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2020 Lexus IS premium compact sedan: game over? Or is a BMW six in its future?

2020 Lexus IS

What changes will make the 2020 Lexus IS different?

Little of note while the fate of Lexus’s entry-level car hangs in the balance. Rumors abound. Some reports suggest model-year 2020 could be the last for this compact premium sedan. Others say Toyota’s upscale division may field a fully redesigned IS for model-year 2021 or ’22. A few oracles even claim the next-generation IS will offer a BMW inline-six-cylinder engine.

One thing’s certain: IS sales are in free fall. Demand dropped 13 percent for 2018 and was off another 27 percent through the first quarter of 2019, on a pace for just 15,000 for the year. The decrease has been steady since the 51,538 sold in 2014, the year today’s second-generation IS debuted. Actually, the IS has never been a big seller in a segment dominated by the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and BMW 3- and 4-Series. In fact, the class as a whole is suffering double-digit declines as buyers abandon cars of all types for crossovers, SUVs, and pickups.

For the 2020 IS, Lexus could introduce a new trim package, such as the Black Line Special Edition it added for 2019. If ’20 is indeed the final model year for this generation IS – or the last for the IS, period – a swan-song special edition would make sense. Its long-term future notwithstanding, the ’20 IS will return as a stylish sedan available with rear- or all-wheel drive (AWD), turbocharged four-cylinder and naturally aspirated V-6 engines, and base prices that generally undercut those of its European competition.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of the 2019 Lexus IS. In areas where the ’20 might be different, we’ll reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

The 2019 and ’20 IS will be virtually the same car, though year-over-year price inflation means the ’20 will likely cost a bit more. Lexus tweaked the ’19, sharpening the turbo’s performance, making available neat triple-beam LED headlights, and expanding mobile connectivity opportunities. All that will carry over, and while an option or two might be made standard, there’s no compelling reason to wait for the ’20.

Transaction prices on 2019s were tracking below dealer invoice, and the model lineup is unlikely to change. That means a 2020 selection again starting with the 241-horsepower turbocharged-four-cylinder IS 300 available in rear-wheel drive only, moving up to the 260-horsepower V-6 IS 300 AWD model available with only all-wheel drive, and culminating in the 311-horse-V-6 IS 350 in rear-drive or AWD.

Regardless drivetrain or performance, all ’20 IS models will again appeal for Lexus quality and reliability but give you pause if you prioritize a roomy cabin or high performance on par with the likes of the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, M versions of the BMW 3 Series and 4 Series, the Audi S4 and RS 5, or the Mercedes-AMG C43 and C63.

That could change if there’s a next-generation IS and if it delivers on some speculation about it. An argument for a successor is the sales disappointment of Lexus’s next-class-up sedan, the premium midsize GS. It’s even less popular than the IS and even less likely to justify the development of a next generation. Lexus thus has an opportunity to increase the dimensions of a redesigned IS, giving it a sorely needed improvement in passenger space.

Amy future IS would again provide a choice of rear-wheel drive or AWD, and likely offer a gas-electric hybrid with a four-cylinder engine, perhaps tabbed the IS 300h. Figure a base IS 350 with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four cylinder of around 290 horsepower in place of today’s V-6 models. Due for model-year 2022 or so might be an IS F with the 400-plus-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 from Lexus’s LS flagship sedan. Most intriguing – and most farfetched — would be an F performance model with a version of the 335-horsepower turbocharged inline-six based on the BMW engine in the reborn Toyota Supra sports car.

Will the styling be different?

Not beyond a new color choice or two, plus any unique trim that might accompany a special edition, such as the run of 900 Black Line F Sports offered for 2019. Last facelifted for model-year 2017, the IS for 2020 will return with Lexus’s in-your-face “spindle” grille and a rakish four-door body. Expect IS 300 models to repeat with 17-inch alloy wheels, the IS 350 with 18s, and for the main visual distinction to remain F Sport trim.

Available again on any ’20 IS model, the F Sport package will add sportier grille trim, unique front and rear fascia, and an exclusive 18-inch wheel design. It will also include high- and low-beam LED headlamps in place of standard LED low beams. Added for 2019 and returning for ’20 will be optional triple-beam LED headlamps. Likely priced around $1,160 and available on any 2020 IS, these have a trio of low-beam LED lamps in a distinctive “L” shaped pattern supplemented by a single LED high-beam.

With a basic design dating to model-year 2014, the 2020 IS will again be among the oldest cars in its competitive set. This is evident by its compact dimensions, born of a time when upscale brands fielded rear-wheel-drive-based sports sedans such as the IS, the Jaguar XF, Infiniti G35, and Cadillac ATS. All were designed to capture the magic of the small, agile 2006-2011-generation BMW 3 Series. Ironically, the 3 Series has grown with each succeeding generation and today is one of the roomiest sedans in the segment.

The IS, however, retains a cabin with front seats cramped for big adults and a rear seat confining even for tall teens. The seats themselves are firmly padded and supportive enough, and while the only available upholstery will remain Lexus’s Neluxe simulated leather, it’s rich and supple enough to pass for the real thing. Indeed, the plethora of padded surfaces, stitched skins, solid panels, and silky-movement controls certifies the IS as a genuine Lexus. So, too, does the admirable suppression of wind and road noise.

The intimate interior will retain its sporty, cockpit-like feel in front, with a wide center console and all buttons and knobs close at hand. Instrumentation pops with hi-def clarity, and F Sports will again feature a neat main gauge cluster with a speedometer/tachometer that slides right at the push of a button to reveal ancillary navigation, audio, and vehicle data.

