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Lexus IS a graceful sport

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

PINEHURST, N.C. — When it comes to buying a new car these days, there seem to be two types: low-end and high-end. The middle of the market and the brands that once served it — Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Mercury — have vanished. To fill the void, many top-shelf nameplates offer small premium models, and they've become a red-hot part of the market.

This is the niche that the 2014 Lexus IS 250 and 350 serve. It's the smallest rear-wheel-drive car in the Lexus lineup, a slot it's filled since its introduction in 2001.

For 2014, the IS wears the styling that has trickled down from LS, GS and ES sedans and, as a result, possesses a visual presence it's never had. Like its siblings, it has a gracefully sporty look, forgoing the generic look that has long plagued Lexus models.

The front end wears the most dynamic rendition of Lexus' new spindle grille — artfully sculptural, with an aggressive, three-dimensional playfulness that demands your attention.

Lighting has much to do with this little lover's new look. Up front, LEDs are housed in a boomerang-shaped opening, which is mirrored out back by the daggerlike points of rear tail lamps.

While the IS is no longer a stylistic wallflower, its newfound aggressiveness doesn't fully extend to its performance. Lexus has axed the high-performance IS-F model, as well as the IS convertible.

For now, the IS is offered solely as a sedan with one of two engines, both of which carry over from last year. The IS 250 has a 204-horsepower 2.5-liter V-6 and a six-speed automatic transmission while the IS 350 receives a 306-horsepower V-6 mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. A manual transmission is not offered and — as is usual for a Toyota or Lexus model — neither is a hybrid.

That said, the new IS is a notable improvement over its predecessor, especially when it came to handling.

The old IS feels like an unruly child when pushed to perform and takes much more effort to control.

In contrast, the new IS seems more responsive and sure-footed when put through its paces. Carving through a corner, it's much easier to control the back end through judicious use of the throttle. Unlike the old model, which was a bit ornery, the new one is fun without inducing fear.

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