At the halfway pole in this year’s car sales race, it remains clear that buyers are still choosing crossovers, small wagon-ish cars and pickup trucks over conventional sedans. The American new-car market is witnessing a small downtick in annual sales this year, despite heady new products, as pundits believe that overheated borrowing, higher transaction prices, plus a certain degree of market saturation have moved the buying curve downward.
These forces affect not only automakers and their production plans but their dealers as well, creating pressure to comply with sales goals and increasingly pointed consumer expectations as buyers have access to better information.
Interestingly, the automotive brand that dealers admire the most is Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand. Long atop the survey results, Lexus returned to the top spot in 2018 and solidified its status in a recent survey. This honor generally supports how the buying public feels about dealing with Lexus’s retailers, too.
This week’s IS350 AWD compact luxury sedan is the smallest four-door sedan in the automaker’s American lineup. Available with two distinct powertrains in two trim levels, the IS300 and IS350 is essentially the same size as a Toyota Corolla, with a healthy level of luxury panache.
Base models with rear-wheel drive, eight-speed automatic and the 2.0-liter 241-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine are agile, quick and closer to the German-based sedans targeted by Lexus — the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class. The IS350 models come with the corporate 3.5-liter 311-hp V-6, six-speed automatic and AWD, which makes for a much heavier small sedan, but one with greater power and better all-season traction.
F-Sport packaging is optional on both models, providing drivers with bigger brakes, selectable suspension settings and enhanced steering feel. From ECO mode to super-sport and snow modes, the IS350 lets you choose how the car will react when you ply the right pedal.
Sharing some of the muscular lines first seen with the brand’s GS midsize sedan, the IS series brings an upscale interior with large feature content to the sporty luxury sedan competition with pricing starting at under $39,000. The IS350 AWD jumps that number to $44,095, while our F-Sport edition with 835-watt, 15-speaker, surround sound Mark Levinson Audio system w/navigation, 18-inch sport wheels, TFT instrument cluster, triple beam headlamps and heated and ventilated power sport seats pumped the sticker price up to $51,640 — a number still significantly below comparably equipped rivals.
Despite exterior measurements mirroring the previously mentioned Corolla, 184 inches long on a 110-inch wheelbase, the IS has a much more intimate cabin. Ingress and egress feels more like a lower, smaller car, while the cockpit is a snug European fitted design that will coddle those who favor similar fashion. A wide console runs through the cabin, atop a large center tunnel that actually has a huge bump behind the driver’s leg for the AWD gear below. Functional storage space inside and on the console is limited.
The rear seat holds two average-sized adults, with a roomy trunk easily handling two sets of gold clubs and ample soft luggage.
Like other Lexus products with the 3.5-liter engine, power is more than satisfactory. Mid-throttle response can be abrupt when in ECO mode — as the powertrain overcompensates for your need to accelerate — yet, fuel economy still averaged 25.5 mpg for the week, right up against the EPA estimate of 19/26 mpg.
When pressed, the all-wheel drive chassis exhibits more response and control — the exact reason you would choose the IS350 over its rear-drive sibling, or a rival like the FWD Acura. Ride compliance is a notch below the Germans, but certainly not a deal-breaker.
Lexus has been making more “noise” with its sportier RC coupe series as the brand wants to play in all the luxury niches. With four sedans and four crossovers, one can see how Lexus is enjoying a modest .5 percent sales growth so far in 2019, despite the market moving down for most retailers. IS sales unfortunately are down 26 percent year to date.
Easy on the eyes, dependable as rain, and with enough driving verve to excite all but the most jaded enthusiast pilots, the IS-series is a sculptured alternative in a segment that offers lots of choices.