By Roger Boylan
Traditionally, Lexus has been better known for serene luxury than for high performance, but the configuration changed in 2008 with the introduction of the blisteringly fast IS-F, so enthusiastically reviewed by my colleague Chris Haak in these pages that I’ve wanted to drive one ever since. Well, I came close this week, with a 2011 IS-350, the slightly more sedate cousin of the IS-F: not quite in the same V8-powered stratosphere, but a fine car in its own right, with a smooth and punchy 3.5-liter V-6 that employs a combination of direct injection (for peak performance) and port injection (for quietness), thereby providing both speed and luxury, Lexus style. I’d say it works.
In fact, I’ve rarely had such fun in a test vehicle. Generally, after spending a week with a test car, I’m never disappointed to get back behind the wheel of my Jaguar S-Type, and of course the Jag has its own unique qualities, but the IS-350 came close to stealing my heart. For one thing, it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite cars, the BMW 2002tii, from back in the ‘70s—much more sophisticated, of course, but offering the same blend of drivability, taut engineering, and sheer performance in a small package.
Even the interior layout reminded me of a German car, with the typeface of the speedometer and tachometer numbers similar to that used in Mercedes-Benzes, and the somewhat somber black-leather and soft-touch dark-gray dash reminiscent also of the autobahn cruisers. Switches and controls are easy to use and placed where you’d expect to find them, a reassuring detail not always characteristic of Stuttgart or Munich creations. Seats are snug and well-bolstered, but not excessively so; a long drive takes no toll on your lumbar regions. Legroom in the back, however, is at a premium, as two heroically uncomplaining teenagers discovered over a 50-mile jaunt around the Texas Hill Country. No encores were offered, or requested.
But that’s OK, because the IS series isn’t intended for the family market. The base model, the IS250, which starts at around $33K, is aimed squarely at the hip youthful 20-something demographic who might also be standing around in their black T-shirts drooling over pictures of BMWs on their iPhones. The IS350 target demographic has those guys in its sights, too, but at a starting price of $38K it also appeals to the retired or semi-retired over-55 empty nesters who want a bit of pizzazz as they drive into the sunset. For pizzazz plus flash, they can opt for the new “F-Sport” package, with which my test vehicle was equipped. Adding an extra $2.5K or so to the MSRP, it includes sport-tuned suspension, drilled-metal sport pedals, special 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18 tires, front and rear spoilers, aluminum scuff plates, satisfyingly fat steering wheel with redundant controls and paddle shifters, and sport seats with microfiber inserts (whatever the heck they are).
My car also had a sat/nav system and backup camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a power moonroof that was totally ignored by me, I’m afraid (it’s already too hot in Texas for anything but ice-cold a/c), keyless entry and ignition (standard on all IS models), XM Sirius satellite radio, an excellent 13-speaker audio system (plus a nice big tuning knob you can use without taking your eyes off the road), and a hard-drive-based navigation system that worked OK when I used it to find my way home from the other end of the Hill Country but coldly informed me, once I’d arrived, that I I actually lived one street away. Well, there’s a non-Germanic note for you.
Non-Germanic, too, is the car’s exterior, which in fact looks decidedly Japanese, if you recognize the cues–the discreet creases and bulges, the relative absence of chrome bits, the leering mad-Kabuki headlights also found on other Toyotas as well as on the new Nissan Maxima and various Hondas and Mazdas. (It’s much better controlled here than on, say, the Mazda 3.) Overall, not much has changed since this generation was introduced in 2006, but the design has worn well, with its purposeful and muscular stance, sharply angled hood and trunk, and (on the IS350) 18-in. wheels tucked into snug wheel wells. The IS350 was tweaked for ’11 with LED parking lights embedded in the headlight frames, a new design feature that seems to be spreading from Audi inexorably outward. From an angle, my tester, endowed with the afore-mentioned “F-Sport” package, looked especially mean and macho, with its gray alloy wheels, all-black paint job, and forceful front fascia. The raised rear deck, like the haunches of a sprinter in the blocks, implies a readiness to scoot.
And scoot it does, thanks to its magnificent V6 and its 306 horses and 277 lb-ft. of torque: 0 to 60 is over in 5.6 seconds, according to the manufacturer. My vintage Swiss chronometer confirmed this, within a whisker. Better yet, the 350’s straight-ahead acceleration is well-controlled and predictable, as if on rails; this is what a rear-wheel-drive platform with well-tuned suspension will give you, which is why a front-wheel-drive sport sedan is still a bit of a contradiction in terms. Hurtling through the curves in this thing is fun, too, especially when you play Michael Schumacher and eschew the smooth 6-speed automatic in favor of the paddle-shift feature, a gizmo I’d never paid much attention to in the past but which convinced me of its fun factor, at least in this car. The electric power-assisted steering is reasonably communicative, especially at high speeds, when you need it most.
Plus, it isn’t as if all the fun comes at a high price at the pump. Lexus claims 20 mpg city, 27 highway, and 22 combined for the RWD IS350 (an AWD model is newly available), and my experience, mostly on back roads, bore this out. Suffice it to say that I finished my week with just under a quarter of a tank of premium left: enough for a driving range of 79 miles, according to the driver info center.
Safety is another highlight, as you might expect. For starters, all 2011 Lexi have a new brake override system that automatically reduces power when the accelerator and brake pedal are applied simultaneously; that should take care of the “unwanted acceleration” phenomenon at the root of so many recent Toyota/Lexus recalls. Along with that, all IS models come with the usual plethora of safety devices: ABS; electronic stability control; airbags front, overhead, and to the side, and one for the knee; seat-belt pretensioners; and so on. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety accords the IS sedans a “Good” rating, its highest, for overall safety.
Did I say I really enjoyed this car? It handles well, moves like nobody’s business, seats two semi-oldsters in utter comfort, exacts only a modest penalty at the filling station, and probably won’t break down on you. The latter, spelling peace of mind, is one of the more significant luxuries and well worth paying extra for, as you motor serenely into the sunset.