Steve Schaefer, Sun, 20 May 2007 08:00:00 PDT
In the days before Lexus and the other Japanese luxury brands marques, folks often began and completed their luxury sedan shopping in the showrooms of certain European brands. You know-Mercedes-Benz, BMW-those companies. When Lexus appeared in the 1990s, it was a revolution, and now, Lexus is mentioned reverentially by practically everyone-owners or not. The brand blends the rock solid reliability and quality of a Toyota with a much bigger budget.
Lexus did great at reproducing the big Mercedes sedans, but it wasn't until the IS series arrived that they took a serious shot at BMW. This new 2006 IS finishes what the first generation started. With two models-the IS250 and IS350, Lexus now can go mano a mano with the BMW 3-Series without apology.
The body of this new car follows the new Lexus design language that debuted in the GS series. Based on the eye-popping LF-series concept cars, the new look for Lexus is wide shoulders, narrow windows, and carefully placed creases to hold it all in place. Along with the generally pointier Toyota themes, these cars stand out on the road. My IS350 tester really popped with its deep Desert Sage Metallic paint.
The cockpit of the IS continues with the close-coupled sports car appearance, but it's all new throughout. A prominent center console flows along the floor between the front seats and powers up the dash to form an expansive barrel chest. The gauges appear a little more conventional than the Swiss watch look of the previous IS and are models of clarity and precision. The integrated door pulls and armrests make a bold Z across the exquisitely detailed door panels.
The leather on the seats of my tester was butter soft and perforated to allow heating or cooling to take place at the touch of a button. Although all IS350s get leather seats, this was part of the $3,450 Luxury Package, which adds many worthwhile features, such as wood trim, a power rear sunshade, and illuminated scuff plates.
Naturally, it's extremely quiet inside an IS350. All you can hear is a distant rumble from the 3.5-liter V6. Lexus engineers have tucked in plenty of noise-suppression materials, including acoustic windshield glass and sound absorbing sun visors. Remember, the budget is more generous at Lexus.
No matter how much of it your ears receive, the 3.5-liter engine features 306 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque, which is best in class for compact sport sedans. The new engine uses port and direct fuel injection to optimize the fuel mixture under various conditions. At the other end, a dual exhaust system reduces backpressure and a variable valve system in the mufflers keeps noise down. With its six-speed sequential shift automatic, the IS350 will go from zero to 60 in just 5.6 seconds. Mileage is proclaimed to be 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway; I averaged 20.3 mpg.
The IS350 has Lexus' new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system. VDIM, in conjunction with Traction Control, uses a range of car-mounted sensors to detect abnormalities. It's so sensitive that it can detect impending crashes and start acting to prevent them. It's like having a clairvoyant under the hood.
The IS carries a heavy load of safety equipment, as you might expect. Much of it is technical acronyms, but all work fulltime for you. A tire pressure monitoring system makes sure that you don't compromise safety or performance due to low tire inflation.
The IS350 handles like a low two-seater, but will definitely carry four. The inside isn't all that large-in fact, the EPA considers the car a sub-compact. But the new car's external dimensions have risen by 3.5 inches in length and 3.0 inches in width on a 2.4-inch longer wheelbase. With brilliant, precise handling and overwhelming power, it feels like you're wearing the car when you get serious behind the wheel.
The IS350 starts at $35,440 plus $590 delivery charges. But it doesn't have to stop there. My tester had numerous packages to make it into a $46,593 vehicle. These included the aforementioned Luxury Package but also Lexus' Pre-Collision system with Dynamic Radar Cruise. This feature actually senses if an accident is unavoidable and automatically adjusts the car to handle it.
I also enjoyed the highly effective navigation system with backup camera. I took a trip to my friend Fran's house, and a friendly voice flawless led me through several quick turns that would have taken multiple stops and map consultations.
The navigation system is packaged with a Mark Levinson audio system with 40 speakers. Wait-it only sounds that way-there are 14, including a center speaker and a subwoofer. The Levinson system gives you 300 watts of power versus the mere 194 watts for the otherwise exemplary standard system.
What's left to say? This car is a real contender. Buy it and go amaze some BMW drivers.