Another telltale of the IS’s age is an infotainment screen integrated into the central dashboard rather than plopped atop it, table-style, as is today’s automotive fashion. A 7-inch display will remain standard for 2020; a 10.3-incher will again accompany the imbedded navigation system, which should remain an option for all IS models at around $1,750.

Many audio and nav functions can be governed via steering-wheel buttons or voice commands, but the primary infotainment control will remain the brand’s Remote Touch Interface, a puck-like joystick with supplemental buttons on the center console. A better setup than the touchpad used on newer Lexus models and in some rivals, the joystick nonetheless proves too sensitive to unintended movements and too prone to overshoot your target icon on the dash display

The close quarters leave little room for small-items storage in the narrow door pockets and small console bin and glovebox. That’s a constant annoyance. At 13.8 cubic feet, however, trunk volume will remain better than class-average, even if the lid hinges do intrude enough to crush carelessly placed cargo.

Any mechanical changes?

Highly unlikely. The 2020 IS 300 will retain a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It’ll again link to an eight-speed automatic transmission and be available only with rear-wheel drive. Returning as well will be the IS 300 AWD with a 3.5-liter V-6 of 260 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque linked to a six-speed automatic transmission. Again topping the line will be the 2020 IS 350 with rear- or all-wheel drive and a 3.5 V-6 tuned for 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. It’ll again use an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Acceleration would again follow the model hierarchy, the IS 300 off the pace for this class, at about 6.9 seconds 0-60 mph; the IS 300 AWD competitive at around 6.1 seconds; and the IS 350, at around 5.7 seconds, seldom lacking for punch but nowhere near the sub-5-second times of the aforementioned Alfa, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz hot rods. The ’20 IS 300 AWD and IS 350 models will again be the only premium-compact sedans available with naturally aspirated V6 engines, which, depending on your perspective, is either retrograde as old-school technology or refreshingly traditional for their linear power delivery. Every ’20 IS will again come with driver-selectable Normal, Comfort, and Sport powertrain modes.

Driving manners should continue to complement the engines’ middle-of-the-premium-compact-road performance. Natural steering feel and absorbent control will get priority over halfback-quick reflexes. This is consistent with the Lexus ethos, as is the modest but noticeable handling enhancement that comes with the F Sport kit. It leaves engines untouched but furnishes tauter suspension tuning for enhanced confidence in turns without upsetting the compliant ride. That’s particularly evident with the Adaptive Variable Suspension included IS 350 F Sport models. It includes driver-selected “Sport” and “Sport+” modes that tamp down unwanted body motions and also sharpen throttle response.

On dry roads, the available AWD system maintains a 30/70 front/rear torque split and can send up to 50 percent to the front wheels in certain conditions. While AWD is a traction safety net in the snow, it doesn’t pay huge dry-road-handling dividends in IS models we’ve tested. The limited-slip rear differential included with rear-drive IS 350s F Sports, however, is a welcome asset.

Will fuel economy improve?

With no mechanical changes, expect 2020 IS EPA ratings to mirror those of 2019.

That means the ’20 IS 300 would again rate 21/30/24 mpg city/highway/combined and the IS 300 AWD 19/26/21. Expect the 2020 IS 350 to again rate 20/28/23 mpg with rear drive and 19/26/21 with AWD. None of these ratings is particularly impressive against newer rivals, most of which employ state-of-the-art turbo technology to provide better economy with similar or better power. And expect Lexus to again require premium 91-octane or higher gas for all 2020 IS models.

Will there be new features?

There might be some equipment shuffling, perhaps in conjunction with a special option package. But this late life, new equipment isn’t in the cards for the 2020 IS.

Continuing with the Lexus Safety System+ as standard means every ’20 IS model will come with autonomous emergency braking that can automatically stop it to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian. Also aboard will be lane-maintaining automatic steering correction, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and automatic high beam headlamps. We’d urge Lexus to make blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection standard on every 2020 IS. For ’19, it was included on IS 350 AWD F Sports but was part of the Premium Package option on the other models.

In addition to the items previously covered, every 2020 IS will again come with a power moonroof, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone automatic control, wireless streaming connectivity, and an eight-speaker 293-watt stereo. AWD models will also include heated front seats as standard.

Among key options, the Premium Package should again include among its features a power tilt/telescope steering column, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic-dimming heated side mirrors with auto tilt-down, and memory for the power driver’s seat, steering column, and side mirrors. For ’19, the package also included the blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection and cost $1,510 on the IS 300 and $1,070 in the IS 300 AWD and IS 350 models.

Imbedded navigation with the 10.3-inch split-screen multimedia display should again be a $1,745 option across the board. Upgrading to the 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levison-branded 5.1-channel surround-sound audio system should again run $2,845. Expect to pay around $890 to upgrade an IS 300 to 18-inch wheels.

Will 2020 prices be different?

They’re apt to increase, though modestly, given weak demand for the IS and slumping sales for the premium compact-car category, which declined 16 percent for 2018 and was down 17 percent through the first quarter 2019.

For reference, here are 2019 IS base prices, including Lexus’s $995 destination fee. The IS 300 started at $39,405, or $39,405 in F Sport guise. Base prices were $41,855 for the IS 300 AWD and $44,650 for the IS 300 AWD F Sport.

In the IS 350 line, base prices were $43,025 with rear-drive drive and $45,190 for AWD. In F Sport form, starting prices were $46,220 and $47,555, respectively.

When does it come out?

Expect a 2020 Lexus IS release date in the third quarter 2019.

Best competitors

Alfa Romeo Giulia, Audi A4 and A5, BMW 3 Series and 4 Series, Cadillac CT4, Genesis G70, Jaguar XE, Mercedes-Benz C-Class

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]