Like Don King with his hair afire promoting an upcoming title bout (then again, his hair's always afire
), our chief editor could barely contain his excitement. "We need to get the new Lexus IS 350 and put it up against the BMW 330i!"
Fresh from its defense as sport sedan champion against the Audi A4, the 2006 BMW 330i now finds itself in the ring against the 2006 Lexus IS 350. A formidable athlete, the Lexus came in rippling with muscle and packing 306 horsepower. The Lexus has also been crowing that it's "the fastest vehicle in its class." Pretty brazen, considering the Muhammad Ali of sport sedans, the BMW 330i is the perennial holder of the belt in this class.
Sizing up the fighters
To keep the fight fair, the 330i in this test was an automatic, as the IS 350 isn't available with a manual gearbox. Looking at the window stickers of these compact luxury sport sedans had a few staffers needing smelling salts. Basing in the mid-$30Ks, both cars were fitted with around $10 grand in options, bringing the bottom lines to $45,508 for the Lexus and $47,390 for the Bimmer.
A few folks commented on how that's midsize sport/luxury sedan money. Yes, you can get a base Lexus GS 300 or BMW 525i for that kind of dough, but remember that our testers had just about everything you could get — navigation systems, "premium" packages with their fancier interior trim and even things like active steering (BMW) and a backup camera (Lexus).
In this corner
wearing Matador Red and weighing in at 3,527 pounds, the challenger, the Lexus IS 350. And in the opposite corner, in Titanium Silver and weighing 3,450, the defending compact sport sedan, the BMW 330i.
Instead of a boxing ring, these rear-wheel-drive pugilists slugged it out on the mean streets of Southern California. They tackled everything including bobbing and weaving with crazy L.A. drivers, transporting clothes to Goodwill, taking the kiddies to school and embarking on day trips up the coast. They also strutted their stuff at the test track and through the winding canyon roads in Malibu.
The judges' "score cards" took into account everything from raw performance to seat comfort to how easy (or tough) it was to work the climate controls. Other factors came into play as well, such as how the car responded and felt when driven the way a sport sedan was meant to be driven.
When the final bell rang, it was a tough one for the judges. The power, luxury and better value proposition put the Lexus ahead at times, while the 330i had a couple of "daily driver" advantages, such as more rear-seat legroom and greater cargo capacity by virtue of its split-folding rear seat.
It was close, but the 3 Series always managed to sway decisions back into its favor whenever a wavering "judge" got behind the wheel. And when we reminded ourselves that the true mission of a sport sedan is to provide enjoyment derived from driving, not quoting performance numbers to your buddies or convincing whomever which is the better deal, it always came back to the BMW.
First Place: 2006 BMW 330i
Once again, BMW's 3 Series proves that a winning personality counts for a lot. On paper, it looks like the clear winner here should've been the Lexus. It's faster (in a straight line, which is what most American drivers hold dearest). It's more luxurious. And it's less money. And yet
Beauty is in the eye
With its quirky headlights, heavy side sculpting and curvaceous trunk lid, the 2006 BMW 330i struck us as distinct, if not as handsome as the outgoing model. You've got eyes of your own, so we'll let you make your own judgments. Still, those pinched taillights reminded one staffer of an old Daewoo Lanos sedan. Ouch!
Our 330's rather austere cabin (due chiefly to the black color) was brightened by flashes of aluminum trim on the dash, console and doors. It didn't look as upscale as the IS's, but in fairness, a different color scheme with wood trim (like our long-term 330i) would've given this Bimmer's interior a more luxurious feel.
As with previous 3s, we bemoaned the lack of storage cubbies. But what was really odd was the lack of gauges. No temperature, voltmeter or oil pressure dials to be found. This is a BMW right? Really, guys, more instrumentation than an '87 Subaru Justy would be appreciated.
But once you settle into the cockpit, this criticism will fade. With the sport package comes well, sport seats, meaning racing-style buckets with adjustable under-thigh and side bolster supports. Set them up right, and you feel like the seats are hugging you — a reassuring feeling when you're bending it through the curves.
Bragging rights for the Bimmer also include 4 more inches of rear-seat legroom than the Lexus and greater cargo capacity afforded by the 60/40-split-folding rear seat that also features a pass-through.
Down on engine specification compared to the IS, the 330 makes no apologies. The 3.0-liter, 24-valve inline six makes plenty of power — 255 hp at 6,600 rpm and 220 pound-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm. This baby's smooth right to redline, which is good because you'll find yourself taking the tach needle there whenever conditions allow just to revel in its lusty wail while it pushes you back into the seat. It's not quite the track star the speedy IS 350 is, but a 6.7-second 0-60 and a 14.7-second quarter-mile are still plenty quick for a sedan with an automatic.
Making the most of the six-shooter is the six-speed automatic, which, like the Lexus', has three modes: normal, Sport and do it yourself. To engage Sport, you flick the lever to the left of "Drive" and then leave it alone. Set thusly, upshifts are snapped off at higher rpm, downshifts come in an eyeblink and gears are chosen and held wisely, such as when running up tempo through curvy roads. You can shift for yourself by bumping the lever fore and aft, but like most automanuals, there's a lag between when you do and when the change occurs. Leave it in Sport for the best performance.
Passing power is prodigious as the 330i just leaps from 50 to 80. And yes, you'll even be able to pass gas stations — our 330 returned nearly 22 mpg under the demands of our redline-hungry staffers.
Deceleration is right there, too. Coming to rest from 60 mph took only 112 feet, a performance more akin to a sports car than a sedan. Only some brake shudder as the ABS did its thing prevented the highest rating (excellent) from our test-driver.
