$30,000 - $40,000 Compact Rear-Wheel Drive Sport Sedan (with available all-wheel drive)
Who should buy this car:
The driving enthusiast looking for a small sports sedan that has style, comfort and class
Comparable models in this class:
Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, Infiniti G35, Mercedes Benz C-Class
I recently had a chance to sample the newest version of the small sport sedan from Lexus, the new 2006 IS 350. Driving this car for the first time had me reminiscing back to my childhood when my friends and I watched TV westerns. In those days, singing cowboys with white hats and shiny guns rode beautiful white or golden palomino horses. When the hero got into trouble, he would whistle to his trusty companion who would come running, at which time our hero would leap into the saddle and ride off in a cloud of dust to right the wrongs of the day. That poetry between man and beast has since become a symmetry between man and machine with a handful of manufacturers laying claim to having the perfect steed for the modern day driving enthusiast.
This new IS 350 answers that quest with a premium compact sedan that is sure to expand into a complete lineup. For 2006, the Lexus IS models include the IS 250. IS 250 AWD (All-Wheel Drive) and the IS 350. At this time, they are built on a single compact four door sedan body style. But judging by the LF-C concept car that was making it's rounds on the auto show circuit last year, my bet is that a coupe and convertible, possibly with a retractable hardtop, are in the works.
The rear-wheel drive IS 250 is available with either a 6 speed manual transmission or a 6 speed sequential shift automatic. The IS 250 AWD and the IS 350 are only available with the 6 speed sequential shift automatic.
During our brief introduction to the new IS, we had a chance to sample the IS 250 with and without AWD as well as the more red blooded IS 350, which is only available with rear-wheel drive. Each car exhibited a wonderful balance of smooth, refined handling along with a reasonably compliant ride.
This second generation IS shares a platform and a number of components with the larger Lexus GS, which is also new for 2006. This is a good starting point as the Lexus GS has the goods to be among the class leaders in the mid luxury sport sedan market.
The all new body of the IS follows the styling trend that Lexus started with the 2006 GS. Lexus is moving away from the subdued, me-too styling of the past and planting itself firmly on the road towards a more passionate look for their entire product line. Lexus calls this new styling direction L-Finesse. In fact, this is where the line of LF concept cars got their name.
Inside, the IS has gone more upscale with better fabrics and leathers as well as a more integrated look throughout the interior. Sitting behind the wheel, there is more of a cockpit feel with all controls within easy reach. Standard trim employs a metallic look with a warmer maple wood accent as an available option.
In place of the hard to read Chronograph-like instrument cluster from the previous model is a clean set of gauges that come alive with light-saber needles and dynamic redline indicators. Instrument lighting is called OptiTron and makes the gauges always look clear, bright and sharp both day and night.
The steering wheel incorporates audio control buttons on the left spoke and Bluetooth phone buttons on the right. The wheel is adjustable for angle and reach with manual controls standard and a power tilt and telescoping column as an available option. Automatic equipped vehicles have paddle shift controls ala Formula One race cars, which are well positioned for manual mode shifting of the 6-speed automatic when the mood suits. Otherwise, just leave the shifter in drive for normal automatic operation.
While I was in the driver's seat, another standard feature caught my attention. There is no place to insert a key in order to start the car. In fact, there is no key, just the transmitter which never has to leave your pocket or purse. As long as you have the transmitter with you inside the car, you start the car by stepping on the brake pedal, and pressing the large Start/Stop button on the dash. Just a tap will do it. The car will continue to crank until it comes to life. To shut the engine off, step on the brake with the car in park and tap the button again.
You also don't have to pull the transmitter out of your pocket to unlock the IS. Just grab the door handle and, if you have the correct transmitter on your person, the door will unlock and let you in. The car seems to know who you are and lets you open the door, just like the western hero's horse will only let him ride. Now if we could only figure out how to get the IS to come to you from across the parking lot when you whistle.
Ok, time to drive this baby and see what she's made of. This new IS 350 is a true Lexus in every sense of the word. The first thing you notice is the legendary Lexus quiet. The ride is firm, but comfortable and the steering is the precise with a communicative feel. Nobody does refinement like Lexus and the IS is no exception. If you drive conservatively, you will never see the aggressive demeanor this car is capable of. It will respond like a perfect gentleman in a tuxedo, hiding the Olympic track star beneath. In fact, there are some automotive experts who dislike this "Clark Kent" persona, preferring a car that always feels edgy and machine-like with a throaty exhaust note.
We only had a couple of hours of driving time in these pre-production prototypes, but it was enough to tell me that this car has the moves to make it a true sports sedan for the enthusiast driver. Unless you drive the three main contenders (Lexus IS, BMW 3 Series, and the Infinity G35) back to back, you would be hard-pressed to pick a winner. If I were to choose one of the three, it would be for styling, features or interior comfort (which would go to the Lexus, Hands down). Any one of these three would make me happy from a pure performance point of view.
The front and rear suspension system is all new and is based on the Lexus GS. The new suspension design incorporates a feature that allows for dynamic wheel alignment. This causes the wheels to always be in the ideal position for best handling and road feel. The IS 250 models include standard Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), while the more advanced Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) is standard on the more powerful IS 350.
While Vehicle Stability Control is great at protecting a less experienced driver from getting into trouble, VDIM will make a good driver even better. Both systems use electronics to anticipate an impending skid early on and make adjustments by applying individual brakes and controlling the throttle in order to coax the the car to follow the intended course of the driver.
