these aero detractors actually create wind resistance, but it’s possible some increased downforce enhances high-speed handling.

The checkmark-shaped LED driving lights remain unchanged, as do the car’s swoopy bodyside panels the sweep upward in dramatic fashion before tapering off over the rear wheel cutouts, but the seemingly identical LED taillights receive new lenses and innards. Lastly, a slightly reworked matte black diffuser-like lower bumper cap features new angular tailpipes, doing their part to modernize the rear end design.

As noted in last year’s IS 350 AWD F Sport review, I’m not willing to say that Lexus’ bigger and bolder design departure necessarily translates into better, but some of the changes made are noticeable improvements, particularly inside where gorgeous new light on dark laminated wood inlays decorate the dash front and door switchgear panels.

The IS has always provided good perceived interior quality, with soft touch composites in all the expected places, nice tastefully applied metallic accents throughout, mostly high quality switchgear, and particularly good digital displays, despite this less expensive model not featuring Lexus’ fully configurable gauge cluster found in last year’s pricier alternative. Audi fans might find the look a bit cluttered, Lexus preferring an origami-inspired multi-angle interior design to match exterior styling, rather than anything organically grown. Consider it the Nakamichi Dragon of instrument panels, with lots of little buttons, knobs and toggles atop a hard-edged black metal and composite structure, the infotainment system’s unique albeit somewhat archaic joystick-style controller also seeming to try and take us back to the days of cassette decks and turntables.

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If you used Lexus’ Remote Touch Interface in the past and haven’t tried it in a while, take note that it’s improved a lot. Side buttons for selecting functions were added a few years back, eliminating the frustration of having the joystick slip off course when pressing on top, and the system’s haptic response, which feels as if it’s locking onto a given link as the curser passes over, isn’t quite as grabby. Most people seem to like this setup better than RTI 2.0, which is a lower console-mounted touchpad design laid out in quadrants, this found on some other Lexus models, but I’d much rather have the display screen moved closer and a straightforward touchscreen installed. Toyota, Lexus’ parent company’s namesake brand, does a great job with its touchscreens, plus its new Entune system is fabulous, so I’m looking forward to Lexus saying goodbye to all of these creative controllers and delivering a much simpler RTI 3.0 soon.

On that note, Enform is Lexus-speak for Entune, and while it connects to your smartphone a helluvalot better than Android Auto and comes packed with lots of useful apps and functions, the current IS infotainment system holds it back from being truly great.

As mentioned earlier the actual display is superb, and was upgraded from the standard 7.0-inch screen to 10.3 inches thanks to the addition of a $2,835 Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package that also added accurate navigation, a Mark Levinson surround sound audio system, the just noted Enform Destination Assist and Enform App Suite, enhanced voice activation, advanced Bluetooth, and the aforementioned RTI.

On top of this my tester included the $720 Comfort Package with rain-sensing wipers, a powered steering column, auto-dimming side mirrors with memory, driver’s seat memory, and blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert; plus the $350 Premium Package with heated and ventilated front seats; while standalone options included $855 18-inch mesh alloy wheels on 225/40 front and 255/35 tires (replacing standard 17s that look a bit small on this car); $300 adaptive cornering headlamps; a $150 heatable steering wheel rim; and a $210 powered rear sunshade.

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This was all added to my otherwise base IS 300 AWD, which other than a standard backup camera comes outfitted identically to the rear-wheel drive IS 300 (that strangely doesn’t have one), including the aforementioned LED headlamps that are also auto-leveling, plus proximity keyless access, pushbutton ignition, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, paddle shifters, a great looking analog clock, filtered dual-zone auto climate control, HD radio, Siri Eyes-Free, various Enform features, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a HomeLink garage door opener, eight-way powered front sport seats with vertically powered headrests and powered driver’s lumbar support, NuLuxe (pleather) upholstery, stainless steel scuff plates, a powered moonroof, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks expanding on the smallish 10.8 cubic-foot trunk, and more.

All IS trims receive the usual assortment of safety features as well, plus a knee airbag for both front occupants, rear side-thorax airbags, and finally the Lexus Safety System+ suite of advanced driver assistance systems, which adds a Pre-Collision System featuring forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and dynamic radar cruise control. The result of Lexus’ focus on safety is IIHS Top Safety Pick status, minus the best-possible “Plus” rating, while the NHTSA gives it a five-star safety rating with extra notes saying that it’s had zero complaints, zero investigations, and zero recalls.

