The New Contender
Review: 2006 Lexus IS350
Must be a mistake. The automaker's department in charge of preventing that must have been on a latte break when the 2006 IS 250 and IS 350 sedans slipped past.
Lexus vehicles, it should by now be no surprise to anyone, are the industry standard, scoring tops in consultant J.D. Power and Associates quality measures and winning enthusiastic recommendations from widely followed Consumer Reports magazine.
But fun? Go buy a whoopee cushion.
The '06 IS is, perhaps, that very whoopee cushion. If it proves to have the good quality that has become Lexus' hallmark, then it offers a nearly unbeatable combination that makes some expensive rivals all but irrelevant. Hard-core fans of BMW 3 Series, a direct competitor, aren't likely to abandon their cars en masse for the Lexus. It isn't quite that Germanic. And partisans of Infiniti G35, another direct competitor, would have to think twice before surrendering their back seat room and more widely available all-wheel drive. But neither group would be making a backward move if they did defect.
IS 350 is the top model in the IS line that's new for '06, replacing a sporty car often overlooked in the brand's lineup because it seemed too small for American tastes and not quite fierce enough to go head-to-head against BMW. But the new IS, while still tight inside, is better-looking and goes, stops and steers about as well as you could want in a car not specifically built for racetracks.
It comes in three versions: IS 250 with rear-wheel drive, IS 250 with all-wheel drive, IS 350 rear drive. The IS 350 and the IS 250 AWD were tested.
Pushing the IS 350's ignition button gets a growling response from under the hood that is a titillating precursor to the delight that awaits. Lexus says it will whiz from standstill to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and blast to a top speed of 142 mph.
Whiz, indeed. If you're accelerating hard and using the automatic transmission's manual-shift mode, you'll find that the engine hits its redline almost before you're ready to shift. You can get some help from a clever visual alert. The driver can program the tachometer and speedometer to display orange rings at any engine or car speed.
Manually or automatically executed, the gear changes are slick, smooth and quick, making you wonder what's the point of a manual transmission. Not quite as soul-satisfying as Audi's DSG manual-shift automatic, but not far behind.
The less-powerful IS 250, especially with the extra weight of AWD, accelerates less thrillingly, but still quickly enough to keep you from thinking you made a horrible mistake. And the 250 engine runs with the same kind of high-class, smooth urge as the 350's.
The payback for sacrificing 350's tingling power for 250's AWD is when you need the AWD. There was no snow or ice to really wring it out. But it performed marvelously on roads awash with heavy rain. No side-to-side and end-to-end grabbiness. Just straight-ahead go-power, and sure-footed confidence in slippery corners.
Here's the great thing: You needn't care about any of that to enjoy the comfort, agility, striking looks and crisp interior presentation. You might buy an IS because you mistake it for simply a well-done, small luxury sedan. You will get more than you bargained for.
The tested IS sedans had optional, high-performance tires with very stubby sidewalls. That's good for helping snap around corners with little body lean, but it usually means an abominable ride because the sidewalls don't flex much. Not so these cars. They soaked up single jolts pretty well and only began to churn the occupants when driven over a series of bumps.
The six-speed automatic transmission, standard on IS 350 and optional on the 250, can be manually shifted either via the floor-mounted lever or fingertip paddles on the steering wheel. The paddles are ugly but well placed and work with a light touch. Eventually you begin to appreciate the function more than you dislike the form.
Can't say as much for the second-row seat. Folks in front have to be pretty short to leave any room for rear riders. When the front seat is slid back, it almost touches the rear seat cushion.
Lexus created a new platform for the IS. It's not derived from the previous IS or other models in production. So it's hard to understand why Lexus didn't make it just a bit larger. If you are buying a four-door sedan, you expect to use the back seat. Otherwise you'd be shopping for coupes and two-door sedans.
The IS 250 AWD has an annoying bump in the front floor on the driver's side, necessary to clear the AWD machinery underneath. You might find it unbearably intrusive or just kind of stupid-looking, depending on your driving position.
The IS 350 had you won't read this here very often a good navigation system. Easy to use; big, bright, easy-to-follow display; quick to recalculate when you stray from the intended route.
Included on the 350 test car was a rearview camera for help when backing up. Such cameras have been available on luxury vehicles for years, but the one in the IS stands out for its especially clear and bright picture of what lurks behind. It is no HDTV but is refreshingly easy to view compared with some equipment on the market.
The parking-assistance warnings, which light up and beep if you get close to obstacles, is tuned about right. Many such systems sound the alarm too soon, so you begin to disregard them and, whack, you bump something expensive.
An all-wheel-drive version of the 350 would be nice. So would a useful rear seat. And so much new hardware can result in first-year goofs. But if none of those concerns you, the IS ought to be atop your shopping list.
What is it? Small, high-performance, four-door sedan manufactured in Toyota/Lexus factories at Tahara and Kyushu, Japan. Available with 2.5-liter (IS 250) or 3.5-liter (IS 350) V-6. IS 250 is available with rear-wheel (RWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). IS 350 is rear drive only.
How soon? On sale since Oct. 14. A gas-electric hybrid version, IS 450h, is due in late spring.
How much? IS 250 RWD starts at $30,580, including $590 destination charge. IS 250 AWD starts at $34,875. IS 350 is $36,030. IS 350 with all factory options is about $48,000.
Expect to pay full window-sticker price, or close to it, the online car-shopping services say.
Who'll buy? Lexus says they're likely to be 35 to 45 years old, 50% to 60% men, have $100,000 to $120,000 annual household incomes.
How many? About 45,000 a year, more than quadruple sales of the previous version, called IS 300.
What's the drivetrain? IS 250 has 2.5-liter V-6 rated 204 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, 185 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm; six-speed manual transmission. Six-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters is $1,170 option on IS 250 RWD, standard on IS 350.
IS 350 has 3.5-liter V-6 rated 306 hp at 6,400 rpm, 277 lbs.-ft. at 4,800 rpm, six-speed, automatic transmission with paddle shifters.
Traction control is standard.
IS 250's AWD system is similar to what's on the larger GS 300 AWD. Normally, 30% of power goes to the front wheels, shifting up to 50% to the fronts if the rear wheels slip.
What's the safety gear? Expected bags and belts, plus front and rear head-curtain air bags and front-seat, side-impact air bags; anti-lock brakes; anti-skid control.
What's the rest? Standard features include automatic climate control; power steering, brakes, windows, mirrors, seats, locks; auto-dimming inside mirror; tilt-adjustable and telescoping steering column; cruise control; sunroof; AM/FM/six-CD stereo with MP3 input receptacle.
How big? Smaller than an Infiniti G35 inside and out; similar outside to BMW 3 Series sedan, smaller inside. IS is 180.1 inches long, 70.9 inches wide, 56.1 inches tall on a 107.5-inch wheelbase. Passenger space is listed as 88.3 cubic feet, trunk as 13 cubic feet.
Weight ranges from 3,455 to 3,651 pounds, depending on model.
How thirsty? Rated 20 to 24 miles per gallon in town, depending on model, 28 to 32 mpg on the highway. Trip computer showed 16 mpg in town in IS 350 test car, 20 mpg in mixed city-highway driving in IS 250 AWD.
Lexus says premium fuel is required, not merely recommended, because of the engines' special fuel-injection system.
Overall: Wonderful piece of work for those who don't need much of a back seat.
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