LEXUS IS 350 REVIEW
It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here.
Initially only built in left-hand drive for the US market, RHD production for the Japanese market has enabled the IS 350 to finally be brought to Australia.
The Lexus IS 350 is the fourth model in the popular IS line-up, and bridges the yawning chasm between the entry level IS 250 and the fire-breathing IS F.
Starting at $64,800, the base IS 350 Prestige offers compelling value. Sat nav is standard, along with heated seats, HID xenon headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, electric front seats, leather upholstery and a reversing camera.
Even the Volkswagen Passat R36, which boasts similar straight-line performance and interior space (but offers fewer luxuries as standard), is $190 more than the Lexus IS 350 Prestige.
The IS 350 Sports Luxury sits at the top of the IS 350 tree (retailing at $81,300), but it's the IS 350 F Sport ($71,800 before on-roads) that's of most interest.
With a retuned suspension package, new steering hardware and bigger brakes, the IS 350 F Sport is intended to give drivers improved handling and roadholding, but without the extreme performance focus of the IS F.
On paper, the IS 350 has impressive credentials. A hearty 233kW and 378Nm is produced by its 3.5 litre direct- and port-injected V6, while a six-speed tiptronic automatic features taller gearing to exploit the bigger V6's higher output.
Lexus claims the zero to 100km/h sprint is done away with in just 5.6 seconds – quicker than BMW's claimed figure for the 335i.
With the 335i producing substantially more torque than the IS 350, we have to admit to some scepticism regarding Lexus' acceleration numbers.
However, to demonstrate the dynamic capabilities of the new IS 350 – and to prove it's no slouch – Lexus invited TMR to Tasmania to sample the range on some of the best roads in the country.
The drive route incorporated a few Targa Tasmania stages along the way – including the infamous Elephant Pass – and covered a broad spectrum of road types.
From sinuous (yet well-groomed) mountain passes, to coarse-chip highways, to lumpy country backroads - we were able to thoroughly test the IS 350 on all of them.
The aesthetic upgrades that have been applied to the entire IS 250/IS 350 range – a new front bumper, new grilles, LED daytime running lamps, new alloy wheel designs – look good, even if they aren't a radical departure from last year's model.
Inside, it's business as usual. Minor changes to trim materials update the cabin for 2011, but, on the whole, the interior is the same.
It's from behind the steering wheel where you'll feel the big changes.
We started day one in the IS 350 F Sport. External differences between the F Sport and the Prestige and Sports Luxury variants include a set of dark silver F Sport 18-inch alloys, a smattering of “F” badges, a subtle bootlip spoiler and a pair of front cheek spoilers.
Inside the F Sport, you get a set of heavily-bolstered front seats borrowed from the IS F (with subtle revisions to improve arm movement), an IS F-style steering wheel, alloy sports pedals, metal scuff plates and black headliner trim.
On the road, the IS 350 F Sport doesn't sound quite as sporty as it perhaps should. The exhaust note is muted and there's no induction roar at full throttle. It sounds significantly 'throatier' from outside the car, but from the wheel it's too quiet for a sports sedan.
The engine however, is deceptively strong. It performs best when the tachometer needle is above 3500 rpm, but its low-down pull is still substantial.
On a very unscientifically-timed 0-100km/h run (counting off the seconds on my counterfeit Rolex), the IS 350 hit triple digits in slightly less than six seconds (giving some credence to Lexus' claim of 5.6 seconds).
And it is happy to keep accelerating strongly well beyond the legal limit.
Gear ratios match the engine's performance well, although manual upshifts can be a little slow. Downshifts supposedly take only 0.8 seconds, but the IS 350's 'box doesn't match the brutally-fast gearchanges of the IS F's eight-speed auto.
The wheel-mounted paddles are well-shaped, and spaced an ideal distance from your fingertips.
However, while the IS 350's transmission is no match for the IS F, the IS 350 has something its V8-powered stablemate does not – exceptional suspension compliance.
There are two suspension tunes for the IS 350. The Prestige and Sports Luxury have a standard tune that's broadly similar to the IS 250, but the F Sport gains lower and stiffer springs, revised damper valving and firmer suspension bushings.
The F Sport's steering-rack ratio is also slightly quicker, and the electric power steering calibration provides greater weight.
That translates to a slightly firmer ride (although it's still supple enough to absorb rough tarmac at high speed) and more responsive steering.
The wheel lacks feedback and isn't as communicative as, say, the BMW 335i's tiller, but it still has a pleasing weight to it.
We spent day two at the helm of the entry-level IS 350 Prestige.
With smaller wheels, softer suspension and narrower, higher-profile rubber, we expected a significant difference in handling.
The Prestige was more roll-happy, and its 10mm narrower contact patch on the rear tyres had the traction control light lighting up more often when accelerating out of corners.
That didn't really slow its pace though, and, despite its luxury-oriented ride, the IS 350 Prestige could still be hustled along.
It's a shame about the lack of aural theatrics, but on the whole our first taste of the Lexus IS 350 was a positive one. For its price point, it offers the best blend of luxury and performance.
Home-grown products like the Ford G6E Turbo might be cheaper and faster in a straight line, but can't hold a candle to the IS 350's luxury appointments and build quality.
The BMW 335i may have greater badge cachet and a more engaging chassis, but the price of entry is well over $40,000 more than the Lexus.
The IS 350 is arguably the best all-rounder in its class.
With class-leading performance, an comprehensive standard equipment list and a pricetag that undercuts all of its competitors, the IS 350 range is not only exceptional value – it's an exceptional car.
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