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2011 Lexus IS 250 AWD: First step to the big leagues

The all-wheel-drive luxury sport sedan for the cost conscious
by: Courtesy of Michael Dobrin PR Nothing feel entry level about the Lexus IS 250 AWD, one of the least expensive all-wheel-drive sport sedans on the market.

When it comes to cars, there is entry level and then there is entry level-plus.

Historically, entry-level cars are the least expensive model a manufacturer offers. With no options, it is intended to attract the thriftiest new car buyers, with the hope of eventually moving them up to more expensive (and profitable) models.

But the term is also applied there days to the least expansive model of a particular kind of car. In this regard, many reviewers describe the 2011 Lexus IS 250 as an entry level luxury sport sedan. The must make our test car, the all-wheel-drive version, an entry level AWD luxury sport sedan. But with a starting price of just over $36,275, that may not seem very inexpensive to a lot of potential new car buyers.

In fact, most AWD luxury sport sedans cost more - including the Lexus IS 350 AWD, which starts at $41,530. The most important difference between the IS 250 AWD and IS 350 AWD is the engine. As the name implies, the 250 is powered by a 2.5-liter V6 that produces 204 horsepower. The 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 306 horsepower.

Is the additional 102 horsepower worth $5,255 more? Maybe if you're the kind of driver that enjoys pushing the limits on a regular basis. But if all you're looking for is a well made, fun to drive sedan with luxury touches and the added security of all-wheel-drive, the IS 250 is hard to beat. It also gets around two miles per gallon better, an EPA average 22 mpg compared to 20 mpg.

Lexis is Toyota's premium brand designed to compete against the best American and European road cars. It offers a full line of models that include cars, crossovers, sport utility vehicles and even a limited-production supercar, the LFA. All are good values, considering the quality of their construction and upscale features. The current version of the IS 250 AWD would have been considered among everyone's top of the line cars just a few years ago.

Some reviewers call the IS 250 a compact. Others say it competes against midsize cars. The truth is, cars come in so many different sizes these days that the old classifications are breaking down. We consider it a small midsize. There is plenty of room for the driver and front seat passenger, but the rear seat headroom and legroom is cramped.

The exterior is sleek but functional, with a long hood and shorter trunk that makes it look both aggressive and restrained at the same time - like it is holding a lot back. The air dam is low but subtle, while the bulging fenders and 17-inch wheels remind the world that it is a sport sedan, not merely a family hauler.

The interior is clean and contemporary, with large readable gauges and a well-designed dash that flows into a high center console. Materials are high quality and the fit and finish is excellent. Controls are a mix of knobs, buttons and touch screen commands that took a little getting used to. For example, radio stations are found manually but locked in digitally. Once you learn that, it makes sense. Until then, it's a little confusing.

A number of reviewers call the 2.5-liter V6 underpowered. While not as strong as the larger base engines on some competitors, we found it more than adequate for around town and freeway driving, especially because the six-speed automatic is so responsive. Then again, the manual shift mode was not able to wring that much more performance out of engine's 204 horsepower.

The suspension was a little trickier. Like all true sport sedans, it was firm enough for spirited driving on twisty roads. It also felt taut over smooth pavement. It was a little unsettled over rough roads, however, and too jarring for a luxury car over a couple of potholes. As a result, we found ourselves weaving down some of the city's most poorly maintained street to avoid their most uneven portions.

On the other hand, the all-drive-system provided excellent traction in the rain without being obtrusive. And the steering and brakes were very well balanced. The steering feel is light and a little vague in a straight line, but precise in turns. The four-wheel disc brakes always worked well, stopping the car quickly from even high speeds without any swerving or sliding.

Two quirks are worth noting. The drive shaft tunnel protrudes slightly into the lower right hand side of the driver's compartment. Because the base IS 250 is a rear-wheel drive car, this is probably to accommodate the all-wheel-drive system. It was a little distracting at first but became less noticeable over time. And there is only one cup holder for the driver and front seat passenger to share. That's surprising, given the proliferation of them in lower-priced vehicles.

Our test car included a whopping $6,100 worth of options that undoubtedly improved the driving experience, including heated and ventilated front leather memory seats, a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a navigation system with a rear view camera and an upgraded stereo system. Because of that, we can't really says how a no-option 2011 Lexus IS 250 AWD competes against all other entry level all-wheel-drive luxury sport sedans. Our guess is, pretty well - meaning that anyone in the market for one should give it a try.

• Model: 2011 IS 250 AWD.

• Manufacturer: Lexus.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door, five-passenger car.

• Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline 4 (204 hp, 185 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/27

• Price: Beginning at approximately $36.275 ($42,887 as tested).