Lexus unveiled the all-new 2006 IS 350 luxury sport sedan at a press conference at the New York Auto Show. "We’re taking dead aim at the top of the class with the new IS," said Lexus Marketing Vice President Mark Templin. "We plan to offer a compelling range of models and options with class-leading perfo rmance and luxury."
A new transmission will facilitate power delivery to the wheels. A new sequential-shift 6-speed automatic is standard in the IS 350. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the automatic are designed to provide maximum involvement and control for driving enthusiasts.
All new front and rear suspension, steering and brake systems will unite with Lexus’ new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system to provide superior dynamics and control, while continuing the IS legacy of driving fun. The new suspension design optimizes dynamic wheel alignment to help provide precise, confident handling and maximum tire grip.
With its styling clearly influenced by Lexus recent LF-series of concept cars, the new IS shows a strong family resemblance with its stable mate, the 2006 GS, while capturing its own distinctively sporty, yet upscale essence. A notably wide stance and long wheelbase coupled with tightly-drawn bodywork lends a muscular and sophisticated style.
The new look continues inside, where a roomy, luxurious yet sporty cabin is complemented by intelligently designed displays and controls designed to make driving both simple and pleasurable. Bright, clear Optitron gauges and smartly integrated metallic and available maple trim help create a luxurious, yet no-nonsense ambience.
A comprehensive list of safety, comfort and luxury features seldom found in its class will be offered in the newest IS. For example, Smart Access keyless entry with push-button start will be standard, and features such as a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and navigation system with back-up camera will be available.
These and other features available on the new IS, such as the Adaptive Front headlamp System (AFS), Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and ventilated front seats are normally found only in more expensive luxury cars.
New V6 Engine - Powerful and Socially Responsible
A newly-designed fuel injection system and dual VVT-i will help the new 3.5-liter V6 engine achieve more than 300 horsepower, resulting in zero-to-60 mph acceleration in less than six seconds. With an estimated combined city/highway fuel economy in the high twenties, the IS 350’s fuel efficiency is similar to the EPA average for compact cars with 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. Low-friction engine design and carefully matched drivetrains also make significant contributions to fuel efficiency. And all of the new IS models are expected to carry the ULEV-II emissions rating.
To add to the sporty feel of the IS350, the vehicle features ’light saber’ pointers and a multi-function display. The meter rings change colour depending on driver-designated values of engine rpm and vehicle speed.
With direct injection, gas is squirted directly into the cylinder, improving the air/fuel mix to deliver better mileage and lower emissions. Lexus promises a "substantial" boost in fuel economy, though it’s not yet ready with government-certified numbers.
The high-line IS350 features a new, 3.5-liter V-6. It also uses DI technology, but adds a second set of port injectors for even more control over ignition, an advantage during cold starts. Unfortunately, the larger engine is not available with either a manual transmission or all-wheel-drive, though considering the unexpected success of the AWD option in the recent GS series, Lexus officials broadly hint they may expand the technology’s availability. That would prove particularly attractive in northern climes, where sales of Lexus rear-drive sedans crawls to a halt during the winter months.
The bigger engine does come with a driver-friendly performance suspension package, a good way to keep all that power on the road. This package will launch you from 0-60 in an impressive 5.6 seconds, while top speed is governed out at 142 mph.
Power + Control = Driving Pleasure
Recently introduced on the new GS 430 (and the soon-to-be-released RX 400h), Lexus’ Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system will also augment the inherently excellent dynamics of the new IS 350. In this iteration, VDIM will be programmed to allow drivers to probe deeper into the limits of handling before discreetly, but effectively applying braking, throttle and steering control. This approach is designed to maximize driving fun without giving away control to the elements.
An important contributor to performance, fuel economy and stability lies in the new IS’ aerodynamic package. Low exterior drag is enhanced with careful attention to underbody airflow management designed to minimize and balance front/rear lift. The low drag body makes best use of engine power and the low lift enhances high-speed stability and handling balance.
Lush with creature comfort, trimmed with upscale materials, and crackling with electronic wizardry, the interior environment of the new IS models is pure Lexus. Nothing escaped notice in the totally new environment. Even the front sunvisors were redesigned to help absorb noise.
The new keyless entry and pushbutton ignition is so handy we wish this system were standard on every car. It also removes a potential safety hazard, a dangling set of keys, from the steering column and eliminates one of the most abused components from any future repair orders.
A bit roomier than the outgoing model, the cabin is still more sports car than family sedan. A prominent central console clearly establishes the driver and front-passenger zones. The controls wrap around the driver with every gauge and switch within easy scrutiny or close reach. The new Optitron gauges are larger and easier to read than the previous cluster, and their light-saber indicator needles, "ignition on" meter movement and dynamic redline indication are cool modern.
The new, more efficient climate control system features a sophisticated temperature calculation system called Neural-Net, a new humidity sensor, a micro dust and pollen filler and, in IS 350 models, a smog sensor that detects excessive hydrocarbons and automatically reverts to a special recirculation mode until the atmosphere clears.
Still, for all its quality materials and refinement, the interior left this writer a little cold. It wasn’t a case of inferior design or materials, but the cockpit seemed to lack a signature element, such as Volvo ’s floating center console, that could have made the IS cockpit as distinctive to sit in as it is to watch race off into the distance.
Plenty of luxury equipment is also available on the IS350, such as a 6-CD changer with 13 speakers and MP3 capabilities. A Mark Levinson audio system is available as an option. All models come standard with a leather and metal shift knob and dual exhaust pipes and come available with power tilt/telescoping steering wheel.
The cowl sits low, building into a rear-biased wedge. The tail sits high, a design touch that offers distinct aerodynamic advantages. And indeed, at 0.28, the IS claims about the lowest drag coefficient in its class.
