Small but Mighty

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2008

Take a look at the introductory Lexus. It's called the Lexus IS250, and our tested model begins at $31,625 (but ends at $38,254 after some desirable options).

There isn't a less expensive—don't you dare say “cheaper”—Lexus available as a new vehicle.

But, frankly, this is all the Lexus many folks could ever need. And it has fuel efficiency benefits because a V-6, not a V-8, is under its hood. In virtually all other considerations, performance excluded, it's the equal of its more costly stable mates.

I've tested those more costly offerings and can tell you that this one satisfies on all basic levels. It is luxuriously comfortable, safe in the extreme, quite thrifty for a luxury car and has options that make it the equal of German competitors.

Think of this Lexus as comparable to a BMW 3 series, an Audi A4 or the Mercedes-Benz C-series.

Perhaps acknowledging that 2008 will be a bad year for the economy, Lexus is pushing this model in television ads. Viewers see its shapely exterior then watch as the start button is pressed and the speedometer/tachometer needles do a sweep of the dial before settling down.

It's a sedan, with four doors opening wide for its five-passenger capacity. There's a spacious trunk. The driver's seat adjusts to fit just about anyone, with a nod toward the fact that Americans are getting larger (import cars once seemed designed exclusively for smaller Asian bodies). The front bucket seats offer lumbar support, a much-appreciated feature not found on many cars.

Instead of a key, the driver carries a remote fob that emits a radio signal that is unique to each owner and signals the car to accept a push of the start button. Press that button and the 2.5-liter V-6 engine springs to life. As is true for all Lexus vehicles, it seems vibration-free. And there's no roar to excite the senses but insult the ears. It's sometimes difficult to tell the engine is running.

This model, the smallest Lexus offers, produces a modest 204 horsepower. But that's more than sufficient for daily or vacation driving. The car effortlessly achieves interstate speeds through a six-speed automatic transmission (or manually controlled from shifters on the steering wheel). For the performance-minded, it takes 8.4 seconds to reach 60.

If you want power, spend another $20,000 and buy the "F" model. It has 415 horsepower and races to 60 in under 5 seconds. That gives Lexus a performance sedan to compare with the fastest German models and a competitor from Infiniti.

If you care about fuel efficiency, this more tranquil V-6 will reward an owner with 21 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway. That wide disparity speaks to the low rpm achieved by the highest (sixth) gear at cruise speed. The car seems to glide along at 70 mph, sipping gas and slicing silently through the air.

Our tester had most of the amenities a modern owner could desire. There was a navigation system at mid-dash and the screen displayed the clearest, sharpest rear image I've yet encountered when the reverse gear was selected. This image was most remarkable at night, where the car's backup lights provided enough illumination to make the scene look as if it were lit for a Super Bowl.

Another remarkable feature is the high-intensity headlight system (an option on this model). This Lexus joins the world's best in its capability to light up the night for a driver. The road and roadsides are brilliantly illuminated in white light and the headlights turn with the steering wheel in curves. So precise is this system that a black spot is clearly visible ahead on the left of the driver's lane. Why? The light is shielded so it won't blind the driver of an oncoming vehicle.

Anyone wondering if they should trade up to a 2008 model has only to consider these new headlight systems. They're worth trading for.

Other safety features are state-of-the-art, too. In addition to the required front air bags, the Lexus IS250 has knee air bags for both front passengers, side air bags and full-length head cushion air bags. Vehicle stability and braking assist features are standard.

About the only standard item I didn't like is the three-spoke steering wheel. This type of wheel has a "Y" shape inside the circular wheel, with the bottom of the steering wheel closed off. That's a position where many drivers, myself included, like to rest a hand when cruising effortlessly. That's not easily done with this "sport" wheel. A hand on either side of the bottom tends to steer the car off center.

It's not obvious where Lexus cut features to make this model its most affordable car. That's good, of course. About all I discovered is this: You'll have to adjust your own seat position—manually!

You can do that, can't you? What a small price to pay for such a comfortable, safe and luxurious entry-level Lexus.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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