It’s the season for all-wheel-drive. Snow and rain are less of a concern when your auto has four driven wheels. And what was once an option most often seen on Subarus and Audis has spread to brands as diverse as Jaguar, Lamborghini and Hyundai.
Lexus, a division of Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota Motor Corp., has sold cars equipped with AWD since the 2006 IS sedan, making it especially attractive to customers in the U.S. Northeast and Pacific Northwest.
The IS has been redesigned for 2014, and it’s the least expensive model that Lexus offers with AWD. Competing with the likes of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW 3 Series and General Motors Co.’s Cadillac ATS, the latest IS is a sporty mid-size sedan with an attractive exterior and a youthful vibe.
The IS 250 AWD starts at $38,485, not including a delivery fee of $910. The AWD components add weight, however, and the 2.5-liter V-6 manages to produce only a miserly 204 horsepower. That’s underwhelming when pulling around more than 3,600 pounds, so acceleration is best described as somnolent.
A much wiser choice is the IS 350 AWD with its 3.5-liter engine and 306 horsepower. The base price is $41,700. (For comparison’s sake, a BMW 335i xDrive sedan starts at $45,400, and has six fewer horsepower.)
Unfortunately, neither Lexus engine has been significantly updated for this generation. This affects efficiency, which is middling, with the IS 250 AWD getting 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 on the highway, and the IS 350 AWD 19 and 26.
The first thing you’ll notice on the new car is the nose, which has gained the company’s new signature grille. It’s literally in your face, jutting out in a manner suggesting Lexus is no longer willing to play the segment’s wallflower. While awkward on some Lexus models, the funky front is at home with the IS’s lively styling.
This isn’t a big sedan, and the modest footprint is underscored when you get inside. Though the wheelbase and back seat have grown this generation, taller or stouter passengers might feel cramped. NFL centers need not apply.
The interior is playful, with a leather-coated dashboard built like a collection of shelves, and details available such as red stitching on the steering wheel. Many of us no longer equate luxury with glossy wood inserts -- I don’t need a movable treehouse, thank you -- and the IS’s interior is far more interesting than the Lexus luxe-austerity of old.
The driver’s side has an odd hump rising from the floor, a result of an intrusion by the AWD equipment. It doesn’t affect comfort, but I often found the underside of my right leg resting on it. Sorry, but that’s just sloppy engineering.
My test car, which I drove for more than a week around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, also had the F Sport package, which adds a tauter suspension and bolder exterior and interior touches. Horsepower remains the same. With options, the price came to just less than $50,000.
If I bought the IS 350 to chase after BMWs and Cadillacs on back roads, I’d be disappointed. It takes 5.7 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour, and its overriding characteristic around sharp corners is caution. Electronic stability and traction controls intercede early and often when you’re driving hard.
By comparison, the Cadillac ATS AWD is a bounding bird dog to the IS’s timid terrier. The $44,020 Cadillac is full of wet-nosed exuberance, whereas the Lexus’s V-6 has almost no bark, no howl in its heart.
Frankly, I’m OK with that. Sometimes steady and calm wins the day. Whatever the weather, the IS feels stable and almost unerringly competent, even on slippery surfaces. One morning found me ferrying several passengers on a twisting two-lane road slicked with snow and patches of ice. The temperature was in the teens.
It made its way placidly over pebbles of crunchy ice, the AWD working its push-and-pull tango. The car’s electronic mind never allows too much torque to channel through any tire when the surface is slippery, so even immoderate stabs of the gas won’t upset stability.
The AWD model gets all-season tires, which is important. Many sports sedans these days come standard with performance tires, which are only suited to warmer temperatures. I’ve noticed that the compounds in the rubber tend to get brittle even at temperatures as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). The level of grip suffers.
Even AWD can only help so much: I once had an Audi Q7 sport-utility vehicle with summer tires that couldn’t pull out of a parking lot with an inch of snow. Embarrassing.
The Lexus’s tires proved up to the task (though snow tires would be even better), and I negotiated down snowy gravel roads and up steep icy hills. The nose is rather low, and you wouldn’t want to break a snow trail, mind you.
Still, I took to calling the Lexus my little luxury snowplow.
The 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 with 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city, 26 highway.
Price as tested: $49,750.
Best feature: Competent handling in all manner of weather.
Worst features: A bit cramped; the AWD’s transmission should be upgraded to eight speeds.