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2020 Lexus IS Review

LIKES
  • Good features
  • Decent lines
  • IS 350's powertrain
  • F-Sport fulfills mission
DISLIKES
  • Average base engine
  • Can get expensive
  • Cramped rear seat
  • Lousy infotainment interface
BUYING TIP
  • The 2020 Lexus IS excels as a driver’s car in rear-drive, IS 350 F-Sport configuration. Other versions offer a muddier definition of sportiness.
The 2020 Lexus IS is polished and poised, but ultimately short on compelling qualities.

The 2020 Lexus IS was once a gym rat, but its consistent routine means its predominantly European competition has bypassed this once-compelling four-door compact sedan.

The allure of a decent value and the option of a strong, smooth V-6 engine don’t elevate the 2020 IS enough. We rate it at just 5.8 out of 10.

This year, the IS largely carries over in IS 300 and IS 350 guise. Not all is what it seems with those badges, however, as the IS 300 makes use of a 241-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4 with rear-wheel drive or a 260-hp 3.5-liter V-6 with all-wheel drive. Neither engine delivers especially thrilling performance. Step up instead to the IS 350 and the 311-hp V-6 delivers ample thrust and pairs well with either the 8-speed automatic transmission on rear-drive cars or the 6-speed automatic with all-wheel drive. 

The firm ride suggests sporty handling, and the IS mostly delivers. Opt for the F Sport package and Lexus slips in adaptive dampers that smooth things out on choppy pavement while delivering less lean in corners. 

Sharp exterior lines are matched by a cockpit-like interior with good materials used throughout. Rear-seat riders will find very little space, however, so shop elsewhere if you often carry family or colleagues around. The IS offers two different screen sizes and a thumping Mark Levinson audio system, neither of which make up for a dismal operating system and a distracting controller. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility would help, if they were available—except they’re not.

At least the IS hits the mark when it comes to active safety features. A wide array of features optional on some rivals comes standard on the IS, including adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking. 

Equipped carefully—we’d go IS 350 F Sport with rear-wheel drive and not many options—the smallest Lexus sedan is a compelling buy. But other versions don’t deliver on our sports sedan expectations.

Styling
The 2020 Lexus IS has sharp lines that are showing their age.

The 2020 Lexus IS has worn its basic duds for more than a decade, and they’re starting to look worn out. We rate this four-door compact sedan at 6 out of 10, with a point above average awarded to an interior that’s still a class act.

The sedan’s basic design is busy with many intersecting lines. Up front, massive intakes under jagged LED running lights contrast out back with pinched taillights that droop into the rear fenders. Not all of the car’s lines are especially clean, though the IS is a rare example in the Lexus lineup where the F Sport exterior package cleans up its styling. 

This year, a new limited-edition IS Blackline package deletes some of the exterior chrome in favor of, you guessed it, black trim. 

Inside, the IS has a low dash and a wide center console that provides the car with a cockpit-like arrangement. The window line is higher here than in some rivals, though skinny roof pillars help make most interior hues feel sufficiently bright and airy. 

Precise-looking analog gauges and a central clock are especially clean, almost throwback touches in an era where screens are taking over. Don’t worry, though: the base 7.0-inch screen can be replaced by a 10.3-inch widescreen.

Performance
The 2020 Lexus IS has many personalities depending on what’s happening under the hood.

Overall, we score the lineup at 6 out of 10, though the sharper IS 350 F Sport might garner a point higher.

Base IS 300s with rear-wheel drive make use of a 2.0-liter turbo-4 rated at a middling 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent rearward through an 8-speed automatic that we’ve found can fire off clunky shifts. The engine isn’t a paragon of refinement, either, though we like it more than the thirsty 260-hp 3.5-liter V-6 plugged into IS 300 all-wheel-drive models. Those cars also use a 6-speed automatic that is outgunned by most rivals. Unless you’re a snow-belter, skip the IS 300 all-wheel drive.

The strongest choice here is the IS 350, which Lexus bestowed with a 311-hp 3.5-liter V-6 that offers far better acceleration and is well-tuned with the 8-speed automatic included with rear-wheel drive. All-wheel-drive IS 350s again make use of a 6-speed automatic that’s fine, but not a thriller.

