As I toss the new IS 350 through a sharp left-hander on twisty Angeles Crest Highway, it suddenly dawns on me — Lexus lives with a perpetual conundrum. On the one hand, the company likes to position itself as a segment leader, and it likes to participate in popular segments such as the entry-luxury sport sedan market. On the other hand, the very nature of the sport sedan market means cars like the BMW 3 Series (sporty, nimble, passionate) have effectively defined the segment. So, for Lexus to truly compete with the class leader it must present those same attributes in its own sport sedan offering.
Lexus tried to play in this field when it introduced the IS 300 in 2001, but company officials readily admit that the first IS never delivered "a total Lexus experience." However, according to Bob Carter, Lexus group vice president, the all-new 2006 Lexus IS 350 is meant to take "dead aim at setting a new standard of class-leading performance."
As the burgundy IS 350 I'm piloting deftly drifts through the sharp left-hander, before straightening out and rocketing away with all 306 horsepower churning from its 3.5-liter V6, I realize the car is indeed superbly refined, supremely confident and subtly uninspiring.
There's no denying that the new IS 350 is bursting with cutting-edge technology. In fact, Lexus is quick to point out the many "segment firsts" offered on this latest model, including direct fuel injection, keyless entry and start, adaptive (and bi-xenon) headlights and radar cruise control. So if "setting a new standard of class-leading performance" means offering the first sport sedan with "steerable" headlights, precollision safety technology and push-button engine starting, Lexus has succeeded.
But as capable and solid as the car feels when tearing along Angeles Crest Highway, I'm left with an undeniable impression — I'd rather be driving a BMW 3 Series.
Less Than the Sum of its Parts?
Is this because the IS 350 lacks performance? Not at all. The 3.5-liter V6 has everything from dual VVTi (meaning both the intake and exhaust valve timing can be varied) to roller rockers to direct fuel injectors. The direct fuel injectors are backed up by port fuel injectors that can further improve cold weather starting and fuel economy while also reducing emissions. All of these systems work together to give the engine a broad, flat power band from idle to redline.
But despite all the advanced technology under the hood, the engine's performance further reflects Lexus' conundrum. How else can you describe an ultra-advanced, ultrarefined 306-hp engine that doesn't feel thrilling after mashing the accelerator pedal?
While the overly subdued exhaust note plays a role in killing the excitement, it goes beyond simple acoustics. The thrust of the engine itself was somehow muted, even as it pulled a 6.1-second 0-to-60 time (Lexus claims 5.6 seconds is possible, but this was the best we could get from our preproduction test unit). Maybe it's the 350 pounds gained over the previous IS 300, which was rather a flyweight at 3,150 pounds versus the 3,500-pound IS 350. Maybe it's the relaxed nature in how the engine goes about its business.
Whatever the cause, the car doesn't feel as fast as a 306-hp sedan should as it zips to 60 mph. It does, however, beat the last 330i and A4 we tested (both equipped with six-speed manual transmissions) by 0.5 and 1.6 seconds, respectively. It also blasted through the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds, smoking the German competition by about the same 0.6 to 1.5 seconds.
The Wizards Get in the Way
Keep in mind that this car is basically a shortened GS, as both models use the same platform and the same type of double-wishbone front suspension and multilink rear suspension (the suspension pieces themselves are different between the GS and IS). Also remember that a full battery of Lexus' electronic driver aids (ABS, EBD, BA, TRC, VSC and VDIM) lurks just below the surface, ready to "assist" the driver — whether he wants the assistance or not.
That last item is really the issue here. While ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) are accepted technologies on most sport sedans today, the inability to disable Traction Control (TRC), Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) and the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system is troublesome. Technically, you can disable traction control, but every time we did it allowed only a split second of wheel spin before re-engaging. How does this affect the car's ultimate handling capabilities? In our slalom test it averaged 64.1 mph. Not a bad number, but slower than the A4's 64.6 mph and the 330i's 66.4. See, sometimes the driver knows better.
The upshot of all this technowizardry is that the Lexus IS 350 is a truly fearless and capable high-speed conveyance. We experienced the car at both a closed-course racetrack and on the aforementioned Angeles Crest Highway, and under both circumstances it performed unflappably — if a bit antiseptically.
