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2011 Lexus IS 350 review:

2011 Lexus IS 350

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New connectedness
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.

Lexus should really restyle these screens, as the gray buttons don't convey a luxury image.

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.

Lexus makes stock prices and sports scores available in a safe manner.

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.

In sum
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.

Tech specs
Model 2011 Lexus IS 350
Trim AWD
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
Base price $41,030
Price as tested $45,259

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