Lexus makes a sedan feel like a luxury sport coupe with the IS 350, a perfect car in almost every way that comes in at a price making it the best luxury value available. This car sits below the GS and the LS series in Lexus's model lineup, yet the only thing it gives up is size and a little performance. It has a full range of well-implemented cabin tech, an amazing driving experience, and sharp styling.
With our tech-centered review, one of the first things that stood out was the pleasant graphic design of the navigation and telephone keypad displays on the central touch-screen LCD. The navigation system comes in a package with a premium Mark Levinson sound system, which is one of the best we've ever heard. Cabin materials and switch gear, with quality fit and finish, enhanced the luxury feeling. Power tilt steering wheel and a power rear sunshade round out the interior luxury tech.
Although the 3.5-liter variable valve-timed V-6 and its six-speed automatic transmission sound similar to what can be found in many other cars, this power train uses engineering and electronic controls that contribute to a very sporty driving experience. The transmission is in perfect sync with the engine and the road, picking the correct gears flawlessly. And the engine never feels wanting for power.
Safety gear on the 2006 Lexus IS 350 is as high-tech as it gets, with Lexus's VDIM system combining traction control and antilock brakes to intelligently improve road-holding. Our test car also came with radar-based cruise control, which tracks the car in the lane ahead, automatically using brakes and throttle to maintain distance.
The base price of the 2006 Lexus IS 350 is $35,440, but ours came with the $3,495 luxury package, the $3,990 stereo/navigation package, the $2,850 radar-based cruise control, and sundry other options that ran the final tally up to $46,593.
Although the level of luxury in the 2006 Lexus IS 350's cabin isn't quite up to that of the Mercedes-Benz S550, it's more refined than the Acura RL. The cabin has quality switch gear and materials, well-placed accents, excellent fit and finish, and very comfortable seats. The roof liner of our test car was made of a material that felt like cashmere, while the dash had a rubberized feel, much better than the hard, slippery plastics found in many other cars. The 10-way power adjustable front seats had heating and ventilation controls available on the console. As an example of the car's well thought-out ergonomics, the map pockets in the doors fold down on spring-loaded hinges for easier access.
The Mark Levinson stereo plays MP3s, WMAs, and DVD audio with fantastic sound quality. It also has an auxiliary input for an MP3 player.
As with most high-tech cars, the center LCD controls the cabin systems. The IS 350 uses a touch screen, buttons and dials on the steering wheel and the center stack, and voice commands to control its heating, air conditioning, stereo, navigation, Bluetooth telephone integration, and other car systems. The controls are set up with good redundancy. For example, stereo volume can be changed from the steering wheel or central stack. We found the stylish graphic design of the control panels on the LCD a very refreshing change from other carmakers' dull grey input screens. One of the few drawbacks we found on this car is that the voice-command system isn't as intuitive as the one in the Acura TSX. We needed to consult the manual to find out which commands it would accept, and the voice commands didn't control as many of the cars systems as in the TSX, leaving us, for example, to adjust the climate control by hand (a small sacrifice).
On the options list, the navigation and premium Mark Levinson sound system are packaged as one very worthwhile $3,990 package. Expensive, yes, but the audio quality is right up there with the THX system found in the Lincoln Zephyr. With 7.1-channel architecture, 300 watts, and 14 speakers, this system produces fully immersive surround sound that comes through incredibly crisp but with a rich bass note. The six-disc in-dash CD changer handles standard RedBook, MP3, WMA, and even DVD audio formats. And, just for kicks, it will play DVD video on its LCD screen when the car is stopped, with better sound than in most living rooms. It also has an auxiliary input in the center console, with a conveniently placed 12-volt outlet right next to it, for an iPod or another MP3 player. Another small gripe: although it can display song and album information, getting to it requires digging through a submenu or two. It can't be set to stay on the screen.
The display quality is crystal clear, and the navigation system includes retail stores and restaurants as points of interest.
The navigation system uses a very nice, clear display and includes a full set of points of interest in its database, with retail stores, restaurants, and other destinations for weekend errands. The destination input screen uses predictive entry on its alphanumeric keypad, dimming out letters that couldn't possibly follow the previous entry. The black background and blue-trimmed soft keys are a nice graphic design element, another bit of attention to detail that most other automakers ignore. After destination entry, the system shows the point on a map, along with radiating arrows that let the driver fine-tune the address, another nice detail not seen on many other navigation systems. Route guidance worked quickly, helpfully, and unobtrusively during our testing.