Our test car had the optional performance package that included 18-inch wheels, stiffer shocks and a half-inch lower ride height. These items add to the car's sporty nature, but they also make you aware of nearly every road imperfection. We didn't mind it, but traditional Lexus customers might.
The electronic power steering has good weighting, though we'd prefer more feedback through the wheel. And the VDIM system does allow for a power slide here and drift there while making its presence almost — almost — undetectable. If you prefer your sport sedans serene over spirited and unperturbed over unabashed, then this could be your ideal car.
A Sport Sedan Pedigree It's Got
The six-speed automatic is Mercedes-Benz-like in its ability to pick a proper gear, and when put in the "Power" mode the transmission downshifts readily and holds gears between corners, aiding corner entry speed with effective engine braking. The steering wheel paddles further add to the experience, though the paddles themselves feel a bit plasticky. We're still not happy about the lack of a manual tranny (you can get one in the IS 250), but this automatic makes the most of the situation.
Aiding the responsive transmission is a set of decisive four-wheel disc brakes that enhances the car's composure. Whether blasting between apexes or hauling it down from 60 mph during brake testing, the ventilated 13-inch front rotors and four-piston alloy calipers provide heroic levels of eye-popping stopping power. They also halt the car from 60 mph in 123 feet, though that's 13 feet more than the 330i and about equal to the A4's 122.
Lexus Still Means Luxury
Of course there's more to the modern sport sedan than steering feel and exhaust tone. In terms of cabin design and luxury amenities the IS 350 is truly a class leader. Everything from the soft-touch dash and door panels to the supple leather seats exudes high quality. The seats on our test car were heated and ventilated, and they provided soothing comfort along with effective side bolstering during rapid travel.
Rear seating isn't as palatial, which surprised us given the IS 350's growth from the old IS 300 days. The answer lies in the wheelbase, which is 1.2 inches shorter than the new 3 Series and offers minimal rear legroom. If you regularly carry adults — or even large children — in the rear seat they won't be happy back there.
Happiness can be found in the list of high-tech features offered in the IS 350. The Gen-5 navigation system is the latest in digital mapping, and it displays through a new VGA monitor capable of 32,000 colors. Other features, like an optional Mark Levinson audio system and standard auxiliary input (think iPod) add to the car's high-end demeanor. Advanced safety technology, including knee airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and an industry-first dual-chamber front passenger airbag confirm Lexus as ahead of the curve on many levels in this segment.
But in the End
In fact, if you were to ask us, "What's the most advanced, refined and confident sport sedan under $40,000 today?" we'd very likely tell you it's the Lexus IS 350. And if you then asked us, "Which modern sport sedan would you most like to own and drive?" we'd tell you "The BMW 3 Series."
A very solid, capable and desirable luxury sedan the IS 350 is. And if you simply focus on acceleration numbers, you could even say it's "the new standard of class-leading performance." Now, where are the BMW keys?
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our preproduction IS 350 came with the optional Mark Levinson audio system, which delivers discrete 5.1 surround sound playback. It has six distinct audio channels running through 14 speakers that consist of four 25mm tweeters, five 65mm midrange speakers including the dash-mounted center channel, two larger 100mm midrangers mounted in the rear doors and one 20cm subwoofer mounted in the rear package tray. The subwoofer is conveniently inverted in order to save trunk space. There's also a 10-channel, 300-watt (with all channels driven) amp and an integrated dash-mounted controller that also controls climate and navigation functions. The system is DVD-A compatible and can play DVD-video discs in addition to MP3/WMA files and CD-Rs.
Performance: We've always liked the Mark Levinson systems, but the one found in the IS seems to be a step up in terms of technology. The discrete 5.1 system sounds excellent, although we still like the sound in the bigger Mark Levinson-equipped Lexus vehicles a bit more. Vehicles like the LS 430 and LX 470 simply provide a much larger interior space to fill with sound.
Still, the IS 350's system sounds better than most factory-installed systems. Its strong point is its ability to deliver clean, sharp and uncluttered bass. The midrange is excellent as well. The midrange and tweeters use metal cones to reproduce the sound more efficiently and they are mounted in the doors for optimum sound reproduction. In fact, this Mark Levinson system is specifically designed so that 5.1 playback is optimized for each seating position — in short, everyone in the car has a good seat as far as acoustic quality is concerned. Even at higher volumes the sound remains clear.
