MOJAVE, Calif. -- So we're zipping toward the desert via the twisty Angeles Forest Highway, which runs over the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County, while steering a wily new rear-wheel-drive (RWD) sports sedan from Lexus, elite up-shoot brand from Toyota of Japan.
The car - labeled IS 350 -- looks like a high-strung rally car, oversized wheels pegged at the corners and a contoured body characterized by a low arching profile, flat side panels and a blunt prow and tail with scant overhangs.
It behaves like a road-hugging German touring sedan, a taut suspension tuned to allow the tires to dance around curvy mountain corners as a new V6 engine ripples with best-in-class power.
Unlike some Teutonic machines, however, the IS 350 also carries lavish appointments in a leather-lined cockpit with glossy hardwood or metallic accents.
Then there's the high-tech angle with a stunning array of computerized controls.
A key element is the VDIM -- Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management -- system.
Tapping into a host of sensors -- tracking such vehicle functions as the angle of the steering wheel, the turn rate of each wheel, lateral motion of the car body, and pressure on brake and accelerator pedals -- the VDIM constantly analyzes all collected data and uses it to deploy various traction controllers and maintain stability.
Acronyms in car safety include the anti-lock brake system (ABS), traction control (TRAC), vehicle stability control (VSC), brake assist (BA), plus electronic throttle control (ETC) and even a pre-collision system (PCS) to reduce collision damage.
The VDIM coordinates the ABS and BA with VSC, TRAC and ETC systems -- it can actually anticipate a vehicle control problem and then go to work automatically to remedy the problem through brake and throttle restraints.
In effect, VDIM enables the IS driver to perform at a level that's perhaps a step above innate skills -- you come off as an expert in car control even if you don't realize you are one.
The IS series of compact-class sports sedans from Lexus traces to debut editions of 2001.
For 2006, the series expands for a second-generation of designs incorporating three models powered by new V6 engines with new six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, and optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
The stiff new platform underpinning this series measures longer (by 3.5 inches) and wider (by 3.0 inches) than the previous iteration and the wheelbase stretches by 2.4 inches with the rear track expanding by 1.9 inches.
To the larger platform goes the new front and rear suspension system. There are double wishbones up front with high-mount upper arms, coil springs, gas-filled shocks and stabilizer bar. The sophisticated rear multilink also employs high-mount upper arms with coil springs, gas-filled shocks and a stabilizer bar.
An electric power steering (EPS) system uses a quick-ratio rack and pinion setup with speed-sensing variable assistance.
Brakes are big with vented discs.
Two new V6 engines define the IS models.
Standard plant is a direct-injection 2.5-liter V6 with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) plus dual exhaust.
It generates 204 hp at 6400 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm.
The 2.5-liter V6 drops into the IS 250, with RWD and AWD traction options.
IS 250 with RWD mode shows two six-speed transmission choices -- manual or automatic.
The manual shifts smoothly and has a respectably short shift lever.
The automatic brings shifter paddles on the steering wheel, which enable an aggressive driver to shift up and down sans clutch with only a flick of the finger and without removing hands from the wheel.
The AWD device has a wet-type multi-disc clutch and planetary gear set in the transfer case, with electronic controls to measure wheel speed and yaw rates, but hydraulic controls to modulate the torque split ratio front/rear -- from customary 30/70 percent to a maximum of 50/50.
For IS 250 AWD the sole transmission is the six-speed paddle-shift automatic.
A robust new direct-injection 3.5-liter V6, also with VVT-i, links exclusively with the six-speed paddle-shifted automatic to define the top model IS 350 RWD.
This plant hits 306 hp at 6400 rpm with torque of 277 lb-ft at 4800 rpm.
All variations in the IS series are packed with gear.
The standards range from 17-inch aluminum wheels and foglamps to metallic cabin trim, twin zones for the automatic climate system, a keyless SmartAccess device with push-button starter, vivid Optitron gauges in the instrument panel, power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, and a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), along with the 194-watt Lexus Premium Audio system using 13 speakers, a CD changer in the dash for six CDs and an auxiliary input jack for connecting iPods or MP3 players.
Lots of air bags are standard too. There are bags in front and to the outboard side for front riders plus curtain-style cushions tucked into headliners above front and rear doors.
And Lexus allows for customization of the IS sedan with a long list of optional equipment.
The options include an adaptive front lighting system (AFS) with xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, a sport suspension, 18-inch aluminum wheels and summer performance tires (225/40YR18 in front and 255/40YR18 in back), sport pedals and metal scuff plates, power controls for front seats with ten-way movement, heated/ventilated seats, perforated leather upholstery, a power moonroof, the Lexus Navigation System incorporating Bluetooth and voice activation plus a rearview video camera, and a deluxe 300-watt Mark Levinson Surround Sound System with 14 speakers.
MSRP numbers for the 2006 IS series start with the IS 250 manual transmission pegged at $29,990, or $31,160 for the paddle-shifted automatic.
The IS 250 AWD lists for $34,285, while the IS 350 begins at $35,440.