One of the nice things about Toyota is the way that they keep on trying when things don't go exactly right - and they don't just keep trying the same thing. The first Lexus IS was in some ways an imitation Lexus; though the interior was beautiful, with an expensive-watch instrument panel, the basic car was fell rather short of the ideals of Lexus and of sports cars. The new IS350, though, can wear the Lexus badge, and be called a sports car without snickers.
The IS350 sports a high-performance 3.5 liter V6 engine, pushing out an insane 306 horsepower with 277 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed automatic. If you think that's a recipe for incredibly fast acceleration, you're right; 60 mph comes up in about 6 seconds flat, with Lexus claiming 5.6 seconds. That's quite a bit quicker than the BMW 330i or the Audi A4, and we'd bet the IS350 will have a better repair record, as well.
What's more, the engine produces full power whenever desired, at a moment's notice, so that the hardest thing about passing on the highway is not ending up at a foolhardy speed. Gas mileage is a decent 21/28 according to the EPA, though you should feel very lucky if you actually achieve that. Especially if you've tried to meet Lexus' acceleration figures recently. The engine has just about every performance-enhancing technology out there saved forced induction; it even has both direct and port injection.
If you're more of a twisty-curvy person and can make do with normal acceleration numbers, the IS250, with a 2.5 liter version of the same V6 engine, gets about four more miles per gallon, with about 204 horsepower - good for 0-60 times of about 8 seconds (or 8.5 with all wheel drive). The IS350 itself is rear drive only, automatic-transmission only.
The automatic includes both a fancy paddle-shifter system for people who want the manual shifting of a stick, but without the fun or work of a clutch. Though this is no different from the standard AutoStick type of manumatic, other than the control, it does make upshifts and downshifts much easier, without the need to move your hands off the wheel. A conventional manumatic control is also provide on the console shifter itself. The best results can probably be gained by leaving the system in Drive; the transmission is almost invariably in the right gear for performance, and if not, then it takes very, very little time to get there. (Surprisingly, it also moves to the right gear without fuss or muss, making shockingly smooth but quick shifts). The one problem we found was that the transmission tended to hold a low gear for a relatively long time after achieving cruising speed, which was odd-feeling and no doubt not good for gas mileage; that sort of thing should be reserved for the Performance mode (which is entered with the press of a switch). There was also a snow mode, which presumably starts the car in second gear and tries to shift earlier to avoid loss of traction.
Cornering was excellent, thanks in large part to the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system, which kept the driver in control no matter what foolishness he attempted. It let the rear swing out a little before cutting in, to keep a sporty feel in there; but the system could be felt cutting in to maintain traction, sometimes a little sometimes a lot. At the same time, the amber VDIM light would go on to show that the car was saving the day. Go to full throttle acceleration to a sharp corner, and just about no car can maintain full traction; it's not a situation most drivers should ever be in, but the IS' systems kept the rear end from swinging out too far. In all, the VDIM system allows drivers to do things they really shouldn't, maintaining feel and a sense of control while not letting things get too far out of hand. Skilled, trained drivers may get slightly higher turn speeds without the system, and may get frustrated at not being able to turn it off; or they may be thankful it's on when they encounter problems at an unexpected time away from the track.
The steering wheel was designed to present an almost manual-steering heavy feel; it succeeded in that, but the electrical assist didn't do much for road feel. The ride was a good compromise between sport and comfort, with some surprisingly good shock absorption - major potholes seemed to present no real challenge - but also a fairly firm feel overall. The brakes were excellent, as they should be with oversized discs and ventilation front and back.
Inside, at least with the options we chose, there are controls everywhere; on the left of the steering wheel are the headlight washer and rear sunscreen buttons, above the gas cap and trunk releases; to the right, underneath the start/stop button, are the stability-control-defeat button (it comes right back on again) and the transmission mode selector (power vs snow vs normal). On the wheel itself are radio controls on the left side, voice controls and trip computer display on the right. Then there's the nav system/stereo; a row of hard-coded climate-control buttons for convenience (temperature up/down, auto fan, fan off, filter, front and rear defrosters, and recirculation). Beneath that are the stereo controls - some of them, anyway, because more of them (including bass, treble, and digital signal processor) are soft-buttons in the nav system display. More controls are on the center console - the dials for seat heaters/coolers and the gearshift - and still more are above: the excellent dial-type sunroof control (just one twist opens it to the position you wanted), the dome light, and the map lights.
With the nav system, you have to use the big screen to access sound and vent system features that should really be given to knobs. As an example, one would think that bass and treble would be adjusted using the large tune knob. Here, you have to press the Audio button next to the touch-screen (far away from the stereo), then press Sound, then press (or hold down) a + or - sign by bass, treble, or midrange. Balance and fade are handled the same way. You can easily switch modes (e.g. AM or CD) using buttons or a steering-wheel control - other wheel controls are volume and up/down - but changing audio properties requires an attention-diverting trip to the screen. This could be less dangerous (any time you're not looking at the road, it's dangerous) if the system remembered audio settings by station or mode, but it doesn't. Given that there is a tuning knob anyway, using pushbuttons for the audio controls just seems illogical.
