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2006 Lexus IS350 Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Lexus

2006 Lexus IS350

Lexus has fully understood the concept of luxury as applied to an automobile since its inception. But ``sport'' has seemingly been just out of its grasp. To be sure, there have been very sporty Lexuses, especially in the form of the GS sedans, but they have always been more luxury-sport than sport-luxury. The IS300 attempted to provide more sport than luxury when it debuted here six years ago, but, while it did well enough, it never quite measured up to the competition from Munich. Lexus is nothing if not competitive, and doesn't like second place. And so the IS300 has been replaced.

The 2006 IS lineup shares virtually nothing with the IS300 besides the IS model designation. Although still basically of a front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, it's built on a completely different chassis platform, derived from that of the larger GS. The IS is now a multi-model lineup, comprised of the IS250, all-wheel drive IS250 AWD, and IS350. Gone is the IS300's inline six-cylinder engine; all new IS models have a V6, of 2.5 liters capacity with 204 horsepower - close to the IS300's 215 - for the IS250 models, or 3.5 liters and 306 horsepower for the IS350. Transmissions are all six-speeds, with a manual standard in the IS250 and the automatic available there standard in the others.

The new IS is larger than the old, especially in width and cabin space. Its muscular looks establish an immediate kinship with the GS. Although its lines, and the tuning of its fully-independent suspension, proclaim its sports-sedan mission, it is a Lexus, and the luxury level available, especially for the top-line IS350, is limited only by budget.

I first drove an IS350 when it was introduced to the press in the mountains north of Napa, California, last summer. I'd had its benchmark German competitor as my weekly test car the previous week, so it was fresh in mind when I spent most of the day in an IS350 equipped with the optional sport suspension. I was expecting the new IS to be closer to its competition than the old model, but was surprised by how close it was. There was parity between the two, really, for use in enthusiastic everyday driving, with the choice as to which was better being strictly personal preference.

This was reinforced last week, when I had an IS350 for a week at home. Unlike the sport-equipped introduction example, this one had the standard suspension and almost all of the available luxury options. But its sport-sedan nature was undiminished by all of those comforts and conveniences. The 2006 Lexus IS350 is a true sports-luxury sedan, and can hold its own against any competitor in the compact sports-luxury class.

APPEARANCE: In overall shape, the IS is remarkably similar to its larger GS relative. But subtle differences in proportion and style give it a lighter, sportier look. Its width is accentuated by muscular wheel arches filled with high-performance, low-profile rubber. In profile a decisive wedge shape to the body, with the tail the highest point, and a near-fastback roofline give it the look of a performance coupe, not a sedan. At the front, a sculpted, bulging hood, cat-eye headlights, and flat front fascia proclaim power, while the high, squared-off tail show refinement and hints at practical storage space.

COMFORT: Despite its emphasis on sport, there is no shortage of luxury comfort and convenience in a new Lexus IS. It wouldn't be a Lexus without that, after all. All IS models use the keyless ``Smart Entry'' system, which uses a transponder to allow the driver to open or lock doors and start the engine. The old IS's gimmicky chronometer-like gauge cluster has been replaced by a brightly-lit Optitron cluster, and the instrument panel styling is pure Lexus, with no attempt to copy anyone else. The front buckets offer good comfort and support; rear space is reasonable for two medium-sized adults but a high central tunnel and the cushion's contours make three less likely. Trunk space is reasonable, although the opening is a bit small. Leather is standard in the IS350, as is a power moonroof and 13-speaker premium audio system with MP3CD capability and an auxiliary jack for an external music player. But that's just a start. My test car was outfitted with most available options, which brought it up to the luxury level of a well-equipped mid-size luxury sedan. Notable items in the various packages included but were not limited to (wait! there's more!) heated and cooled front seats with perforated leather (very pleasant), adaptive (turning) HID headlights, the Lexus Pre-Collision system with radar cruise control, an excellent Mark Levinson audio system, and a very good, easy-to-use navigation system. With the nav/audio package, interior systems are controlled through the touch screen mounted at the top of the center stack, a much simpler and more intuitive system than the obscure joysticks dear to the Germans.

