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December 10, 2012

CARS: Sporty Lexus feels German

— 
Lexus has spent nearly 25 years building its reputation for smooth, silent luxury barges.

Now it's saying, "We can do more than that."

With sporty cars like the IS becoming a bigger part of the Lexus lineup, this upscale Japanese brand is taking aim at European stalwarts like Audi and BMW, companies known more for their exhilaration than their silence.

And exhilaration is exactly what the IS is about.

This is a car that, particularly when fitted with the bigger of its two V6 engines, feels like it could come from Munich or Stuttgart.

It's firm and engaging, with power sent to the rear wheels like any proper sports sedan, and a steering and suspension system that work together to transmit tiny vibrations to the driver — the kind of vibrations that the rest of the Lexus lineup works so hard to filter out.

It does have some traditional Lexus DNA in all the right places.

The fit and finish of the cabin is spectacular, for one. Pieces of the dash fit together like a Rolex watch, and the leather upholstery is the softest I can recall feeling in this price class, starting around $35,000. The interior quality is top-notch.

I also like how easy it is to use the optional navigation system in the IS. Lexus is fitting a supposedly better system in its bigger, more expensive models that uses a computer-style cursor on a screen. I found the touch-screen interface on my IS 350 test car to be simpler and quicker to use than the cursor, though.

While the base engine in the IS 250 is a 2.5-liter V6 that makes 204 horsepower, you get a whole lot more thrills from a 306-horsepower, 3.5-liter engine in the IS 350.

Both power plants are fast, modern and efficient. The smaller engine is rated at 30 mpg on the highway and the bigger at 27.

It's also available with all-wheel drive, which offers better traction but slightly worse gas mileage than the rear-wheel-drive numbers quoted above.

Styling on this car is understated, which is typical of Lexus designs. Its body doesn't scream for attention, even though it's remarkably quick, which is something I take as a sign of confidence.

It has a nicely sloping rear roofline and wide stance, but it's devoid of goofy add-ons like oversized spoilers and air scoops. Its body doesn't have a hint of that "I want to be a teenager" silliness.

Still, this car makes nods to appeal to younger drivers.

Aside from the fun you'll find in the driver's seat, the navigation system also comes with smartphone-style apps that can do all sorts of things, from streaming music to checking in on Facebook.

Available apps include restaurant reservations through OpenTable, searches through Bing, movie tickets from MovieTickets.com, business reviews from Yelp and online music from Pandora and iHeartRadio.

The biggest downside to the IS is its small back seat. People who regularly carry back seat passengers or simply want a more comfortable ride will be happier in the larger, softer ES that was just redesigned for 2013. Its starting price is only about $1,000 more than the IS, even though the ES feels like a much more substantial — if far less sporty — vehicle.

As a whole, though, the IS is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable cars in the Lexus lineup. It's not the traditional big, squishy Lexus boat, and it's definitely worth test driving before you think about buying something German.

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