As an M3 owner, I didn't think I'd end up liking the IS as much as I did. First and foremost, it only comes as a slushbox... and they add insult to injury by adding the lame shift buttons on the steering wheel thinking we wouldn't know the difference. (I've always hated Porsche for doing the same thing) Second, I personally find the styling uninspirational and bland even by Lexus standards (though I liked the standard 5 spoke 17 inch wheels) So you can say I approached the car ready to dismiss it as a lame attempt at competing with our beloved 3 series.
But once you get it going, you forget about all that, and this car really delivers where it counts --on the windy backroads where BMWs rule. The steering comes very close to E46 standards. Nicely weighted and a well chosen ratio. I would have liked a little more granularity in it --it falls short of M3 and E46-3er standards for feedback. You simply don't get that degree of communication in the steering wheel like you do in an M car. But the little Lexus sure does try.
Exceptional suspension control. The initial body roll gives way to a solid, near unflappable feeling. Very confidence inspiring. It is simply an intuitive car to drive fast. A light touch of understeer at the limit. If it were ever available with a good stick, this car should be a great autocross car. Within minutes, I could drift through turns under perfect balance like I've been driving the car for years. IF ONLY YOU COULD GET IT WITH A MANUAL!
Initially, the brakes were terrific.. even by sports car standards. But after the quick 5 minute 'handling course' near the office, they had faded and cooked pretty good. They need better ventilation.
Power was not bad ; nothing to write home about, but feels adequate for this car's mission.
As for the interior, I'll only mention that watch-style instrument cluster. Very neat looking, but forget about getting any useful information from it when you need it. Important stuff like the rev-counter and speedo is simply to small. You end up staring down at the cluster instead of keeping your eyes on the road where they should be. The gear indicator when you're in manu-matic mode is in LCD and impossible to read. Otherwise, everything else about the interior is agreeable.
So the bottom line is that it is one manual gearbox and stout brakes short of a true driver's car. Its a great deal for your money too, as it would cost quite a bit less than a comparatively equipped 330i. For your extra money, the Bimmer will ultimately edge this car out for steering feel and brakes, as they feel about on par as the chassis goes. Not to mention the E46 looks much classier than the uninspired Lexus. Compared to other cars trying to break into BMW's sports-coupe/sedan segment like the Acura CL 3.2 Type-S, it simply out handles and out drives the FWD car. What a great effort by Lexus.
I drove a C36 (lumbering tank) and a 993 Cab (scchwwweeet) in the same string of test drives, and shockingly... found myself have the most amount of fun in the Lexus. Go figure. Maybe the thought of ending up in the weeds with someone else's $55 ass-happy sports car subduded the 911 experience for me a bit.