First drive: 2014 Lexus IS 250 AWD has grip, just not enough glory

For an introductory drive of the 2014 IS, Lexus chose North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort and Rockingham Speedway, which is fitting, because those two places represent where this luxury brand is, and where it wants to go.

Built in 1895, Pinehurst is one of the best places in the world to golf. Rockingham is a NASCAR racetrack.

Lexus wants to attract younger buyers. In other words, people who don’t spend much time at the country club, but do enjoy a bit of vigorous driving.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of the IS and the entry luxury segment,” Lexus national product marketing manager Owen Peacock said, referring to the segment dominated by sporty cars like the BMW 3 Series and Cadillac ATS.

So has Lexus pulled it off? We started at the bottom of the lineup to find out.

That face

The first thing one notices about the 2014 IS 250 is its styling. The headlines include Lexus’ signature “spindle” grille, which opens like a gaping maw threatening to engorge passing Geo Metros, a set of LED strips below the headlights, and a curved line that starts at the bottoms of the rear doors and meets the pointed edges of the taillights.

This is by far Lexus’ most thorough attempt to create a styling language that is both exciting and unique to the brand. The results are mixed: from some angles, the car looks absolutely perfect, but from others the many unusual details just don’t jibe.

Either way, the 2014 IS will definitely get noticed. That’s not something we’ve ever been able to say about a Lexus sedan, short of the bonkers IS F.

Gauging enthusiasm

The transformation continues on the inside, with a decidedly tech-focused interior.

The wood and tan leather we normally associate with Lexus has been replaced by a more functional dashboard and center stack that echo the larger GS. The analog clock remains, though.

Nestled between the gauges is a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display, which can show everything from the current radio station to a compass. It’s not as flashy as the LFA-inspired digital gauge on the performance-oriented F Sport models, but it is much easier to read while driving.

The seven-inch center stack screen, which displays audio, climate control, and navigation menus, is less cooperative. While Lexus does allow drivers to prioritize what they’re seeing with a customizable home screen, the graphics leave something to be desired.

The IS 250 we drove was equipped with the optional Remote Touch controller. It’s basically a mouse that controls infotainment functions with a cursor and a click. It’s easier to use than most touch screens, but that’s not saying much. We’d prefer old fashioned knobs.

Ergonomically, the rest of the interior is pretty well sorted. The seats are comfortable and decently bolstered, all of the controls are within easy reach, and the top of the steering wheel is flat, allowing the driver to better view the TFT display.

Headroom is limited, even for drivers under six feet tall, but a stretched wheelbase (2.7 inches longer than last year) yields decent legroom.

Another plus is that all 2014 IS models, including ones without navigation get free real-time traffic and weather updates.

That’s about all you get standard, however. Navigation, which includes 3D maps and a “street view” with computer generated landmarks is optional, as is Lexus’ Enform App Suite.

It’s a sedan, but is it sporty?

On paper, it doesn’t seem so. The 2014 IS 250 has the same 2.5-liter V6 as last year, with 204 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The sole transmission is a six-speed automatic. It’s available with either rear- or all-wheel drive. However, that’s not the whole story.

It’s a shame the IS 250 doesn’t have more power, because the chassis is capable of handling it. The all-wheel drive IS 250 we drove at Rockingham were composed and confidence-inspiring in the corners, much more so than the 2013 IS 350 AWD Lexus brought along for comparison. Regardless of which wheels are being driven, the ride was smooth.

It’s the same story on the road. Power is adequate, but the chassis continues to shine. Cruising down U.S. Highway 1, the IS 250 settled down, providing comfortable ride and transitioning from sports sedan to luxury car.

Value

The 2014 IS 250 starts at $35,950, which nets a solid sedan with a good chassis, adequate power, and a few tech toys. However, if you want your IS to be better than good, you’ll have to pay more.

Buyers looking to up the tech factor will want to consider the navigation system and Mark Levinson audio (bundled together for $3,225), or a backup camera ($350).

Anyone looking for a real sports sedan should seriously consider upgrading to the $39,465 IS 350 and its 306 hp 3.5-liter V6.

Conclusion

Overall, the 2014 Lexus IS range offers an impressive combination of luxury, sportiness and tech, but not at the bottom of that range. The 2014 IS 250 shows that Lexus has built a fundamentally good car, with a stylish exterior, luxurious interior, and well-sorted chassis.

However, the IS 250 just doesn’t give buyers enough of those qualities. Whether you want a car that is truly sporty, or just want to load it up with tech, you’ll need to start checking option boxes. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck at the country club.

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