This was supposed to be the BMW-beater. Lexus aimed the IS development target squarely at the 3-series, and made no bones about it. The cognoscenti met this contention with skepticism–seemingly every carmaker has claimed to have conquered the kingpin Bimmer at one time or another, and yet the 3-series remains the performance paragon. In the interest of settling the dispute–for our own edification, if not for the record–we spent a week behind the wheel of the 2006 Lexus IS 350.
That the IS was conceived solely to shore up the sporting side of the Lexus brand is evident in the existence of the ES 350. Practically, either one negates the justification for the other; they both fill the entry-level slot nicely. At first glance, the IS and ES share similar dimensions inside and out, and weigh about the same 3,500 lbs. The distribution, though, gives an insight into the disparate nature of these cars–at 61/39 front/rear, the ES350 is clearly less balanced than the IS, rated at 52/48.
Exterior styling further separate the littlest Lexi (?). While the pillowy ES is soft and bulbous, the IS is chiseled and sharp. Connoting forward movement and thrust, the IS’s angular appearance couldn’t be less like its sibling’s. Cool, commanding and contemporary, it carries over little of the previous car’s characteristics, save for its spirited stance. In case you’re thinking we’re being coy, we’ll clarify: we like it. In the natural comparison to the 3-series, it’s a close call–but we’d pronounce them practically on par.
Lexus’ ‘relentless pursuit of BMW’ is understandable, given the 3-series’ reputation and regard among performance-lovers and poseurs alike. It’s also one reason the decision by the brand’s brass to eschew manual transmissions in the more-powerful IS 350 line is so hard to comprehend. Only the 204-horse IS 250 is offered with a stick-shift; the enthusiast’s-choice IS 350 is relegated to a six-speed slushbox. On the bright side, the automatic affects an adequately athletic persona, with crisp shifts and an electronic brain programmed to rev without reservation and grab each gear vigorously. Paddles for swift shifting reside behind the steering wheel. For an automatic, this tranny turned out to be pretty fun to flog.
In fact, our IS 350 proved pleasantly competent in most respects. That new V6 is a humdinger; hewn entirely out of aluminum and harnessing all the best benefits of today’s technology–direct injection, variable timing on intake and exhaust valves, and a stratospheric compression ratio of almost 12:1. Horsepower is rated at 306; torque peaks at 277 lb.-ft. Redline is 6600 rpm, and it sings all the way up there. Silky-smooth and split-second responsive, speed is only one of its virtues.
And speedy it is. Our tests turned out an average 0-60 mph sprint of six seconds flat. At any speed, in any gear, the IS 350 accelerated with alacrity. Swiftness is only part of the story, however; as a rival to the reigning performance ideal, it needs verve and vigor in every element.
Happily, hustling the IS through the back roads demonstrated copious cornering capability. Graced with grippy 225/45/17 front and 245/45 rear rubber, this Lexus grabs the road and doesn’t let go. (40-series tires and 18″ rims are optional.) The suspension setup consists of double wishbones up front and a multi-link system out back, supplemented with gas-filled shocks and stabilizer bars all around. Subjectively, the IS feels supremely well-sorted–and yes, it feels like it could be a match for the BMW. This car likes to be driven hard.
Braking comes courtesy of beefy vented discs measuring over 13 inches up front and 12″ in back. Stopping power is subsequently superb. Steering is similarly sublime–it’s a rack-and-pinion setup with speed-sensitive electric-assist; it specs out with a 13.4:1 ratio, 2.91 turns lock-to-lock, and a turning circle of 33.5 feet. Precision is the watchword here. Feedback from the road is satisfactory, although this may be one area where, comparatively, the IS falls short.
On an incongruous note, the IS 350 interior shares a Lexus trait that’s far from sporty: the labeling on the switchgear, buttons and other controls is HUGE. The stereo, climate controls, and even the window switches are all in something like 22-point. Picky though it may be, we’ve never seen such geriatric text in any other vehicle–especially one with sporting pretensions. Somehow, it makes you feel as if you’re driving the ‘large-print edition’ IS. Weird.
Otherwise, the IS’s insides are first-rate. Aesthetically, the two-toned color scheme is attractive, accentuated by appealing arches, curves and accents in wood and aluminum. As expected, the materials and ergonomics are excellent.
Copious room and comfortable seating was an unexpected positive point. Compared to the new 330i we previewed last year, the IS interior is downright cavernous. Lateral support suffers a smidgen, but overall we prefer the Lexus cockpit.
Lexus’ superiority in interior sumptuousness should not surprise. Even entry-level models are well-equipped, with leather upholstery, 10-way power seats, moonroof, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and even a “smart key” system with push-button engine starting–all standard. At $35,440, the eager-engined IS 350 is an excellent value. Our tester showed up with a lot of optional extras as well, pushing the pricetag to $43,589; the bulk of which is attributable to the Luxury package and navigation system. Amenities like Adaptive Front Lighting (AFS, somehow), which slides the xenon HID headlight beams sideways with the steering wheel; rain-sensing wipers (kinda scary when they first activate, honestly); power rear sunshade; heated and ventilated leather seats, with perforated inserts for the cooling fan; park-assist; power tilt/telescope wheel; Bluetooth and voice command; little headlamp washer nozzles; and trick scuff plates with the Lexus script backlit in blue all add to the opulence.
And then there’s that nav system. In our estimation, Lexus equips its line with the best of the breed. Touch-screen ability makes data entry a snap–why are other manufacturers so far behind on this? The Lexus unit is intuitive, too–for once, we mastered the system without the manual. Take heed, carmakers: this is the benchmark.
Plus, Lexus adds a rear-view camera to their nav system, which projects an image of the space behind you when backing up.
Occupant safety wasn’t overlooked, either. Lexus fits the IS with electronic features like VDIM (their stability/traction control system, the acronym for which always strikes us as unfortunate) and anti-lock brakes with EBD and brake assist. 10 airbags augment the force-limited, pretensioner-equipped seatbelts–front, knee, side and curtains for front driver/passenger; curtains only in the rear.
So, does the “benchmark” label apply to the IS as a whole? Lexus brass would sell their collective souls to wrest that title from BMW. To recap, our review ranks the IS 350 right up with the 3-series in most dynamic measures, about equal in styling, and ahead in comfort & convenience. We do decry the missing manual-transmission option, though. Not to cop out, but we can’t positively proclaim either car better than the other. A definitive verdict in a match like this demands much more scientific scrutiny–or at least both cars back-to-back. Truth is, our own opinions are largely subjective, and preference is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. For our money, though, we’d be just as happy with the Lexus–especially at the sticker price, which we’ve pegged at $2,000 to $7,000 cheaper, depending on options.