For its 2005 launch, Lexus maintained high aspirations for the IS 350, positioning it as a BMW 3-series killer. But in the intervening years, the IS 350 hasn't taken a huge bite out of BMW's sales and reputation. Instead, it solidified its place as a comfortable luxury car with some sport attributes.
And with the 2011 Lexus IS 350 update, we're not seeing another attempt at the crown. Lexus settled for maintaining its ground, fitting the new IS 350 with updated cabin tech, including its new telematics service, and adding the now de rigueur LED parking light strips to the headlight casings.
LED parking lights have become a standard feature on luxury cars.
And to hold its position against upstarts such as the, Lexus added the option of all-wheel drive. But as yet there is still no manual transmission available, one element keeping the IS 350 from true sport car status.
A high point of the IS 350 remains its engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 using an innovative fuel delivery system combining direct injection and port injection. Lexus developed this system to get the efficiency advantages of direct injection, and at slower speeds preserve the luxury character of the vehicle with the lesser noise of port injectors.
The result is an engine that outputs 306 horsepower at 6,400rpm, and 277 pound-feet of torque at 4,800rpm, power figures similar to what competitors get with a 3.7-liter V-6. With its new all-wheel-drive system, the IS 350 earns EPA fuel economy of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Even with our heavy-footed driving style, we turned in 18.5 mpg at the end of our time with the car.
The IS 350's engine uses a unique dual-injector system.
With this engine, the IS 350 produces satisfying acceleration and a pleasing exhaust note to go with it. The car gave us confidence to pass others on two-lane highways and our choice of merging spots when entering a freeway. It's reasonably quiet when idling, but Lexus probably could have used sound-deadening materials rather than the extra port injection system to achieve this result.
One thing that keeps the IS 350 from being a real BMW 3-series competitor in the eyes of enthusiasts is the lack of a manual transmission. Instead, drivers have to settle for a six-speed automatic. Granted, this transmission offers a Sport mode and manual gear selection, but there's no getting around the inferior performance of its torque converter.
As we roared over some favorite roads in the hills, the transmission's Sport mode kept the engine speed up around 4,000rpm, putting a good amount of the car's power to the ground. But Sport mode is not particularly aggressive, refusing to downshift as we hit the brakes before going into a corner. And it showed typical torque converter sluggishness when responding to heavy accelerator input, with a little lag between gear changes.
Likewise, manual shifting wasn't as snappy as we would have liked. The car's shift paddles are attached to the steering wheel, with upshifts on the right and downshifts on the left. These paddles have a good, solid feel. The console shifter can also be used to select gears. But with the gear change lag, we tended to leave the transmission in Sport mode.
Paddle shifters don't make up for the fact that the transmission's shifts are laggy.
The suspension isn't particularly high-tech, but it strikes a very satisfying balance between offering a comfortable ride when cruising, and maintaining stability while cornering. We found the ride quality very pleasing when traversing rough pavement, serving up some Lexus luxury.
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.
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.
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|