Some climate control functions, such as shutting off the air conditioner compressor and manually changing fan speed, also require trips to the touch-screen. Fortunately, the automatic climate control seemed to be more intelligent than that of the GS we tested, and we were content to leave the system on Auto, especially given the alternative. The automatic mode warmed us up quickly but without much noise.
On the lighter side, the touch screen does provide a great deal of audio, climate, and trip information in a large. convenient space. The trip computer is limited to distance-to-empty, gas mileage since the last refill and since the last checkpoint, and average speed and distance (resettable); all that information is shown one piece at a time, changing with a press of a steering-wheel button.
The navigation system is fairly standard issue. The weak point is its predeliction for ignoring smaller roads and putting the driver through huge detours, even though you can see the road on the screen; the system just won't use it. It also seems haphazard in the items on the list of attractions. The strong point of the system, compared with other navigation systems — most features are similar — is the ease of entering a destination, with a choice of ABCD or QWERTY entry keyboards on the screen, and touch-typing on the screen itself. That makes it considerably faster to put addresses into the system.
The big screen really shows its merit when you order the backup camera, which is placed almost invisibly under the trunk lid; the tiny camera shows a bird's eye view of what is behind the car as you back up. It isn't meant to show the distance to the next object (it's not very good at that), though it's quite handy for getting right up to the line in a parking space; it's there to save the life of that child who started walking behind the car as you were backing out of your driveway. A surprising number of children die each year in driveway-leaving accidents, and we're glad to see that backup cameras are becoming more popular each year. It's a great invention. On the IS, it goes on automatically as soon as you get into reverse.
Superimposed on the screen, if you get the parking alert system, is the parking alert icon, showing the car and any areas where you are getting close to a solid object (as sensed through detectors in the bumpers). The Lexus has several sensors in each bumper, including two set at angles; and since it knows (and shows) which way the wheels are pointed, it can figure out what you have a likelihood of hitting, and sounds the audio alert appropriately. The system is a bit conservative, going into solid-beep and red-bar mode with a good few inches left, but that's probably a good thing. The displays (in the instrument panel, replacing the odometer, and on the big center-stack screen) show 1-3 bars around the sensor that's detecting an object to tell how close you are, and turn from yellow to red to show that you should really be stopping now. It's the best system of its kind we've seen, and it's good to see it in both front and back.
The interior design is in modern-spartan, with huge swaths of black plastic relieved by black leather on the doors and covering the center console bin, and metallic and wood trim here and there. The passenger sees an unrelenting black plastic surface broken only by the curve of the glove compartment, but on the lighter side, there are three presets for the passenger seat adjustments - still a fairly rare feature. The center console itself was covered with wood on our test car, part of the luxury package; the shift gate was detailed in chrome, as was the shifter knob. A single primitive cupholder was under a wood-trimmed cover, with another more adjustable cupholder inside the bin, along with the 110 volt AC power supply. There are some metal trim elements in the dashboard, including small dull-metal inserts between the nav system buttons, polished chrome highlights on the vent controls, and a trim ring around the start/stop button, but the interior was overwhelmingly black, making it rather dark at night.
The gauges are backlit in bright white (day and night), with a 160 mph speedometer that makes it a bit hard to accurately maintain a low, odd-numbered speed like 35 mph; the IS350 has a listed top speed of 142 mph, and it wouldn't hurt to top out at 140 and make the other speeds more legible. The tachometer goes up to 8,000 rpm, but redline is picked out at 6,500, leaving a portion of that sweep unused. One clever feature is having the center circle in the tachometer glow yellow when the driver approaches the redline, as a warning - a useful feature for those actually using the sequential shift, or a manual transmission IS model (the 250). Beneath the big speedometer and tachometer are gas and temperature gauges, and between them is the gear indicator - with the gear number lighting up when in sequential-shift mode.
A convenient rear sunshade goes up or down at the press of a button; it covers nearly the entire rear window. Though it does a good job of shielding passengers from the sun, it is also very easy to see through, so that leaving it up is not an issue most of the time. This is one of the nicer options for parents - and for people who don't want to be blinded by the lights of the cars behind them, and who find the auto-dimming rear-view mirror to be inadequate.
Control backlighting is decent at night, with all but the steering wheel controls, stalks, and overhead buttons (for the optional sunroof and the interior lights) lit up. The climate control fan is fairly quiet even when going at a high rate, and the stereo has good sound and an easy to use six-disc changer right in the dashboard. Dual zone climate control is standard, along with a smog sensor that can temporarily shut off outside air, and a filter for the rest of the time.
Visibility was good in all directions, despite a small blind spot caused by the rear pillar; the optional HID headlights were extremely bright and well focused, the power-folding outside mirrors had anti-glare coating as well as defrosters; what's more, unlike just about any mirrors we've seen that automatically tilt down when you reverse (so you can see the parking-space stripes or curb better), these do so quickly enough to be useful. Likewise, the optional rain-sensing wipers actually came on when the windshield gets wet, and have no compunction about moving to high gear when needed. (The system is adjustable.) One nice touch is a delayed extra-single-wipe after the washer system is activated, to get that little drip that always shows up when the wipers are done. Sun visors, oddly enough, don't pull out or have extenders, and your head can get in their way when moving from front to side.
