Lexus performed major surgery on its IS sport sedan for 2006, boosting power and precision while laying on a larger measure of refinement.
Completely revamped, the new IS 250 and IS 350 turned out to be performance compacts of the first order, challenging undisputed segment leader BMW 3-Series in agility and image. The high-tech V-6 found in the IS 350 trumps its comparable classmates for raw horsepower. The new IS models replace the well-regarded IS 300, which gradually lost its luster during its five-year run. IS stands as the smallest Lexus model, an entry-level sedan for upwardly mobile buyers, and the brass at Toyota’s luxury division felt it was falling behind the rest of the brand’s high-end offerings. IS gains a few inches in all dimensions, with an aggressive new body style, new chassis and suspension for improved handling and response, and a well-tailored interior with added features and refinement. I drove the IS 350, which proved to be a fast and sophisticated machine with superb handling, nimble steering and awesome brakes. Though lacking the sharp response of BMW, the Lexus had the poise and maneuverability that driving enthusiasts crave. IS 350 comes standard with a sequential six-speed automatic with Formula One-style paddle shifters behind the steering wheel for fingertip control. This high-tech transmission adds to the performance flavor, although serious drivers will miss the lack of a regular manual transmission. That is available only on the less-potent IS 250. Too bad.
PERFORMANCE: For 2006, IS loses its 215-horsepower inline six for a pair of all new V-6 engines: a free-revving 2.5 liter with 204 horsepower in the IS 250 and a 3.5 liter with a romping 306 horsepower. That compares with 255 horsepower for the inline six in the BMW 330i. IS 350 accelerates like a muscle car, only silky smooth. A super-nice engine with an even flow of power throughout the rpm range. Fuel economy is decent, too. The sequential-shift transmission produces fast and precise gear changes in either automatic or manual mode. Oddly, when you shift from automatic to manual, the transmission puts the car in fourth gear, even if you’ve been hurtling along in sixth. Abrupt and annoying.
DRIVABILITY: This nicely balanced rear-drive sedan delivers satisfying handling whether you’re on a crowded city street or a winding back road. The IS 350 comes loaded with electronic goodies, including Toyota’s excellent Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. The system is seamless and nearly imperceptible and makes you feel like a much better driver than you really are. The test car came with an optional Pre-Collision System that senses whether a crash is imminent, retracting the seat belts and preparing to apply full brake assist. Fortunately, I never tried that out. Other features include traction control, anti-lock brakes, backup camera, side and knee-bolster air bags and tire-pressure monitor. The steering is precise but has a numb feel.
STYLING: A nice update for IS, looking suitably fast and fairly furious.
INTERIOR: A smartly refined cabin with supportive seats, impressive trim and all the comfort and convenience features you could dream up. The dashboard is a pretty busy place, though, with a distracting aura of gadgetry.
BOTTOM LINE: A generally excellent machine with no disappointments, although the options on the test car pushed the price tag into premium territory.
Lexus IS 350
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, rear-wheel drive. Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 306 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 277 pound-feet torque at 4,800 rpm. Transmission: 6-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 107.5 inches. Overall length: 180.1 inches. Curb weight: 3,527 pounds. EPA rating: 21 city, 28 highway
Highs: Powerful engine, precise handling, luxury interior. Lows: Gadgety dashboard, pricey with options, no stick shift with bigger engine.
Pricing Base price: $35,440. Price as tested: $47,713.
SELECTED OPTIONS — Luxury package, including 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive front lighting, leather-seat upgrades, wood trim, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power rear sunshade, rain-sensing wipers, $4,215. — Navigation system, premium 14-speaker audio system, DVD video, $3,990. — Pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, $2,850. — Park assist with front and rear sensors, $500. — Shipping, $590.