SAFETY: The Lexus IS350 offers a comprehensive array of passive and active safety equipment. Traction control, antilock brakes with brake assist, and the Vehicle Stability Control system not only work in their intended manners, they are tied together in the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system for further refinement of vehicle control. The carefully-designed passenger compartment and front and rear crumple zones protect occupants, as do dual front, dual front knee, front seat-mounted side, and front and rear side-curtain air bags. The available Pre-Collision system preemptively tightens safety belts and gives extra power to the Brake Assist system if sensors deem a collision unavoidable.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Even with the stock suspension setup, the IS350 exhibits crisp, responsive handling with minimal body lean in corners. The suspension calibration is firm, for good control, but not so firm as to decrease comfort, and, with staggered-size tires (225/45 17 in front, 245/45 17 rear) it works very well on a challenging road while also providing civilized comfort around town. Use of high-strength steel and aluminum parts for its double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension reduces unsprung weight to improve the behavior of the wheels over bumps. Technology aids the driver in the form of the VDIM system, which uses sensors to gather input about steering angle, yaw rate, deceleration, brake activation, and ties the various electronic control systems of the car together to help the car react more quickly in high-speed or emergency maneuvers. It's a next-generation stability-control system, and is transparent in operation except right at the car's limits.

PERFORMANCE: With 306 horsepower (at 6400 rpm) and 277 lb-ft of torque (at 4800 rpm) from its namesake 3.5-liter V6, the IS350 is one of the most powerful cars in its class. Architecture for both the 2.5- and 3.5-liter engines is the same, with aluminum alloy block and heads, dual overhead cams with 24 valves engine, and VVT-i variable cam phasing. Both have direct fuel injection for high power output and a low ULEV II emissions rating. Auxiliary port injection, in the 3.5-liter engine only, improves cold starting, while the direct injection allows a higher compression ratio (12:1 for the 2.5, 11.8:1 for the 3.5), benefitting efficiency. Power is strong at all engine speeds, and the engine is very flexible, able to cruise at low speeds in high gears for good gas mileage. Yet it will happily rev to redline, and if power seemed strong at 2500 rpm, well, there's plenty more up higher. The control logic for the six-speed automatic is impressive. Upshifting in automatic is quick and positive, and delayed with wider throttle openings for improved acceleration when desired. It also downshifts automatically, to provide the correct gear for a given speed, and, unlike many automatics rarely shifts in a corner (thank you VDIM!). It can be shifted manually by means of twin paddles behind the steering wheel, or by putting the shift lever in the auxiliary manual gate, but seems slower to shift in manual mode. The engine's torque spread is broad enough, and the transmission good enough, that automatic is the way to go except in extreme high-performance driving.

CONCLUSIONS: Lexus launches a major attack on Bavaria with its new IS sports sedans.

2006 Lexus IS350

Base Price			$ 35,440
Price As Tested			$ 46,593
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum
				  alloy V6
				  with VVT-i variable cam phasing
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 210 cu. in.
Horsepower			306 @ 6400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			277 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission			6-speed electronically-controlled
Wheelbase / Length		107.5 in. / 180.1 in.
Curb Weight			3,527 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		11.5
Fuel Capacity			17.1 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				225/45 front, 245/45 VR 17 rear
				  Dunlop Sport SP
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc, ABS, EBD,
				 brake assist standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent double wishbone
Drivetrain			independent multilink

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		21 / 28 / 22
0 to 60 mph				5.6  sec

Headlamp washers				$   100
Luxury Package - includes:
  HID & adaptive front lighting system, 
  heated & ventilated front seats, perforated
  leather seat upgrade, wood interior trim, 
  power tilt & telescope steering wheel,
  driver & passenger memory seats, 
  illuminated scuff plates, power rear sunshade,
  rain-sensing wipers				$ 3,495
Lexus Pre-Collision system(PCS) with 
  dynamic radar cruise control			$ 2,850
Navigation system with Mark Levinson
  premium audio package				$ 3,990
Cargo net					$    59
Trunk mat					$    69
Destination charge				$   590