2006 BMW 330i vs. 2006 Lexus IS 350 Comparison Test

2006 BMW 330i vs. 2006 Lexus IS 350 Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (2)
  • Long-Term

2006 BMW 3 Series Sedan

(3.0L 6-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Second Opinion
  • Stereo Evaluation
  • 2006 BMW 330i Specs and Performance
  • 2006 Lexus IS 350 Specs and Performance

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.

A 15-rounder
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.

Bavarian cream
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….

Lightning-quick Lexus
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.

Identity crisis
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.

News Editor Mike Hudson says:
For as long as I can remember, the BMW 3 Series has been accepted as the gold standard in its segment. And in almost every city I've ever gone, the streets have been filled with them thanks to lawyers' paychecks, doctors' promotions and investment bankers' bonuses. Beyond its prevalence in society, however, was the knowledge that this car was more than just a piece of eye candy — it could deliver the goods when it came down to the brass tacks of performance, whether the owners understood that or even cared. And I was eager to find out if this latest version of the 3 would hold up this standard, or fall prey to the temptation to simply bilk the eager buyer out of some more cash with electronic add-ons or meaningless "improvements."

After jumping in the Lexus first, I was impressed with its zippy acceleration. The transmission seemed a bit sticky in certain scenarios, but it drove more playfully than I expected given the somewhat boring design of the vehicle — and Toyota's somewhat boring reputation for performance. All in all, it seemed to be an affordable luxury performance car with a healthy dose of the finer trappings you expect in a Lexus.

But upon belting into the BMW 330i, it was clear within 5 minutes — or maybe even 30 seconds — that nothing had been lost in the translation between the previous generation and this one. Handling, acceleration and good old-fashioned drive feel were extraordinary. To say it's an improvement over the previous 3 is too primitive — it's a refinement, a focusing of the previous 3. No major surprises, no disappointments. Need a complaint? Um…the side mirrors are kind of small. Beyond that, the Lexus experience was left in the dust and respect for the mighty 3 extended for another several years. Lexus and all other comers will need every development second until then to catch up.

Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
Finding a winner in this test wasn't easy and this ringside judge has reached a draw. If this were a contest of control feel, intuitive feedback and handling performance then the BMW is the hands-down winner. The Lexus can't touch its chassis performance and raw mechanical grip. Unfortunately, there's so much more that goes into evaluating a modern performance sedan.

Like acceleration.

Lexus isn't kidding when it claims the IS 350 is the quickest car in its class. Our test car hit 60 in 5.6 seconds — more than a second quicker than the BMW. That's an undeniably significant difference which played out every time we mashed the Lexus' throttle. The IS 350's 306 horsepower and six-speed transmission sing a song performance geeks will find undeniably appealing.

Comfort, luxury and style are also hugely important in this increasingly popular, incredibly competitive segment. The Lexus scored high marks here, too — matching or exceeding the BMW's interior with plush accoutrements and easier-to-use navigation and radio interfaces. I even prefer the Lexus' smooth lines and aggressive proportions to the Bimmer's Bangle-inspired curves.

In reality it's hard to go wrong with either of the great machines. It boils down to what's most important in your driving experience. Is it power? Or handling? You make the call.

2006 BMW 3 Series
2006 Lexus IS 350

2006 Lexus IS 350

System Score: 9.0

Components: Our IS 350 came with the optional Mark Levinson audio system which delivers discreet 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 midranges mounted in the rear doors and one 20cm subwoofer mounted in the rear package tray. Plus the subwoofer is 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 discreet 5.1 system sounds excellent although we still like the sound in the bigger Mark Levinson-equipped Lexus vehicles a little better. 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 sound 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 Harmon Kardon Logic 7 systems. The flip side of that complaint is that the Levinson system delivers stellar sound quality without any effort on the part of the driver. Just slide a CD in 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; is just as impressive as the car it comes in. — Brian Moody

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2006 BMW 3 Series

System Score: 8.0

Components: Our 330i came with a Harman Kardon Logic 7 system. It's the standard stereo on the 330i but is optional on the 325i. It includes a CD/MP3 audio system with 10 speakers and two subwoofers. Other features include RDS, vehicle-speed-sensitive equalization, Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and pre-wiring for a six-disc CD changer that's available as an extra cost option from the dealer. The stereo is also compatible with an auxiliary audio input adaptor for connection of portable music players. That feature is also offered as an accessory and our test vehicle did not have the auxiliary jack.

Performance: We've been very pleased with Logic 7 stereos in the past and consider the Harmon Kardon audio system in the 7 Series to be among the best in the industry. However, the Logic 7 stereo that comes as standard equipment in the 3 Series doesn't exceed our expectations but it does meet them.

The stereo sounds good but not appreciably better than other premium stereos. The bass is nice and clear but lacks the thump of the Harmon systems we're used to. Sound from all types of music is reproduced very well with the overall tone being very warm and almost lifelike.

We like the built-in equalizer along with separate bass and treble controls. However, we noticed that the feature which allow linear control of the Logic 7 signal processing was gone in favor of a simple on-off menu for that feature. That combined with the clunky manner in which iDrive accesses the audio features is why this very fine stereo earns only an "8" rather than the "9" we gave the Logic 7 system in the 2004 BMW 5 Series.

Best Feature: Built-in equalizer for precise control.

Worst Feature: iDrive access for the DSP features.