The interior LED spotlights, which are becoming all the rage due to their fashionable whiteness, cool factor, longevity, and low heat, are aimed carefully for front-passenger reading; the front and rear dome lights use traditional bulbs for better general illumination.
Interior spaces for stuff include a smoothly sliding ashtray cover, sturdy fold-out map pockets on both front doors and on the backs of both front seats, a small center console, and of course the glove compartment. Our four-door sedan had good room in the back for passengers less than five feet, eleven inches tall, as long as the front seats are in reasonable positions. Car seat anchors were easy to reach and covered by leather flaps.
The IS350 had a huge number of interesting features, from the standard "garage door controls and compass integrated into the auto-dimming rear-view mirror" to the unconventional "smart locks." The smart locks are rather nice in winter, when your keys never need to leave your pocket; you can unlock the door by touching the handle (all doors unlock if you touch any but the driver's door handle), start the car by pressing a button, and lock the car by pressing a button on any of the four doors. If the battery dies, you can slide out a mechanical key and use it in the driver's door.
All windows (and the sunroof if you have one) can be opened from the outside to let heat out quickly, and from the inside, all windows have express up and down controls (with pinch protection). The seats were very adjustable, with electric height, fore/aft, bolster, and other controls; and the steering column had tilt and telescope.
Safety comes in spades, with all sorts of clever doo-dads to save you from yourself and from the loose nut behind the other wheel, too. There are just too many safety systems to list.
The base IS350 four-door sedan runs for $36,395, including the 3.5 liter, 306 horsepower engine, six-speed automatic with wheel-mounted shift paddles, four-wheel ABS, stability control, eight airbags (by our count), alarm, tire pressure monitor, first aid and tool kits, SmartAccess locks, leather seats, 10-way power front seats (for both driver and passenger, which is unusual), power moonroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, LED interior lighting, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with compass, trip computer, six-disc CD system with 13 speakers and auxiliary input, manual tilt/telescope steering column, power windows (express up and down for all four windows), and even floor mats. That's quite a lot of standard equipment even at this price level.
Adding to the bill on our test car were a few of the inevitable options. Headlamp washers were almost cheap at $100, which is what one would normally pay for floor mats; and the trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks, together, came to $197. A bit less pricey but worthwhile if you have the money for this car was the parking assist system, now with both front and rear sensors to make "parking by Braille" a thing of the past, ran $500, well below the cost of fender repair. The navigation system, with the rear camera and Bluetooth phone integration, cost $2,550, which seems a bit high; and the luxury package ran $4,215. The luxury package included 18 inch alloy wheels with insanely low profile summer tires (225/40 front, 255/40 rear); Adaptive High Intensity Discharge headlights; heated and ventilated front seats, operated via a convenient dial that gave three settings for heat or cooling; perforated leather seats; wood interior trim; power tilt / telescoping steering wheel; memory seats for both driver and passenger; illuminated scuff plates; the aforementioned power rear sunshade; and the rain-sensing wipers. Overall, this package is probably worth the money for people who have it and don't mind spending it, but it did help to propel our IS into $43,900 territory.
The IS350 was even more of a blast than the GS430 we recently tested; the engine, with V8 power coming from a V6, was a blast, the sure and true suspension kept all that torque from getting us into trouble, and we loved being able to swing through fast corners on rough or poor surfaces with nary a squeal and no body roll. However, though far sportier than the GS (on which it's based), the IS is still sport with velvet gloves; it does both sport and luxury, and that means that a sub-six-second 0-60 time feels about as exciting as a less refined car going from 0-60 in about seven seconds. Refinement can often get in the way of excitement. On the lighter side, it also is nice to be able to convert your IS into a luxury car simply by driving less quickly or taking turns less aggressively.
If you're in this price range (or for that matter a higher price range), even if you're looking at SUVs, you really owe it to yourself to try the Lexus IS. Sure, Mercedes was great once, but now they're sneaking Chrysler engineers in through the back door to help them fix their nagging quality problems. BMW is better off than Mercedes, and their 330i, while slower, feels more “connected” and sporty than the IS; but it's also firmer and less luxurious, and nobody has Lexus’ quality record (except, of course, Lexus and perhaps Toyota).
The Lexus IS350, like the GS, has an enviable balance of performance and luxury which is made sweeter by its reliability and dealer service. While its performance is that of an all-out sports car, its sporty feel is compromised a bit by the velvet gloves of luxury and refinement; but that makes it easier to live with as a daily driver. Gas mileage is hardly good for a family sedan, but isn't bad at all for a high performance sports sedan that can do 0-60 in under six seconds. If you're looking for high performance but don't want to give up day to day usability and comfort, or want the latest in safety technology as well, the IS350 may well be your ticket.