The new all-wheel-drive system, which comes from the IS 250, should help handling a little. It defaults to a bias of 70 percent torque to the rear wheels and 30 percent to the front, but will shift torque to a 50/50 split as needed. Lacking torque vectoring, we didn't find it offered as noticeable a difference as Acura's, Audi's, or Mitsubishi's all-wheel-drive systems. We expect the Lexus all-wheel-drive system will make a bigger difference on muddy or snowy roads.
An electric motor provides a power-steering boost, and Lexus did a tremendous job of tuning it for road feel and precise turn-in. But the steering and suspension are not quite up to hard-core driving. When really pressed, the car shows some sloppiness, the front end getting a little aimless with the power on in a turn.
Lexus made some improvements to the IS 350's cabin electronics, but this system is in need of a bigger overhaul. The menu graphics for the onscreen interface are particularly awful-looking, with big, gray beveled squares for buttons. The design looks more like an afterthought than something intended to bolster the Lexus brand.
The exception is the destination entry screen, which shows icons for the different options. This hard-drive-based navigation system works well enough. It shows traffic on the maps, and can dynamically avoid serious jams. Turn guidance graphics are big and detailed.
But the system only offers 2D maps and, oddly, does not mute the stereo when route guidance issues instructions or warns of an upcoming turn. Map and button response is good, though.
Aside from the onscreen interface, Lexus' voice command works very well, and does a good job of recognizing address inputs. Likewise, it offers good control over the Bluetooth phone system, letting users dial contacts by name. The phone interface also shows a paired phone's contact list on the screen.
Lexus adds some external connectivity for the 2011 IS 350. Along with traffic, the system also shows weather, stock prices, and sports scores. The interface requires you to preselect stocks and teams, so as to avoid information overload on the road. And when you choose either stocks or scores, the car reads them out loud.
This data comes in through satellite radio, but Lexus' new Enform telematics service lets drivers preselect destinations on their home computers, then send them to the car. Enform also includes the usual concierge services through an operator.
One particular high point of the IS 350 is the Mark Levinson audio system, with audiophile-quality sound. We were impressed with how well it balanced frequency response, while at the same time producing solid, detailed sound. The system's 300-watt amp may seem a little weak by the numbers, but the sound comes through powerfully. The shortage of watts only makes itself felt in the lack of thumping bass with the volume high.
The stereo gave us some trouble. It has iPod integration, but browsing a music library onscreen becomes very tedious because of slow response times. We ended up playing artists at the beginning of the alphabet because scrolling all the way to the end required too much patience, not to mention distraction from the road. Worse, the iPod was basically unlistenable because of choppy playback. We spent more time using the Bluetooth streaming stereo connection.
Although it lacks rich 3D maps, the cabin tech in the 2011 Lexus IS 350 is otherwise excellent, getting a boost from its external data and telematics system. We love the sound of the Mark Levinson audio, and the Bluetooth phone system includes full contact list access. Voice command let us place calls by name. The choppy iPod playback proved troubling, and we don't know why Lexus can't make the stereo mute when route guidance speaks up.
The IS 350's engine is one of Lexus' more high-tech efforts, using direct injection for strong horsepower and efficiency. We like that the automatic transmission has six gears, along with Sport and Manual modes. The suspension strikes a nice balance between comfort and stability, and all-wheel drive is a nice addition.
With its unmistakable Lexus style cues, such as the roofline extending back toward the trunk, the IS 350 looks good and stands out from the pack. Ergonomics are decent, although the rear seat area and the trunk are both a little tight. The onscreen cabin tech interface is usable, but its big gray buttons do nothing for the Lexus image.
|Model||2011 Lexus IS 350|
|Power train||3.5-liter direct injection engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||18.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Six-disc in-dash changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Mark Levinson 7.1-channel, 14-speaker, 300-watt system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$45,259|