The difference between VSC and VDIM is that most VSC systems feel like they are taking the wind out of your sails in order to keep you from spinning out, while VDIM acts earlier and more subtly so you rarely notice the intervention. Some automotive experts dislike the fact that the system can't be turned off to allow them to be in "total control", but my experience with VDIM equipped cars makes me ask "Why would you want to?"
I had a chance to sample both systems back to back on a race track and I can tell you first hand, this system works. I was driving the GS 430 which had the VDIM system installed as standard equipment. I found that if I entered a corner a bit faster than I should, then floor the gas as I negotiated the turn. I was able to navigate the turn at the highest possible speed without veering a bit from where I was steering. As soon as I straightened the wheel, I felt a rush of power from the floored gas pedal accelerating me down the straightaway. The cars I drove with VSC got me around the course well, but felt as though they intervened a bit later and cut the power more abruptly as the system tried to gain control of a skid that had already begun.
The brakes on the IS 350 are huge, with 13.5 inch spiral-vented rotors up front and 12.2 inch vented rotors at the rear. These brakes are the same as the ones on the heavier V8 powered GS 430. They incorporate the full alphabet soup of electronic aids including ABS (Antilock Brake System), EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution) and BA (Brake Assist). All these systems, as well as the electric power steering, are fully integrated with, and controlled by the VDIM computer.
But the heart of a true sport sedan is the engine and Lexus has that covered with two all-new direct-injection V6's. These powerplants have a 24 valve DOHC (Dual Overhead Cam) layout and VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on both the intake and exhaust camshafts. What all this mumbo-jumbo translates into is high power for the size engine with low fuel consumption and exceptional ULEV-II emission certification.
The engine in the IS 250 is a 2.5 liter V6 that produces 204 horsepower and gets 24 miles per gallon in the city and 32 miles per gallon on the highway with an automatic transmission. The manual transmission IS 250 gas mileage is not as good which is quite unusual. Normally, a stick shift car will better an automatic in the economy department as well as in acceleration. Lexus attributes the better showing of the automatic to the efficient design and programming of the new transmission and, to a lesser extent, the fact that the automatic unit is 20 lbs lighter than the manual.
The IS 350 engine uses a 3.5 liter design with an impressive 306 horsepower and fuel economy of 21 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway. Lexus pegs the 0 to 60 time for the IS 350 at 5.6 seconds, which is a tenth of a second better than the V8 powered GS 430. The IS 350 felt alive and responsive with powerful bursts of acceleration whenever it was needed (or when we had an itch on our right foot)
I can't say the same for the short drive in the IS 250. The handling and braking were almost as good, but the 204 horsepower couldn't muster up much excitement, providing leisurely, but adequate acceleration for a Lexus claimed 7.9 seconds to 60 for the rear-drive IS 250 and 8.3 seconds for the All-Wheel Drive version. This is more than adequate for any normal driving that most people are likely to do, but falls short of the expectations of the performance enthusiast.
There are a host of high end options available for the IS including features like: Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS), Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Heated and Ventilated Front Seats, Rain-Sensing Windshield Wipers, Navigation System, Memory Seats and a Mark Levinson Sound System.
If you order the optional navigation system, you also get the backup camera which displays an unobstructed view to the rear on the navigation screen as you back up. The camera is positioned just above the rear license plate so you miss nothing. The light sensitivity of the camera is excellent, even on a dark night, where the backup lights provide all the light that is needed for a clear view on the screen.
The best safety systems in a car are there to help you avoid accidents. But if a crash is inevitable, Lexus has you covered with a number of crash protection features including lots of air bags that use the latest technology. There are, of course, driver and passenger front air bags with the first application of a twin chamber passenger front airbag that is designed to spread the forces to the sides and protect against secondary injuries from airbag impact. Other airbags include driver and front passenger knee bags, front-side airbags and front and rear head curtain airbags.
One optional safety system that is worthy of note is a Pre-Collision System and is included when you order the Radar Cruise Control. This optional system is a safety feature that can sense an impending unavoidable collision and brace itself (and you) to lessen the severity of the crash. The system uses radar to detect a crash before it happens. It will then cinch up your seat belt, and pre-initialize the Brake Assist to reduce brake reaction time.
The optional Radar Cruise Control uses radar to measure the distance between you and the car ahead when the cruise control is engaged. If the car ahead is too close, the system will reduce your speed in order to match its speed. This allows you to use your cruise control in moderate traffic even though the speed keeps changing. If the car ahead begins to slow, the system will slow you down, first by reducing the throttle, then by downshifting, finally by applying the brakes in order to maintain an adequate distance.
Safety, luxury, comfort, performance and style, all present and accounted for. If you are looking for that perfect blend of performance and comfort to carry you off into the sunset in a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi Yo Silver, The Lexus IS 350 is a hard car to beat.
Premium Plus Package includes: Perforated leather trim, heated and ventilated front seats, 10-way power seats, wood interior trim, rear armrest storage.
2 Performance Luxury Packages one package is tailored to sport and includes 18 inch wheels, sport suspension. The other is tailored more toward luxury and includes wood trim. Both packages include perforated leather trim, heated and ventilated front seats, 10-way power seats, rear armrest storage, 18 inch wheels, sport suspension, memory seats, HID adaptive lighting, rain sensing wipers, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel
Dynamic radar cruise control includes Pre-Collision system