The interface for the stereo is simple and easy to use. A large "audio" button next to the dash-mounted screen allows access to the system's basic functions. Bass, midrange and treble as well as the fader control all live on the same screen. You can also turn the surround sound feature on or off.
If we have a complaint about this stereo it's that there aren't that many customizable and flexible features. We'd like to see a progressive surround feature and/or an equalizer like on the Harman Kardon Logic 7 systems. The flipside of that complaint is that the Levinson system delivers stellar sound quality without any effort on the part of the driver. Just slide in a CD and it will sound great even if you never touch any of the sound controls.
Best Feature: Clean, sharp bass.
Worst Feature: Lacks customizable settings.
Conclusion: An excellent stereo overall that delivers plenty of thumping bass and clean, clear sound. — Brian Moody
Senior Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I was excited when the first IS arrived on American shores a few years ago but was disappointed by the abundance of cheap plastic. It was not a Lexus in my opinion. I certainly raised my expectations for this newly revised version.
The new IS shares all the aggressive character lines I liked in the first version, yet now they're refined into a smoother flow. As for the interior, Tag Heuer-styled displays weren't going to be enough this time, and I wasn't disappointed. It shares all the great interior characteristics I love in the new GS: nice soft touch, excellent leather and a touchscreen nav. This IS is slathered in Lexus luxury, which in my opinion is better than BMW's. Luxury aside, I loved the strong engine, and the addition of paddle shifters enhanced the driving experience. On the downside I found the IS's steering numb, the shifts were a hair slow, and the ride wasn't as dialed in as a 3 Series. Don't get me wrong, it's still really good.
If the IS is supposed to be billed as more BMW than a BMW, it falls a touch short in my book. However, its combination of superior comfort wrapped in a pleasing style is sure to satisfy almost anyone. Being an Angeleno, I think I'd rather have the superior comfort of the Lexus as I sit in rush-hour traffic. Superior handling does nothing for me at 5 miles per hour down the 405.
Road Test Editor Dan Kan says:
I really liked the previous-generation Lexus IS. It was certainly no BMW or Audi fighter, but nimble suspension and a reasonable price tag made it a great entry-level sport sedan for up-and-comers with a taste for corner-carving. The 2006 version has everything I liked about the last car, just more of it. More power, more comfort, better handling and sexy lines. The 300-horse V6 offers plenty of punch, and I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through the gears with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Handling is razor-sharp, and big GS 430-sourced brakes do a great job hauling the IS 350 to a halt. I also really like the supple leather-lined interior and backlit gauges (especially the integrated tachometer shift light). Fit and finish is exemplary, and all the controls are simple and easy to operate. My only complaint is the overly aggressive electronic nanny, which shifts the trans if you don't hit the paddle fast enough, kicks in traction control if you try to spin the gorgeous rear wheels, and flips on the stability control if you try to wag the tail in a tight turn. I like to do my own driving, thank you very much.
Other than that, I think the latest Lexus is one heck of a car. You get the looks, style and speed of a GS 430 for significantly less money. I'll take mine in black.
"If handling at less than 'benchmark-level' (due to VDIM, or whatever) is a showstopper for someone to consider the IS — then so be it. However, if you weigh YOUR list of valued characteristics against the cars in this segment, I do not see (as some have stated) that Lexus has failed to create a strong competitor in the entry sport lux segment/challenger to the 'benchmark' 3." — rotoryfan, July 15, 2005
"I have no problems with the exterior or interior design this time. They want people who like to drive too much to buy an ES 330, but apparently not enough to buy a G or 3 Series. The original was a G and 3 competitor, and the new one is a C-Class, A4, and TL competitor. I wish they could've preserved the spirit of the IS 300 while making a car with a more mature design, but I suppose they want to play it safe this time after the failure of the IS 300." — lexusguy, July 16, 2005
"But really, Lexus must be aware of boards and enthusiasts and magazines they knew people were moaning about VDIM so why didn't they provide an off switch for it? Strange. You'd hope a manufacturer would listen to the rumblings of buyers and make simple fixes." — Blueguydotcom, July 15, 2005
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