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.
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.
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.
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?