The suspension is firm but occasionally choppy, which is in line with the car’s sporty mission. IS F Sports have adaptive dampers that largely correct the base suspension’s ride while providing sharper handling. Steering feel is just so-so, though the thick-rimmed steering wheel is a fine piece. 

A control knob on the center console dials in Comfort, Sport, and Eco modes. F Sport versions add a sharper Sport+ mode, and they can be had with a limited-slip rear differential in certain configurations for even sharper roadholding.

Comfort & Quality
It may not be spacious, but the 2020 Lexus IS is nicely appointed inside.

The 2020 Lexus IS delivers sporty car moves and sporty car interior space. Don’t be fooled by its four-door body. We wind up at just 5 out of 10 for its comfort and quality: One point is deducted for its lousy rear seats but a point is added for nice design and materials.

The standard front seats are firm and comfortable, and their synthetic leather covering is both reasonably convincing and hard-wearing. The optional F Sport thrones have lots of bolstering, which may not appeal to broader occupants. You’ll want to put a few miles on them before deciding which seats work for you.

Most adults will find the rear seat to be tight at best. There’s very little leg and shoulder room, and the door openings are small at the bottom.

Soft-touch materials dominate the dash and door panels, and the various available trims impart an upscale feel in line with the price tag. Most controls inside are well-marked, though the touch-sensitive climate controls can be hard to operate with gloves.

Safety
The 2020 Lexus IS is a safe choice among small sedans.

A good array of collision-avoidance tech and solid crash-test scores help make the 2020 Lexus IS a strong choice when it comes to safety. We rate it 8 out of 10.

Standard fare includes automatic emergency braking, active lane control, and adaptive cruise control, plus the usual slew of airbags, ABS, and stability control. Blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alerts are an inexpensive option likely fitted to most IS sedans sitting on dealer lots. 

The NHTSA rates the latest IS at five stars overall, albeit with four stars in the frontal impact test. The IIHS isn’t quite done testing the IS—it hasn’t performed the challenging passenger-side small-overlap test yet—but what results it does have are solid. The car earned “Good” marks in every other crash test, plus “Acceptable” for its headlights and “Superior” for its collision-avoidance features.

Features
The 2020 Lexus IS delivers a good value in some configurations, if you can deal with its tricky interface.

The 2020 Lexus IS comes in four basic configurations, with a few packages available for customization. The lineup isn’t a bad value overall, and a relatively high degree of customization helps reduce the likelihood of two identical IS sedans at a traffic light.

We wind up at a 6 out of 10 for the 2020 IS by dialing back a point from those assets because of its lousy infotainment controller and software.

The base IS 300 runs a little under $40,000 and comes with synthetic leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, a 7.0-inch screen, LED headlights, and active safety features. It’s not cheap, but it’s not a bad buy, either.

Dress up an IS 350 with all-wheel drive and it’ll top $50,000, which is still less than equivalent BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars. 

Our suggestion here is to grab an IS 350 with rear-wheel drive and the F Sport package, which is priced at around $46,000 and delivers the best of the available flavors. The brand’s sterling dealer experience reputation and good residual values help justify its price, too. 

Unfortunately, the infotainment system—whether paired with the base 7.0-inch screen or the optional 10.3-inch display—makes use of a clunky mouse-like controller. Amazon Alexa compatibility helps, but don’t look for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The 2020 IS is one of few new cars to lack advanced smartphone compatibility. 

Fuel Economy
The 2020 Lexus IS could use a hybrid version.

Given their modest power output, the 2020 Lexus IS’ engines aren’t particularly thrifty at the pump. Only one version hits 30 mpg on the highway, which stands in sharp contrast to rivals that offer as much as 5 mpg better.

We rate the lineup at 4 out of 10.

The base rear-drive IS 300 is rated at 21 mpg city, 30 highway, 24 combined making it the greenest of the range. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the IS 300 with all-wheel drive, a model that rates just 19/26/21 mpg thanks to its thirsty V-6 tasked with motivating a relatively heavy car. 

IS 350s aren’t too bad given the power they produce, but rivals are generally more frugal. The rear-drive IS 350 is rated by the EPA at 20/28/23 mpg, while all-wheel drive guzzles at a rate of 19/26/21 mpg. 

Every 2020 Lexus IS is designed to run on premium unleaded fuel.

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