The Lexus IS has evolved -- but it's still trying to find an identity

Now in its third generation, the Lexus IS is still kind of an outsider among its peers.

The first generation of this entry level luxury sedan was an important step forward for Lexus.

Toyota’s luxury division finally had something sporty to offer buyers who tend to shop for the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, and BMW 3-series.

The Bavarian Big Three have held a tight grip on the segment for the better part of two decades.

The proof is on the scoreboard. BMW sold nearly 95,000 new 3 Series cars in 2015 and Mercedes tallied more than 86,000 C-Class models. American challenger, Cadillac punched in at over 63,000 of its ATS sports sedeans sold.

Lexus booked about 46,300 of the Lexus IS. Only Audi did worse with just 29,013 A4s sold in 2015 — mostly because the newly redesigned 2017 model was about to land stateside.

With the 2016 Lexus IS, the company gives us a smartly engineered sport sedan with updated drivetrain options that make it a more serious competitor among its rivals, but the IS hasn’t quite found its own identity yet.

Lexus is expected to debut a refreshed IS at the Beijing Auto Show later this month, but we took the current 2016 model for a spin to see how it measures up.

The current generation's design was first introduced in 2013. The L-finesse design language definitely got people talking, for better or worse.

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Lots of sharp angles and character lines give the car an angry scowl. It's even more pronounced with the F Sport upgrade that's featured on this model, which adds the more aggressive front bumper and spindle-shaped front grille.

The LED daytime running lamps that underline the headlights resemble darts aiming for that slight kink in the spindle grille

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These design elements have migrated throughout the Lexus lineup, including the GS, and the NX and RX crossovers.

It's clear that Lexus designers had a lot to say here

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The IS200t's rear-quarter is significantly toned down compared to everything up front, but bold lines continue from the bottom corner of the taillights, swooping down to the lower side sills.

The IS200t is new to the IS lineup. Its 2-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder follows the industry's move toward smaller base engines.

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The engine is borrowed from the NX200 crossover, and spins up 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That's right in line with the competition. Acceleration is sufficiently quick without sacrificing MPGs, which, even with record-low gas prices, is a welcome trade-off.

The thing that kills this otherwise promising engine is the turbo lag. Even in sport mode, there's a notable hesitation from the moment you hit the gas to the moment the IS200t wakes up.

The F Sport package gives it a certain street-racer persona. Perhaps a nod to the younger buyers Lexus has been courting with the IS since it first debuted in the late 1990s.

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The charcoal-hued 18-inch alloys add a bit of mischievous charm. The contrast is especially pronounced in this exterior paint which is aptly called 'redline.'

The F Sport-iness continues inside. Per the usual for your standard sport package, the interior is draped in black and aluminium from the headliner to the pedals, but there's a downside ...

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The look is sharp, if not a little mundane. Car makers could do better to get more creative with their sport-inspired interiors, though.

... some key touch-points on the dash are hard as a rock.

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This particular IS200t stickers for $45,650 with the F Sport package, navigation, and a handful of other options, but the plastics on the dash and center console feel like they came out of a Toyota Corolla.

Your $45,000 gets you more hard plastics on the center console, but then something interesting happens ...

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The drive mode selector and buttons pictured here are all encased in hard, scratchy plastic.

... the buttons that control the navigation system have a soft, dense bit of resistance to them when pressed. The square-shaped controller in finished in a leathery fabric.

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The odd mix of materials on the dash and center console create a disjointed tactile experience.

Lexus does give you soft-touch armrests on the doors, though.

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You also get some padding on the sides of the center console where you might rest your leg on long trips.

There are things the IS200t does well. It handles brilliantly -- thanks in part to the F Sport-tuned suspension.

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It gobbled up the curvy mountain roads above Muir Beach north of San Francisco with ease.

This badge costs $3,545.

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To be fair, the F Sport package includes lots of extras, like LED headlights, paddle shifters, and heated and ventilated sport seats.

Despite its polarising design, the IS200t is a decent value.

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Yes, a well-optioned model will easily run you into $50,000 territory, but chances are, so will the competition. So, if you measure the IS200t against the four-cylinder-engined Mercedes C300, the BMW 320i, and the Audi A4, the IS presents a bold, aesthetically-loud alternative.

It doesn't quite excel in any one area, but it's packaged well enough, and looks distinctive enough to help you stand out in the office parking lot.

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