Lexus brings us a sedan that performs like a sports coupe yet encompasses its occupants in luxury. I drove the 2006 Lexus IS 350 at a press event last year and was pleased to finally get one in for review. We took it out for our initial impressions, and besides a few odd quirks, the car is superior in every way. Our test car's base price of $35,440 gets a $10,000 boost with the Luxury package, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and navigation, which includes the premium Mark Levinson sound system.
The 3.5-liter, 306-horsepower V-6 smoothly rockets the car forward, while the smart six-speed automatic, realizing that a smashed gas pedal means full power, holds the gears up into the red. In fact, on my fast-launch tests, I watched as the tach needle spun around until a red ring lit up in the electroluminescent gauge, dropping down at the upshift. This car doesn't show a redline at any given time, as the engine will adjust its top RPMs depending on circumstances. Some people have complained that the car doesn't have a manual transmission option, and Lexus added paddle shifters to make up for the fact. I don't think the paddle shifters are an adequate substitute, but I also don't think this automatic needs any human interference. It's really smart, and at no time did it act in a way I didn't want. It might be telepathic.
The handling feels really good, too. Lexus loads its cars with serious electronic road-holding equipment, packaging it under the moniker VDIM. In the IS 350, power and braking are modulated to prevent wheel slip but allow fast acceleration and cornering, something not every carmaker has mastered.
Our test Lexus IS 350 came loaded with the trifecta of tech: navigation, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and an excellent stereo. I paired up my Motorola V551 right away, then made a call using the touch-screen keypad. It muted the stereo, and the call came through clearly. It didn't copy over my contact list, and I didn't see any way to store phone numbers, but I'll have to dig deeper into the system to find out if it has that capability. It also includes a voice-command feature, but in my initial drive, it didn't work that well, which means it's not as intuitive as the voice-command system found in the . I'll have to dig deeper into that, as well.
The nav system is very nice, with points of interest that include all sorts of retail businesses. I often use Home Depot as a test destination, and I had no trouble finding the nearest 280 of them using the IS 350 nav system. A predictive-entry keypad on the touch screen let me input the letters, then it showed all corresponding businesses. As a nice extra touch, the keypad had an interesting graphic design, much better than the gray keys found in so many other systems. When inputting a street address, the system showed me the location on a map, along with eight arrows radiating outward that let me fine-tune where exactly I wanted to go. It also offered three different route options. The voice guidance gave ample warning for turns and always seemed to keep up with the actual location of the car.
The screen also displays audio system controls, some of them redundant with controls around the CD slot at the bottom of the stack. The 300-watt premium Mark Levinson audio system uses 14 speakers to produce extraordinarily clear, rich, immersive sound. Music sounds incredibly good in this car, and it takes thoroughly modern sources, including either MP3, WMA, or DVD discs and music from MP3 players through an auxiliary jack in the console box. My only complaint is that the screen doesn't easily display song, artist, and album information. I had to dig down through some menus for it. But let me just say it again because one sentence doesn't emphasize the point enough: this audio system makes music sound fantastic.
But wait, there's more. The luxury feel of the interior materials is very, very nice. The switch gear makes soft, precise clicks. The seats have cushy, soft centers but firm bolsters to prevent sliding around during sport driving. My colleague Kevin pointed out that the material used for the roof liner and the interior pillars felt like cashmere. This is a car you want to spend time in.
Given this car's success with performance, electronics, and interior comfort, I'm not sure why anyone would want to buy one of Lexus's more upscale GS or LS models. When we get those cars in, though, I'm sure they will justify themselves.