Another difference between RWD and AWD IS 300 models is the chosen transmission, the RWD model getting a sophisticated eight-speed automatic and this AWD version making do with a less appealing (at least from a marketing perspective) six-speed autobox. The eight-speed unit includes quicker shifting Sport Direct Shift Control too, transmission technology originally designed for the IS F, although the six-speed is a Super Electronically Controlled Transmission (Super ECT), whatever that means. Suffice to say that one is built for comfort and one for speed, with the AWD model getting smooth, linear response to input, but not the fastest shift interval times.

This brings us to the real meat of the IS 300 RWD/AWD issue, the former actually being last year’s IS 200t with a new name. Isn’t that sneaky? The only difference between the 2017 IS 200t and the 2018 IS 300 is the badge on the trunk lid, being that both have identical 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines making 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Oddly, while the IS 300 AWD being tested here includes a carryover 3.5-liter V6, output has been bumped by 5 horsepower to 260, with torque remaining the same at 236 lb-ft. And yes you read that right, the little turbo-four makes an additional 22 lb-ft of torque, plus max twist arrives 350 rpm sooner within the rev range at 1,650 instead of 2,000. Both engines get direct injection and Lexus’ Dual Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i), and have a reputation for quality and dependability.

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As you can likely imagine the smaller engine is better on fuel, its EPA claimed rating at 22 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway and 26 combined, while the V6 gets an estimated 19 city, 26 highway and 22 combined.

While the base IS 300 seems like the better choice on paper, it will really come down to personal preference and/or price, with the RWD model starting at $38,210 and the AWD version hitting the road at $40,660, plus freight and fees of course. Seat of the pants differences include a sportier, edgier, lighter weight feel from the IS 300 RWD compared to a smoother, more refined, and arguably more premium experience in the IS 300 AWD, with the latter also delivering a more satisfying exhaust growl. Still, while the AWD model comes across as a bit less enthusiastic, it’s nevertheless a sporty sedan that’s plenty of fun to charge down a deserted side road and throw into a fast-paced corner. You’ll be more likely to do that mid-winter in the AWD version as well, which might be reason enough to choose the 154-lb heavier model—the IS 300 RWD weighs in at 3,583 lbs and the as-tested IS 300 AWD hits the scales at 3,737 lbs.

Another alternative that deserves mention is the IS 350 (in RWD and AWD guise) noted earlier. It remains at the top of this car’s trim echelon, the AWD version hefting an identical curb weight to the IS 300 AWD, and powered by the same 3.5-liter V6, yet making 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. It starts at a reasonable $41,830 in RWD and $43,995 in AWD and comes standard with many of the same features that were optional on my IS 300 AWD tester, so it’s worth a look if you’ve got your eye on an IS.

Purchasing in mind, Lexus is no longer at the top of some third-party quality indexes, with the most recent 2018 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study (IQS) placing Hyundai’s luxury division Genesis in the lead and Toyota’s luxury division improving on last year’s best of the rest score (below average at 15th overall and sixth among 14 luxury brands) to eighth overall and fourth among luxury brands.

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Keep in mind that J.D. Power “quality” factors are murky at best, being that quality has as much to do with complaints about owners’ difficulties using infotainment system interfaces as cars breaking down at the side of the road, yet an improvement of 11 points, which resulted in Lexus’ sole two-digit (99-point) score, makes it number one overall in the same firm’s 2018 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), which also means it’s no longer tied for first place with Porsche.

Consumer Reports annual reliability survey (fortunately renamed “Annual Report on Car Performance, Reliability, Satisfaction & Safety”) rated Lexus number one last year, but like J.D. Power, that lead was trumped by South Korea’s Genesis for 2018, with the Japanese brand actually falling all the way down to fourth behind Audi and BMW. This said the study includes experiential road test analysis from their own team of reviewers, information that is hardly data driven and therefore has nothing to do with reliability. There are other studies that rank Lexus first or close to it, especially when dependability is the core criterion being compared, so suffice to say it’s one of the safer bets when it comes to short and long term reliability.

All in all, the 2018 Lexus IS delivers strong performance, impressive comfort, good quality, a wide assortment of features, a fairly long list of advanced safety systems, better than average expected reliability, and reasonable value when comparing it to similarly equipped German competitors. It’s one of the smarter choices in its class.

Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press

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