Still the one
During this test, we recruited our news editor, Mike Hudson, to be a second driver for the video shoot. First he drove the Lexus and was agog over its blazing performance. But when we swapped cars he could barely contain his excitement as he discovered that there is life beyond acceleration. After just 10 minutes in the car spent rounding curves for the video team, he jumped out and exclaimed: "This is your winner right here. This car feels great — it's more fun than the Lexus."
Our 330i was equipped with the Sport package, which not only gives you those friendly seats mentioned already, but also firmer suspension calibrations, 18-inch alloys shod with Bridgestone Potenza REO50A run-flats (225/40 front and 255/35 rear) and a sport steering wheel. For $1,600, this is the best deal on the options sheet.
Our car also had the optional Active Steering, which we were afraid would lend an artificial feel to the experience. Not to worry, with its variable effort and widely variable ratio, it made for less wheel turning in parking lots and yet felt perfectly weighted, linear and responsive but not darty when running the canyons. There was no "getting used to it" and had we not seen it on the window sticker, we would've thought it was just BMW's typically precise and very communicative steering.
Our only gripe here was that we noticed the 330i's turning circle was larger than the IS's (36.1 feet versus 33.5 feet) during video shooting, when we had to turn around the cars countless times while filming "drive-bys."
Though its speed through the slalom was just 1 mph more than the Lexus', the BMW felt more confident, providing plenty of feedback to the driver and keeping the stability control on a long enough leash to allow an experienced pilot to push the car. The same is true on the road, where the 330i simply felt more connected when pushed hard. By contrast the IS 350, though capable and composed, felt like its steering was a remote control, and its stability control system was overly eager to take matters out of the driver's hands and into its own.
Driven in isolation, you'll be impressed by the Lexus — it's fast, comfortable and handles just fine for most people. But the 330i is still the performance sedan for people who enjoy driving as much as Homer Simpson enjoys beer.
Second Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
Previously known for building beautifully crafted luxury sedans, Lexus tried its hand at the sport sedan market with the 2001 IS 300. Aimed squarely at BMW's 3 Series, that first IS sedan was small, had rear-wheel drive and had an edge to it that made it fun to drive. It was a no-nonsense driver's car with an agile chassis and communicative steering, just like the benchmark Bimmer. Unfortunately, the IS 300 also had about the same cabin ambience and rear-seat room as a Toyota Corolla. With the 2006 Lexus IS 350, the company seems bent on making up for those previous shortcomings.
Strong and stout
A beefy, wedge-shaped body characterizes the IS. Although not as daring as the 330i's design, some of us preferred the more cohesive look, such as the way the front lower air intake and foglights echo the shape of the grille and headlights above. Then again, a few thought it bland compared to the Bimmer.
There was no dissension on the interior treatment, however. Fitted with the $1,290 Premium package, our IS 350 coddled its occupants with heated and ventilated front seats as well as elegant metallic and wood accents throughout the cabin. The Lexus one-ups the 330i on several accounts here — the steering wheel has power, not manual adjustments and the parking assist feature includes a backup camera in addition to sonic warning.
Plop down into the IS's seats and you sink into them more than you do in the firmer, form-fitting 330i's. You'll note that the side bolsters are softer than the BMW's and hence don't provide the same lateral support as the rival German. And therein lies a clue to the personality of the IS 350
Behind the big "L" in the grille sits a 306-horsepower monster. Without needing the forced induction of a turbocharger or supercharger, the free-breathing 3.5-liter V6 in the IS 350 is a model of linear power and smoothness. A 5.6-second sprint to 60 mph and a 13.9-second quarter-mile — digest that for a moment. That's as quick as a Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG and just dusts the 330i.
Like the BMW, this Lexus comes with a six-speed automatic transmission with three modes — normal, Sport and manual-shift. Unlike the BMW, no manual is available. And as with the 330i, this tranny is at its best when set in Sport, where one driver noted, "It's very adept and quick, allowing a lag-free burst of acceleration from nearly any speed." With this car, you might as well call on-ramps "runways," as the rush of acceleration feels more Lear Jet than Lexus sedan. A bigger appetite comes with the bigger performance — we averaged 18 mpg with the IS 350 (against EPA estimates of 21/28), testament to how much we enjoyed the car's performance.
Exhibiting the same unruffled nature as the powertrain, the brakes swiftly and quietly haul the car down. Anything under 125 feet from 60 mph is respectable, so the IS 350's 120-foot stopping distance is pretty good, though it still falls short of the stellar 112-foot effort put forth by the BMW.
Although the IS 350 can put considerable distance between itself and the 330i at the drag strip, it's another story when the path deviates from the straight and narrow. Although only a second separated the car's slalom times, it was the feel of the wheel both through the cones and out in the real world that separated the two.
All the hardware to be a competent apex clipper is present in the IS 350: rear-drive, independent suspension all 'round, firm spring and shock specs, 18-inch wheels wearing performance tires (Dunlop SP Sport Maxx's) sized the same as the 330i's. But sadly, the precise but numb steering and an overly eager stability control system push the "mute" button whenever skilled drivers want to have a little fun.
If the electronic nanny was adjustable (just two settings, "Normal" and a less intrusive "Sport," would work), the IS may have tied or even beaten the 330 in the slalom. And it would've put smiles, rather than frowns, on our car jockeys' mugs while attacking our favorite stretches of desolate, serpentine two-lane blacktop. As one driver commented, "It's a smooth performer, but it doesn't invite you to really drive it the way the 330 does."
It all depends on your priorities
And there's the catch. In this world of grueling commutes, day care drop-offs and errand running, the more affordable 2006 Lexus IS 350 is a fine choice. But the BMW, while just as friendly on a daily basis, is simply more fun to drive. And that is why the Lexus comes in second.