Further shedding its image as a maker of boring luxury cars, Lexus turns its 2009 IS 350 into a tuner car. The IS 350 already featured fairly sporty performance, but now you can add bolt-on performance parts from the company's F Sport accessories, similar to the equipment used on the Lexus IS-F. We looked at a 2009 Lexus IS 350 kitted up with F Sport brakes, exhaust, air intake, shocks, lowering springs, sway bars, and forged 19-inch wheels.
Lexus also made some cosmetic and handling improvements for the 2009 model year, but the cabin tech remains the same as when the model was launched in 2006. Navigation, stereo, and phone system all sport minimal feature sets. The brightest spot in the cabin is the Mark Levinson audio system. We expect that the IS 350 will see a model update for the 2010 or 2011 model year, bringing in similar cabin tech to what we saw in the Lexus RX 450h.
On the road
As befits a Lexus, the 2009 IS 350 sports a cabin comprised of fine materials, with leather seats and soft plastics around the dashboard. It is a comfortable environment and a clear step above sister-brand Toyota.
Brake upgrades are one of the F Sport accessories available for the IS 350.
But the F Sport accessories push the sport-luxury equation much more towards the sport side. Stepping on the gas, the exhaust lets out an aggressive note, although the 3.5-liter V-6 engine itself is unchanged, merely getting better air flow, and probably a few more horses, from the F Sport air intake.
Driving over an average asphalt road, the IS 350's F Sport suspension components make every weather-worn bump and ripple felt in the cabin. Although Lexus claims that it didn't sacrifice comfort for performance, the Bilstein-sourced F Sport shocks definitely deliver a harsher ride than a standard IS 350, the trade-off being minimal body roll in corners.
Putting the IS 350 through its paces on twisty mountain roads, those suspension upgrades and a tuner feel are apparent. The body feels rigid as g-forces push it in a turn--nothing like how most cars feel fresh out of the factory. Yet the IS 350 remains easy to drive and graceful, its luxury side still evident.
Intrusive traction control tamed our wild ways on a couple of occasions. Going into a sharp, downhill turn, a warning lit up on the instrument cluster accompanied by a quick beep beep beep, a sound that clearly means something is wrong. Power quickly disappeared until the car decided we could be trusted again.
On the smaller engined-IS 250, you can get a manual transmission, but you're stuck with a six-speed automatic in the IS 350, a weak link in the performance equation. We put it in Sport mode and tackled the corners, only to find that it didn't want to drop below fourth gear. Manual mode let us force it into third, but the shifts are not particularly crisp, and second is geared too low for all but the sharpest hairpins. There is no F Sport tuning for the automatic, although you can get an upgraded clutch and shifter with the IS 250's six-speed manual.
We were also able to see just how much of an improvement the F-Sport accessories provided on the twists and turns at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The F Sport-equipped IS 350 shows minimal body roll in the corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
The improvements to the IS 350 F-Sport's handing are dramatic on the track. The chassis braces make the IS feel more stable and responsive to steering inputs, while the sway bars help to tune out some of the body roll and understeer. Over the glass-smooth asphalt of the well-maintained track, the rough ride of the stiffer suspension components was a nonissue, as was the Lexus' suite of electric nannies, which were curiously unobtrusive during our hot laps. The result is a sports sedan that is more willing to rotate through a turn and much more fun.
In the cabin
After spending time using the various tech car interfaces offered by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, it is refreshing to use the simple touch screen in the 2009 Lexus IS 350. Instead of manipulating some kind of joystick on the console to select letters on the screen, you just tap the onscreen keyboard in the IS 350. It really is the most direct and intuitive style of interface available in a car, with the only drawback being that the dashboard has to be designed so that the screen is within reach of the driver.
This touch-screen interface is attractive and easy to use.
The navigation system is a simple DVD-based unit. It reacts reasonably quickly to user input, but lacks advanced features present in competitors' systems, such as live traffic or weather. The destination screen layout looks good and is easy to use, and we're impressed that it even lets you look up addresses by phone number, a feature that works for locations stored in its POI database. But because the maps are stored on DVD, you have to change regions when you want to range further than a couple of states over.
The stereo system offers XM satellite radio, a six-disc changer that can read DVDs and MP3 CDs, and an auxiliary input. iPod integration won't come until the next tech update, nor is there an internal hard drive. The interface for browsing an MP3 CD uses a simple folder and file paradigm, but you can view ID3 tagging on a track by hitting a button labeled Detail.
A 7.1-channel Mark Levinson audio system comes with the navigation option. The sound, coming from 14 speakers powered by a 300-watt amp, is excellent. The system produces a surround effect that envelops the cabin in quality audio, with good clarity that doesn't seem to favor any frequencies.
The phone system includes a phone book, but we had to make entries manually.
The IS 350 also includes a Bluetooth phone system with a good on-screen interface and voice command. The car has an onboard phone book, but we weren't able to push contacts from an iPhone into it. You can manually enter contact names and numbers.
Not present on our car was the available adaptive cruise control system, which uses a forward-facing radar to detect and match the speed of any car in the lane ahead of the IS 350. But, as part of the navigation option, the IS 350 includes a reverse camera.
Under the hood
The standard engine in the 2009 Lexus IS 350 is a 3.5-liter V-6 making 306 horsepower at 6,400rpm and 277 pound-feet of torque at 4,800rpm. That's enough to get the IS 350 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, according to Lexus. The upgraded air intake from the F Sport line probably adds a few horsepower, while the F Sport exhaust gives an aggressive sound.
The F Sport air intake can be seen here running across the left side of the engine.
That engine feels ready to go in city traffic and on the open road, delivering easy acceleration from the responsive throttle. We noted the transmission's lack of aggressive downshifting above, but in normal driving it works transparently, finding the right gear without a lot of bother.
And the transmission's six gears assist the fuel economy, keeping engine speed low when driving at freeway speeds. The EPA rates it at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. In our driving, we averaged about 21 mpg, coming in near the middle of the EPA range.
Lexus gets a lot of efficiency out of this engine by using variable-valve timing, on both intake and exhaust, along with a unique injection system that uses port injection for low engine speeds and direct injection when the revs climb. That technology helps the IS 350 earn a ULEV II rating for emissions from the California Air Resources Board.
For safety, the IS 350 gets Lexus' Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management system (VDIM), which ties antilock braking, traction control, and the stability program together. We felt this system was a little bit intrusive in some of our driving, but you can turn it off, something to consider for track days. We would like to see an intermediate setting that dials it down without turning it off entirely.
The 2009 Lexus IS 350 goes for a very reasonable base price of $36,605. But the navigation and Mark Levinson audio system add $3,990 to that price. Our car also included the Luxury package, which includes adaptive head lights, power-adjustable steering wheel, and rain-sensing wipers, for $2,380. We estimate that the F Sport accessories on our test car added an additional $11,750 to the car, bringing our total up to $55,550.
Because of the age of its cabin tech, the IS 350's electronics only rate just a little above average, mostly buoyed by the excellent audio system. It earns a much better score for performance, as we like its handling, power, and fuel economy. The F Sport accessories give it a bump, although the transmission keeps it from achieving an outstanding rating. And we also give the car an excellent rating for design, as the cabin tech interface is easy to use and the body is distinctly a Lexus.