The IS350 is something of a dark horse in this very competitive segment. In this case, I mean that literally, as our test car looks quite stealthy and intimidating in black. The aggressive styling isn’t quite as pretty as that of an Infiniti G37 or an Audi A4 but still convinces you this is a sport sedan, and it has aged well. The interior is less successful, as lots of dark trim and modern shapes create an atmosphere more gloomy than sporty. Still, the materials are of high quality and the simple, circular gauges are just right.
The IS-F, which we had for a Four Seasons test, gets lots of attention for being superfast. Its kid brother is no slouch, either. Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 sounds fantastic and pulls hard all the way to redline, at which point an orange ring lights up around the tachometer. Neat. Unfortunately, the IS350 isn’t offered with a manual transmission, but the six-speed automatic does a decent imitation, holding gears and responding quickly to the shift paddles behind the steering wheel. Through a few quick turns, I found the IS planted and stable, with direct and very heavy steering. This is definitely not your typical Lexus.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
This Lexus IS350 seems set on breaking every Toyota stereotype out there. A value-priced, comfort-oriented luxury car with an exquisite interior? Not so much. The IS350’s most redeeming qualities are surprisingly found in its chassis and suspension with a beautiful balance of composure and suppleness. The steering, although quite heavy in parking lots, is excellent at speed.
I was also stunned to find that Lexus includes a shift light in the tachometer. However, the orange light comes on too early and the red light comes on too late to be truly useful in timing your shifts. Lexus does nail the shift paddles (right for upshifts, left for downshifts)–which is more than can be said for a BMW 3-series–and the IS350 will hold each gear at redline rather than automatically upshifting.
The engine pulls heartily, but it’s so coarse above 3500 rpm that it sounds like the oil pan is filled with gravel. The interior, although done in very nice materials, shows uneven gaps and looks dated in its trim and ergonomics. You can find nicer interiors in Toyotas, Hyundais, and Fords costing $15,000 less. Which brings me to my final surprise, the price. I was expecting this Lexus IS350 to ring in under $40,000. The real sticker price is $47,130. That’s right on par with an all-wheel-drive BMW 335i, but the Lexus has neither the image nor the well-rounded execution of that iconic sport sedan.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The Lexus IS350 is an incredibly smooth-driving car, but not in the way that most other Lexus products are. This one actually feels tight, confident, sporty, and not overly soft. In fact, it actually rides a bit rough at times, something that its primary rival, the BMW 3-Series, seems to manage slightly better. The powertrain is silky yet powerful, although I was a bit surprised to find that the automatic transmission has only six gears, particularly since our Four Seasons 2008 IS-F and 2007 Lexus LS460L both had eight-speed automatics.
In general, the IS350 has superlative materials inside, although — supporting Eric Tingwall’s critiques — the fit of the molding around the center stack has some inconsistencies. The IS plays in perhaps the most competitive segment in the automotive world (3-series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti G37). They’re all very, very good cars. And the Lexus stands tall among tough company.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
When I got in this car on Friday evening it felt so good to get into a small, tight, sporty sedan that was low to the ground and compact, perhaps it was because I had driven all manner of crossovers over the previous week.
The IS has done a perfectly effective job of trying to be a Japanese 3-series. The V-6 sounds good and has excellent power delivery and tremendous off-the-line acceleration. I like the ride and handling balance, and the accurate steering is very un-Lexus-like. Even with high-performance Bridgestone Potenzas, the all-wheel-drive system enabled our IS350 to do remarkably well in a surprise five-inch snowstorm we got on March 5th.
Yeah, the cabin is a bit somber, but the ergonomics are very good. Further details on the orange rings that Zenlea mentions: if you accelerate hard, once the tach reaches 5000 rpm the rings illuminate; the similar rings around the speedometer, in my experience, light up at about 80 mph.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The IS remains the only Lexus that truly impresses me. Every other model seems to be an inferior version of the car that inspired it, or — perhaps even worse for Toyota — an inferior version of the corresponding Infiniti.
Yet the IS seems like a breed apart. The IS feels slightly smaller than the rest of the field, as if it has better resisted the temptation to bulk up like the Infiniti G, the A4, and the 3-series.
I was also surprised that the transmission has only six gears, but I thought it used everything it had nicely. The power comes up quickly and smoothly, and the car is rocketing along in no time. The engine sounds great, yet was subdued perfectly inside the cabin.
As for the rest of the cabin, I found the materials and styling in the IS to be a step above the LX and RX but still a bit short of the competition. I didn’t mind the monochromatic black with only the gray wood and brushed metal and chrome accents, and the instruments were superb. I thought the illuminating warning rings were a tasteful solution. I liked the thick rubberized dash, but noticed the uneven fit around the console. This is inexcusable in a car pushing $50 grand that is going up against some of the best interiors around. The back seat had a surprising amount of room, but the high sills and dark surroundings made it somewhat foreboding.
Outside, this particular IS looked sharp in black, but I’d like to see a more aggressive design for the wheels. I’m not asking for IS-F treatment — which I think borders on absurd with the stacked tailpipes, etc — but a bit more visual oomph would be nice.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
2011 Lexus IS350 AWD
Base price (with destination): $41,905
Price as tested: $47,130
3.5-liter V-6 engine
6-speed automatic transmission
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Steering wheel mounted shift paddles
Full time AWD
Vehicle dynamics integrated management
Smart stop technology
Bi-Xenon HID headlights
Daytime running lights and headlamp washers
Tire pressure monitoring system
SmartAccess with push-button start/stop
Leather trim 10-way power seats
Power tilt/telescoping moonroof
Automatic dual-zone climate control
Manual tilt/telescoping steering column
Heated outside mirrors
Lexus premium audio system with 13 speakers
6-disc CD changer
USB audio plug
XM satellite radio
Options on this vehicle:
Navigation system/Mark Levinson premium audio package — $3905
Mark Levinson 14-speaker surround sound
Hard disk drive navigation system
XM NavTraffic, NavWeather, and XM sports
Luxury Plus Value Edition — $1320
Heated and ventilated fronts seats
Wood interior trim
HID headlights with LED daytime running lights
Power tilt/telescoping steering wheel
Power rear sunshade
Key options not on vehicle:
18 / 25 / 20 mpg
Size: 3.5L V-6
Horsepower: 306 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Curb weight: 3703 lb
Wheels/tires: 17 x 8.0-inch alloy wheels
225/45R17 Bridgestone Potenza all-season tires
Competitors: BMW 335i xDrive, Infiniti G37x, Audi A4