AUSTIN, TX – Lexus officials have made it clear the all-new ’14 IS sport sedan is designed to go head-to-head with the iconic BMW 3-Series, and a recent test drive indicates the brand is on the right track, but has fallen a tad short.

There’s a reason why many auto makers have tried, and failed, to launch a true 3-Series competitor. BMW set the standard with the 3-Series by making world-class driving attributes the top priority in developing each successive generation.

When it comes to driving performance, the new IS is no slouch. Both new models, the IS 250, powered by a 2.5L V-6, and the IS 350 with a 3.5L V-6, are fast, agile and able to brake on a dime.

While the 3.5L, producing 306 hp and 277 lb.-ft. (375 Nm) of torque, is the heavy hitter of the two, the IS 250 with its standard 6-speed automatic transmission proves most enjoyable.

Acceleration is adequate in the IS 250, which produces 204 hp and 185 lb.-ft. (251 Nm) of torque.

But here’s our beef: These two V-6s carry over unchanged from the previous-generation IS. Can Lexus seriously challenge BMW with re-treads that are nearly 10 years old? If the sheet metal and interior are new, why not deliver new engines?

What Toyota saved on powertrain development it spent on the chassis. In the IS 250, the setup is ideal: It feels light on its feet and is more nimble than the 350 on some of the twistier roads here outside the Lone Star capital. There is a feeling of control via the spot-on steering and rigid body.

Lexus says tightening up the IS was a key goal, and on paper the ’14 IS is much stiffer than its predecessor, thanks to new laser-screw welding and adhesive body-bonding techniques, in addition to more spot-welding.

Further enhancing vehicle handling is a new multilink rear and updated front suspension, both of which help keep the car firmly planted.

While the improvements were needed and are clearly noticeable, the IS doesn’t achieve the ideal balance of the 3-Series. BMW has had decades to hone its body tuning, and while Lexus has narrowed the gap, it’s still in Bavaria’s rear-view mirror.

With an extra 132 lbs. (60 kg) compared with the IS 250, the new IS 350 is less manageable in the corners. But straight-line speed is impressive. Lexus claims the bulkier IS scampers to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.6 seconds.

The IS 350 gets the wonderful 8-speed “Sport Direct Shift” automatic transmission from the IS F high-performance sedan. Shifts are quick and precise, and never once does the gearbox feel as if it is hunting for gears.

Sadly, unlike the 3-Series, neither the IS 250 nor 350 offers a manual transmission. Lexus officials say the take rate on manuals is too low and high-tech automatic gearboxes are superior to even the best driver working three pedals.

Both the IS 250 and 350 channel power to the rear wheels, but all-wheel drive can be had for a little over $2,500 on the 250 and about $2,000 on the 350. AWD does little to change the driving dynamics on smooth, dry pavement, but is likely to be a hot seller in cold-weather states.

A new drive-mode select system is available on both models that lets the driver choose between eco, normal and sport settings, while AWD models get an added snow option. Sport mode makes the most impact, tightening the suspension dramatically.

Lexus says the redesigned IS interior draws inspiration from the LFA supercar, and it certainly represents an upgrade over the outgoing model.

For the ’14 IS, Lexus stretches the wheelbase nearly 3 ins. (7.6 cm) and adds a new front-seat design it says boosts rear-seat legroom, which was cramped in the outgoing model, by 1.6 ins. (4 cm).

Engineers increased trunk size by separating the shocks from the springs, creating 13.8 cu.-ft. (391 L) of space.

Interior materials all appear topnotch, with soft-touch surfaces throughout and natural-looking real-wood inserts. The 10-way power front seats are comfortable and deliver plenty of bolstering during aggressive maneuvers.

Lexus’ Enform with App Suite infotainment system comes standard on vehicles equipped with navigation. The system is easy to use via the mouse-like controller and lets users conduct online searches through Bing, access Internet radio, search business reviews on Yelp and check in on Facebook.

The new exterior styling is bound to be polarizing. It’s definitely more aggressive than the outgoing model, but in a cartoonish way.

Lexus’ signature spindle grille has been stretched to gigantic proportions, making it look like the “Predator” in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Otherwise, the Lexus IS is a handsome sedan with a stretched, low-slung stance making it look ready to pounce.

The ’14 IS goes on sale this summer, with 250 prices starting at $35,950 and 350 at $39,465, excluding $875 destination charges.

Overall, both the IS 250 and 350 are notable upgrades over their predecessors, but are not quite ready to knock the 3-Series off its perch in the sport-sedan segment.

In 2012, the reasonably new 3-Series outsold the previous-generation Lexus IS 250/350 in the U.S. by a margin of nearly 4-to-1. The new IS has to log a lot more sales before it truly can challenge BMW.

bpope@wardsauto.com

’14 Lexus IS 250
Vehicle type 4-door, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger luxury sedan
Engine 2.5L DOHC direct-injection all-aluminum V-6
Power (SAE net) 204 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 185 lb.-ft. (251 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 83.0 x 76.9
Compression ratio 12.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 110.2 ins. (280 cm)
Overall length 183.97 ins. (467 cm)
Overall width 71.3 ins. (181 cm)
Overall height 56.3 ins. (143 cm)
Curb weight 3,461 lbs. (1,569 kg)
Base price $35,950
Fuel economy 21/30 (11.2-7.8 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class, Cadillac ATS, Audi A4
Pros Cons
Stout 306-hp V-6 available Both engine offerings old
Impressive 6-speed automatic No manual offered
More sporty than predecessor Still falls short of 3-Series