The 2006 Lexus IS350 is the latest car to be defined by one of automotive journalism's favorite tropes: "The fill-in-the-blank is the car that's finally going to dethrone the BMW 3-series as the benchmark for contemporary sport sedans."
Although lots of American, European, and Japanese manufacturers have tried the Bimmer on for size, none has measured up. Lexus took a shot with its outgoing IS300-and missed the mark. Sold in Japan as a Toyota and badged in the States as a Lexus, the original IS was too small and too light on luxe to knock the 3-series off its pedestal.The new-from-the-ground-up IS is more powerful, more refined, more cleverly packaged, and more liberally equipped than the car it replaces. That's the good news. The bad news is that BMW can make the same claim for its freshly overhauled-and frankly Lexus-ized-3-series. The question now is whether Lexus can hit this fast-moving target.Lexus increases its odds of scoring a bull's-eye by offering three versions of the IS and a pair of all-new engines. The entry-level IS250 is powered by a 2.5-liter V-6 rated at 204 hp. The IS250 AWD adds all-wheel drive. The full-boat IS350 reverts to rear-wheel drive but gets a potent motivational tool in a 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that bristles with technological wizardry.
All three cars ride on a tautened version of the platform that underpins the recently released GS430 high-end sport sedan (and the coming GS450h luxury hybrid). The cars also share the same basic independent suspension architecture: control arms at the front and a multilink arrangement at the rear, with coil springs and antiroll bars at both ends. The IS's tuning, though, is substantially livelier.
There's no mistaking the family resemblance between the IS and the GS. The IS is the second pro-duct of Lexus's "L-Finesse" school of exterior styling. The sheetmetal of the high-waisted car is pulled tightly around the stubby nose and billows out at the rear to give the IS some serious booty action. To our eyes, the execution is a bit sterile. But in profile, the IS looks an awful lot like-yep, you guessed it-the BMW 3-series.
The new IS is visibly larger than the old one-3.5 inches longer and 3.0 inches wider, with 29 percent more trunk capacity. (The dimensions are uncannily close to the BMW 330i's.) The difference between past and present is even more obvious inside the cabin. The rear seats, which had been a joke-a painful joke-now offer enough legroom for a pair of living, breathing adults. Tall drivers, too, will be a lot more comfortable, thanks to ample headroom and cocoonlike seats.
The quality of the materials as well as the fit and finish are up to the usual Lexus standard, which is to say beyond reproach. The lightsaber-look floating needles on the instrument gauges no longer elicit oohs and aahs, but they still do the job. The optional navigation system, meanwhile, offers an intuitive touch screen featuring a display that's better than that of many laptop computers.
Grab the beefy steering wheel of the IS350 and your fingers almost automatically curl around a pair of hard plastic shift paddles artfully crafted to look and feel like brushed aluminum. Alas, Lexus hasn't developed a sequential manual gearbox like BMW or Audi, nor does the slick-shifting six-speed automatic do the Infiniti blip-on-downshift thing. Then again, with 277 lb-ft of torque available at 4800 rpm, who cares?
Although the IS250 is offered with a six-speed manual, very few Americans are expected to buy it. Those who do ought to be prepared to row, row, row the boat. These days, 204 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque are nothing to crow about, so IS250 owners won't want to race for pink slips against V-6 Nissan Altimas or Mazda 6s, much less Toyota Camrys. The all-wheel-drive model, saddled with 200 extra pounds and sold only with an automatic, is even more breathless.
IS350 owners, on the other hand, don't have to worry about getting sand kicked in their faces. Thanks to two forms of variable valve timing and two types of fuel injection, as well as chain-driven camshafts, roller rockers, and a raft of techno-gadgetry, the big V-6 generates numbers that humble not only the BMW but also the Infiniti G35, the erstwhile power champ in this class. Oh, and the IS also is expected to get about 24 mpg in combined city/highway driving, and both engines carry ULEV II certification.
Press the push-button start-an affectation that BMW also uses-and the IS350 hums to life. Like most Lexus vehicles, the car is silent at idle, but there's a pleasant, if muted, induction howl and exhaust rasp if you give it some stick. And don't be bashful: this is one horse that likes to be ridden hard. Bury the throttle and you're looking at 0-to-60-mph times in the mid-five-second range.
The chassis is solid and stiff, and road feel is excellent, soaking up surface imperfections yet responding dynamically to spirited inputs. The hefty all-wheel-drive IS250, with extra weight on its nose, tends to push. But the IS350 has enough engine to challenge the chassis. And it seems to really come alive when it's fitted with optional eighteen-inch wheels that are eight inches wide at the front and 8.5 inches at the rear.
The IS350 comes with Lexus's Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, which is a more sophisticated version of the Vehicle Stability Control system found on IS250s. There's no question that VDIM allows you to get closer to the limit than VSC, and it does so much more transparently. But you can't turn the system off (though cheat codes surely will be available on the Internet), and it's immensely frustrating to have all that horsepower and cornering grip at your disposal yet not be able to use it as you see fit. Every IS is equipped with a wide array of air bags-front, front knee, front-side, and front and rear side-curtain-keyless start, tire-pressure monitors, and a thirteen-speaker audio system with MP3 and iPod compatibility. The seemingly endless list of options includes navigation, adaptive lighting, radar cruise control, heated seats, a backup camera, a pre-collision system that tightens the seatbelts when it senses impending doom, and a killer 300-watt Mark Levinson premium audio system.
Lexus expects to sell four IS250s for each IS350, with a grand total of 40,000 units a year, or 600 percent more than the current IS. Expect the IS250 to start at about $30,500. Some buyers, obviously, will be newcomers to the near-luxury segment. But a lot of them will come from BMW and Infiniti. To woo them, Lexus has built a car that showcases the company's core values-luxury and reliability-while offering far more performance and panache than its stodgier stablemate, the ES330. The IS isn't as much fun as the G35 or as poised at the limit as the 3-series. But there's more to life than fun and frolic.