Conclusion: An excellent stereo with almost all the features and sound quality of much more expensive BMWs. — Brian Moody

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Model year2006
Style4-door sedan
Base MSRP$36,995
As-tested MSRP$47,390
Drive typeRear-wheel Drive
Engine typeInline six
Displacement (cc/cu-in)3
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)255 @ 6600
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)220 @ 2750
Transmission typeSix-speed automanual
Suspension, frontIndependent w/ stabilizer bar
Suspension, rearIndependent w/ stabilizer bar
Steering typeRack-and-pinion w/ variable ratio and effort
Tire brandBridgestone
Tire modelPotenza RE050A
Tire size, front225/40/ZR18
Tire size, rear255/35/ZR18
Brakes, frontFour wheel discs with ABS
Track Test Results
0-45 mph (sec.)4.4
0-60 mph (sec.)6.7
0-75 mph (sec.)9.8
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)14.7 @ 96 mph
Braking, 30-0 mph (ft.)28
60-0 mph (ft.)112
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)67.4
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g).92g
Sound level @ idle (dB)46
@ Full throttle (dB)72
@ 70 mph cruise (dB)67
Test Driver Ratings & Comments
Acceleration commentsFastest acceleration times were produced using mild brake torque with DSC turned off in "Drive."
Braking ratingGood
Braking commentsWe noticed a high-frequency shudder during ABS activation, which didn't seem to affect performance.
Handling ratingGood
Handling commentsSharp, communicative steering both on and off center. The 3 Series chassis is as neutral, adjustable and intuitive as ever.
Testing Conditions
Elevation (ft.)1100 ft.
Temperature (°F)58 degrees F
Wind (mph, direction)7 mph from the West
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)21 City 29 Highway
Edmunds observed (mpg)21.7
Fuel tank capacity (U.S. gal.)15.9
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)3450
Length (in.)178.2 in.
Width (in.)71.5 in.
Height (in.)55.9 in.
Wheelbase (in.)108.7 in.
Turning circle (ft.)Note Tested
Legroom, front (in.)41.5 in.
Legroom, rear (in.)34.6 in.
Headroom, front (in.)37.4 in.
Headroom, rear (in.)37.4 in.
Seating capacity5
Cargo volume (cu-ft)12 cubic feet
Max. cargo volume, seats folded (cu-ft)N/A
Bumper-to-bumper4 years/50,000 miles
Powertrain4 years/50,000 miles
Corrosion12 years/Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance4 years/50,000 miles
Free scheduled maintenance4 years/50,000 miles
Front airbagsStandard
Side airbagsStandard
Head airbagsStandard
Antilock brakesStandard
Electronic brake enhancementsElectronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist
Traction controlStandard
Stability controlStandard
Rollover protectionN/A
Emergency assistance systemN/A
NHTSA crash test, driverNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, passengerNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, side frontNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, side rearNot Tested
NHTSA rollover resistance4 Stars
Model year2006
ModelIS 350
Style4-door sedan
Base MSRP$36,030
As-tested MSRP$45,508
Drive typeRear-wheel Drive
Engine typeV6
Displacement (cc/cu-in)3.5
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)306 @ 6,400
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)277 @ 4,800
Transmission typeSix-speed automanual
Suspension, frontIndependent w/ stabilizer bar
Suspension, rearIndependent w/ stabilizer bar
Steering typeRack-and-pinion
Tire brandDunlop
Tire modelSP Sport Maxx
Tire size, front225/40YR18
Tire size, rear255/40YR18
Brakes, frontFour wheel discs with ABS
Track Test Results
0-45 mph (sec.)3.9
0-60 mph (sec.)5.6
0-75 mph (sec.)8.1
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)13.9 @ 101
Braking, 30-0 mph (ft.)30
60-0 mph (ft.)120
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)66.4
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g).88g
Sound level @ idle (dB)40
@ Full throttle (dB)73
@ 70 mph cruise (dB)68
Test Driver Ratings & Comments
Acceleration commentsCan't disable traction control. This won't allow wheelspin which hurts acceleration times. Best acceleration times came with transmission in "Sport" mode.
Braking ratingGood
Braking commentsQuiet ABS operation with no pedal feedback -- very Lexus.
Handling ratingGood
Handling commentsDriving this car to its limit is impossible with the electronic nanny constantly fighting the driver for control. Car was constantly triggering stability control during slalom testing which hurt speed. The computer determines every move at the limit -- the driver doesn't get to drive, which is a real shame given the obvious potential of this car.
Testing Conditions
Elevation (ft.)1100 ft.
Temperature (°F)60 degrees F
Wind (mph, direction)0 to 4 from the West
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)21 City 28 Highway
Edmunds observed (mpg)18
Fuel tank capacity (U.S. gal.)17.1
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)3527
Length (in.)180.1 in.
Width (in.)70.9 in.
Height (in.)56.1 in.
Wheelbase (in.)107.5 in.
Turning circle (ft.)Not Tested
Legroom, front (in.)43.9 in.
Legroom, rear (in.)30.6 in.
Headroom, front (in.)37.2 in.
Headroom, rear (in.)36.7 in.
Seating capacity5
Cargo volume (cu-ft)13 cubic feet
Max. cargo volume, seats folded (cu-ft)N/A
Bumper-to-bumper4 years / 50,000 miles
Powertrain6 years / 70,000 miles
Corrosion6 years / Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance4 years / Unlimited miles
Free scheduled maintenanceFirst service (7,500 miles) free
Front airbagsStandard
Side airbagsStandard
Head airbagsStandard
Antilock brakesStandard
Electronic brake enhancementsElectronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), BrakeAssist.
Traction controlStandard
Stability controlStandard
Rollover protectionN/A
Emergency assistance systemN/A
NHTSA crash test, driverNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, passengerNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, side frontNot Tested
NHTSA crash test, side rearNot Tested
NHTSA rollover resistanceNot Tested
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