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2009 Lexus IS 350 Review and Specs

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2009 Lexus IS 350

SEE ALSO: Compare Lexus Specs and Prices - Lexus Buyers Guide


2009 Lexus IS 350

Lexus is unique among the world's luxury car manufacturers in that it has two distinct offerings in the entry-luxury class. Looking for American Traditional, with an emphasis on quiet and comfort? Lexus ES 350. Looking for something more European in concept, with as much emphasis on sport as comfort? At Lexus, that's spelled IS.

The second-generation IS, introduced for model year 2006, gets a mid-product cycle freshening this year, highlighted by sharper front and rear styling and auxiliary turn signals in the outside rearview mirrors externally and a new instrument cluster and trim revisions inside. Color choices also change a bit.

No major changes, but then none were needed. As previously, the IS comes in two varieties, IS 250 with a 2.5-liter, 204-horsepower V6 with rear- or all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive IS 350, with power supplied by a 3.5-liter V6 making 306 horsepower. Also as before, the 250 comes with a standard six-speed manual transmission, and the 250 AWD and 350 get a six-speed automatic. Suspension is double wishbone in front and multi-link at the rear, designed and tuned for performance and comfort. An available sport package, with firmer suspension, larger-diameter wheels with lower-profile tires, and interior and exterior enhancements can increase the sport quotient with only a minor effect on comfort.

Safety is well-addressed, both passively and actively, and the comprehensive Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system is now standard in the IS 250 models as well as the IS 350. The luxury comfort and convenience level, hardly Spartan in standard trim, can be increased to the customer's desires, subject only to budget. Interior upgrades, a Mark Levinson audio system, a voice-activated DVD-based navigation with backup camera can be further augmented with safety-oriented options including the Pre-Collision System (PCS), a radar-based system that further integrates input from the VDIM system with priming of brake assist and seat belts to quicken response to braking in emergency situations, adaptive front lighting with HID headlamps, and Intuitive Parking Assist ultrasonic object-detection system.

I've been driving a new IS 350 equipped with the Premium Package interior upgrade, the navigation system, and the X Package sport equipment. As such, it's a compact sport-luxury car with equal attention paid to both parts of the equation. And it's fully comparable to any German or Japanese competitor in terms of chassis dynamics, drivetrain refinement and ability, and accommodation, with its own distinct character.

APPEARANCE: Details make a difference. Although there are no major changes to the IS, seemingly minor revisions to its waterfall grille and front bumper give it a more-defined look. Call it finessing the L-Finesse... As before, the IS shows plenty of identification with its larger GS siblings, 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, even lower-profile with the X Package. In profile a decisive wedge shape to the body, with the tail the highest point, and a near-fastback roofline give it the look that is more performance coupe than sedan.

COMFORT: A Lexus wouldn't be a Lexus without a high level of passenger comfort and amenities, no matter what its performance level may be. And the IS 350 is undeniably a Lexus. The keyless "Smart Entry" access and starting system is one of the simplest and most-useful no-key systems, activated by a transponder that can be kept in the driver's pocket and featuring distance-sensitive sensors allowing locking and unlocking of all four doors and the trunk along with push-button engine start/stop. Interior design, materials, and quality are all as expected in a contemporary Lexus, and so top-of-class. Brightly-lit "Optitron" instruments are easy to see in any light, and all of the controls are easily reached and used- even the optional navigation system, which is touch-screen based, with none of the interface complexity found in German competitors. Anything that can be power-operated is, and the perforated leather-covered seats, heated and ventilated in front, and wood trim that make up the Premium Package fitted to my test car were supremely comfortable, of course. No surprise for the front, but the rear contoured bench has enough leg and head room for two average-sized adults to fit painlessly, space not necessarily found in the compact sport-luxury sedan. A useful amount of trunk space makes the IS a fine car for distance as well as shopping trips.

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: A rigid unibody structure similar to that of the larger GS, use of lightweight aluminum and high-strength steel for parts of the double wishbone front, multilink rear suspension to reduce unsprung weight, and vehicle speed-sensitive electric power steering add up to precise handling and steering characteristics for the IS 350. Add in the "plus-one" stagger-sized 225/40 YR18 front and 255/40 YR18 rear tires on special alloy wheels (versus standard 225/45 17 and 255/45/17) and slightly firmer suspension calibration of the X Package, and the result is a car that is equal to anything in its class in roadholding ability. And there is minimal reduction in ride comfort for everyday use -- this is not a car that requires fanaticism for enjoyment. The ultra-low profile tires are a little thumpy thanks to their stiff, low sidewalls; that stiffness also improves turn-in response.

PERFORMANCE: Lexus's 3.5-liter V6 is a lovely engine that can plod through commute traffic without complaint or scream on the open road. Its 306 horsepower coming in at 6400 rpm and 277 lb-ft of torque peaking at 4800 rpm will likely be considered massive headroom in the manner of the mega-wattage of the optional Mark Levinson audio system by most owners most of the time, but those who want to exercise the car will be rewarded by head-of-the-class acceleration (and deceleration) abilities. VVT-i variable cam phasing is founds on both intake and exhaust camshafts, for optimum performance and efficiency under all load conditions. Direct fuel injection allows a high 11:8:1 compression ratio, further improving efficiency, while auxiliary port injection improves cold starting and running. 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. The transmission can now be shifted manually when in D, not only in sport mode, for improved driver control.

CONCLUSIONS: Lexus meets its German competition face-to-face with its IS 350.

2009 Lexus IS 350

Base Price			$ 36,605
Price As Tested 		$ 42,311
Engine Type			dual overhead cam aluminum alloy
				 24-valve V6 with VVT-i variable cam
				 phasing on all camshafts, direct
				 primary and port secondary
				 fuel injection
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 210 cu. in.
Horsepower			306 @ 6400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			277 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission			6-speed automatic with manual-shift
				 mode and over-ride
Wheelbase / Length		107.5 in. / 180.3 in.
Curb Weight			3527 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		11.5
Fuel Capacity			17.1 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				f: 225/40 YR 18 R: 255/40 YR18
				Bridgestone Turanza (opt)
Brakes, front/rear		vented discs all around,
				 ABS, EBD, BA standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent double wishbone /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			inline front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		18 / 25 / 20
0 to 60 mph				5.6  sec

Navigation System - includes:
  voice-activated DVD-based navigation system with
  rearview camera and Bluetooth connectivity		$ 2,550
Premium Package - includes:
  heated and ventilated front seats, wood interior trim,
  perforated leather seat upgrade			    840
X Package - includes:
  18-inch liquid graphics finish alloy wheels with summer tires,
  sport-tuned suspension, alloy sport pedals, 
  front lip spoiler					$ 1,491
Delivery and processing 				    825