As for the Bluetooth integration, we had no problem quickly pairing up our cell phone with the car. Again, the car gave us a nicely designed keypad interface on the LCD for entering phone numbers. Audio quality was fine for both parties on the line, helped along by the IS 350's well-insulated cabin. Unlike on some BMWs we've tested, there is no command to load a phone's entire address book into the car. The Lexus IS 350 does have an address book, but the phone's address book entries can be pushed in only one at a time.
This telephone screen shows the graphic design of the car's interface, which carries over to its navigation, audio, and car information screens.
The standard tech features on the IS 350 are already pretty impressive, including keyless entry and start-up, and very nice electroluminescent gauges, but our car also came with the $3,495 luxury package. This package is less compelling than the premium audio/navigation combination, but it has some niceties such as ventilated front seats, power tilt and telescope adjustment for the steering wheel, and a neat blue illuminated Lexus logo on the scuff panels.
The 2006 Lexus IS 350's place in the Lexus model line has invited comparisons to BMW's 3 series, but the lack of a manual transmission option in the Lexus points to different intentions for the car. Both cars may fit under the luxury-sport label, but the Lexus leans more toward the luxury side of the equation. However, it doesn't give up much, if anything, in performance. Its 3.5-liter V-6 is technically advanced, a quality it shows in the car's performance, and the six-speed automatic is nearly telepathic.
Twenty-four variable timed valves enhance the efficiency of the engine, helping it produce its 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. The fuel system injects gas directly into the cylinders, which makes for a more efficient burn, while also using standard port injection, which delivers a quieter ride at lower RPMs. All of this combines to delivers strong acceleration--a tap on the gas pedal sends the car bolting forward without letup. Acceleration from higher speeds remains strong.
Steering wheel paddles let the driver select gears, but we quickly found that the automatic transmission was smart enough on its own.
But an essential part of this power train is the electronically controlled six-speed automatic. Lexus has built some very effective programming into it, as it seemed to read our intentions and shift gears appropriately. For example, jamming down the gas pedal made it hold gears as the tach raced up toward its redline (shown on the gauge by an illuminated red ring). Lesser transmissions would have up-shifted early, making for an unsatisfying drop in power. The IS 350 includes paddle shifters on the wheel for the transmission's manual mode, but it didn't take us long to just stop using them, as the car always seemed to have the right gear for whatever driving situation we threw its way.
Handling on the IS 350 also proved excellent, aided by Lexus's panoply of road-holding technologies that live under the acronym VDIM. Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management takes antilock braking, traction and stability control, and even minor steering adjustment, integrating them all in one combined system designed to keep the car on the road. The handling feel is very good, with the steering wheel offering solid road feel and precision, tipping the luxury-sport equation back towards sport. We took the car on various twisty roads around the San Francisco Bay Area, and it always felt sure-footed.
The EPA rates the 2006 Lexus IS 350 at 21mpg in the city and 28mpg in the highway, very good numbers for an engine of this size, which points to its efficiency. The car also gets a ULEV II rating from California, another good mark for a car with an engine this powerful.
Lexus is no slouch when it comes to high-tech safety, as evidenced by the multiple standard and optional systems in the 2006 Lexus IS 350. The car comes with the previously mentioned VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) system, which aids in performance and safety by helping keep all wheels on the road. Airbags also surround the vehicle cabin, with front seats getting front, side, and knee airbags, and side curtain airbags for front and rear seats. The car includes a tire pressure monitor and a rearview camera, and it even comes with a first aid kit strapped into the trunk.
The lowest button on the steering wheel spoke lets the driver set the adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to keep the car's distance in traffic.
The luxury package that came with our IS 350 included high-intensity discharge headlights, which produce a bright, clean white light. And the headlights also had Lexus's adaptive system, which pivots the lights slightly when the wheels turn for better visibility around corners.
One of the most remarkable systems, which we classify under safety, is the $2,850 optional radar-based cruise control, which is part of Lexus's optional precollision system. The cruise control lets the driver set the speed and choose from three following distances. The car travels at its set speed until the radar detects a car in the lane ahead and slows down to match its speed. It's a little eerie having the car slow down or speed up depending on the speed of the car ahead, but the system worked well during our testing. However, even at its shortest following distance, it leaves a pretty large gap, which other cars will quickly jump into in heavy traffic. This cruise control is best suited for light to medium traffic.
A rearview camera takes over the LCD whenever the car is put into reverse.
The 2006 Lexus IS 350 hasn't yet received front, side, or rollover ratings from the NHTSA. It's covered by Lexus's generous warranty, which gives four years or 50,000 miles of basic coverage, eight years or 70,000 miles on the power train, and six years against corrosion.