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SHORT ON SPORT: Lexus’ entry-level IS, the 250 sedan, could benefit from a powerplant transplant

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With BMW’s iconic 3-Series clearly in its sites, Lexus redesigned its compact sports sedan, the IS, for 2013.

Striking new styling inside and out, a longer wheelbase yielding a much-needed gain in rear-seat space, and retuned suspension and steering systems advance the desirability of the new models, bringing then ever closer to the targeted bull’s-eye from Bavaria.

Overall, the transformation has paid off handsomely. Most reviews have been quite positive; Car and Driver magazine, ever the notorious BMW-phile, even crowned the IS 350 the winner in a head-to-head comparison test with a BMW 335i.

But the IS 350 isn’t the entry-level model in this revamped lineup. That task falls to the IS 250. And it’s the “250″ part of that designation that leaves something to be desired. That something, as you might surmise, is power.

The 2.5-liter V-6, a leftover from the previous IS iteration, is plenty smooth, as is the six-speed automatic transmission, although a gear to two shy of competitors’. But with only 204 horsepower – and an even-more-meager 185 pound-feet of torque – this sports sedan falls short in one of the main ingredients: sport.

The drivetrain feels moderately spunky around town, thanks in large part to the close ratios in the transmission’s lower gears. But once up to speed, there’s a paucity of punch that would serve to make the car feel alive and eager. As a further demerit, it also requires premium-grade fuel and delivers behind-the-competition fuel economy.

While those IS competitors – and any number of makers of more pedestrian and affordable vehicles – are equipping their cars with cutting-edge, high-output, turbocharged four-cylinder engines, Lexus is stuck behind the curve with this outclassed powerplant.

2014_Lexus_IS_350_002What makes this even more frustrating is that the rest of the car’s systems, from suspension to brakes to steering, are nicely sorted out. Steering especially delivers superb, class-leading response and lively road feel.

The cabin is trimmed in first-class materials, a Lexus imperative, and all the switchgear operates with solid, well-oiled precision. Leather-wrapped front buckets are nicely bolstered.

All the IS 250 lacks is an updated powertrain – engine and transmission – to make it a true sports-sedan challenger.

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