The cabin continues the design theme, carrying over the subtle, reverse-Z lines incorporated into L-finesse. This is not nearly as sophisticated a cockpit as the GS or LS, but its also significantly less expensive. And with that in mind, you may forget you’re at the bottom of the luxury segment here. The look is generally handsome, but as with the exterior, one can say the theme is still evolving.
The L-Finesse design incorporates, as Lexus describes it, firm convex surfaces with bold concave areas and a tapered form for a sense of movement, even when parked. Inside, large surfaces and long character lines creates a sense of quality. Standard features inside the vehicle include auto air conditioning with dual zone control, soft-touch controls, cabin air filter and rear seat heater ducts; and full Optitron instrumentation featuring a multi-information display, tachometer, outside temperature gauge and dual trip odometers.
A completely redesigned suspension system is featured on the IS series of models. The front features an independent double wishbone design with anti-dive and anti-squat geometry and the rear includes multi-link control arms. A rear sport suspension is available on both RWD models.
The rack-and-pinion steering gear is mounted ahead of the front axle centreline for more linear steering response, according to Lexus and every IS model includes a standard anti-lock braking system.
Once underway, there’s little to criticize. The new Lexus IS, in both rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, can do everything the safe and sane driver might ask of it. It’s fast, pulls enough g’s in the corners to make a seasoned sailor carsick, and stops with authority.
On a racing circuit, the IS 350 is the way to go. At Willow Springs International Raceway, the "fastest racetrack in the West," the IS 350’s muscular torque and free-revving engine pulled the car around the hilly course with almost lackadaisical ease.
We drove several examples of the IS models at competition speeds relentlessly in temperatures that rose above 110 degrees and not one of them stumbled or misfired. Because of the hot, slippery track surface, the tires constantly fought for grip, but the advanced chassis electronics kept everyone on the pavement. The car’s inherent balance made it easy to push it to the limit, causing the electronic aids to step in and dampen the thrill.
Test Drives Impressions
The all new body of the IS follows the styling trend that Lexus started with the 2006 GS. Lexus is moving away from the subdued, me-too styling of the past and planting itself firmly on the road towards a more passionate look for their entire product line. Lexus calls this new styling direction L-Finesse. In fact, this is where the line of LF concept cars got their name.
There’s no mistaking the family resemblance between the IS and the GS. The IS is the second product of Lexus’s "L-Finesse" school of exterior styling. The sheetmetal of the high-waisted car is pulled tightly around the stubby nose and billows out at the rear to give the IS some serious booty action. To our eyes, the execution is a bit sterile. But in profile, the IS looks an awful lot like-yep, you guessed it-the BMW 3-series.
The new IS is visibly larger than the old one-3.5 inches longer and 3.0 inches wider, with 29 percent more trunk capacity. (The dimensions are uncannily close to the BMW 330i’s.) The difference between past and present is even more obvious inside the cabin. The rear seats, which had been a joke-a painful joke-now offer enough legroom for a pair of living, breathing adults. Tall drivers, too, will be a lot more comfortable, thanks to ample headroom and cocoonlike seats.
Inside, the IS has gone more upscale with better fabrics and leathers as well as a more integrated look throughout the interior. Sitting behind the wheel, there is more of a cockpit feel with all controls within easy reach. Standard trim employs a metallic look with a warmer maple wood accent as an available option.
The steering wheel incorporates audio control buttons on the left spoke and Bluetooth phone buttons on the right. The wheel is djustable for angle and reach with manual controls standard and a power tilt and telescoping column as an available option. Automatic equipped vehicles have paddle shift controls ala Formula One race cars, which are well positioned for manual mode shifting of the 6-speed automatic when the mood suits. Otherwise, just leave the shifter in drive for normal automatic operation.
The front and rear suspension system is all new and is based on the Lexus GS. The new suspension design incorporates a feature that allows for dynamic wheel alignment. This causes the wheels to always be in the ideal position for best handling and road feel.
The brakes on the IS 350 are huge, with 13.5 inch spiral-vented rotors up front and 12.2 inch vented rotors at the rear. These brakes are the same as the ones on the heavier V8 powered GS 430. They incorporate the full alphabet soup of electronic aids including ABS (Antilock Brake System), EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution) and BA (Brake Assist). All these systems, as well as the electric power steering, are fully integrated with, and controlled by the VDIM computer.
But the heart of a true sport sedan is the engine and Lexus has that covered with two all-new direct-injection V6’s. These powerplants have a 24 valve DOHC (Dual Overhead Cam) layout and VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) on both the intake and exhaust camshafts. What all this mumbo-jumbo translates into is high power for the size engine with low fuel consumption and exceptional ULEV-II emission certification.
The electronic power steering has good weighting, though we’d prefer more feedback through the wheel. And the VDIM system does allow for a power slide here and drift there while making its presence almost - almost - undetectable. If you prefer your sport sedans serene over spirited and unperturbed over unabashed, then this could be your ideal car.
The IS 350 engine uses a 3.5 liter design with an impressive 306 horsepower and fuel economy of 21 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway. Lexus pegs the 0 to 60 time for the IS 350 at 5.6 seconds, which is a tenth of a second better than the V8 powered GS 430. The IS 350 felt alive and responsive with powerful bursts of acceleration whenever it was needed (or when we had an itch on our right foot).
The best safety systems in a car are there to help you avoid accidents. But if a crash is inevitable, Lexus has you covered with a number of crash protection features including lots of air bags that use the latest technology. There are, of course, driver and passenger front air bags with the first application of a twin chamber passenger front airbag that is designed to spread the forces to the sides and protect against secondary injuries from airbag impact. Other airbags include driver and front passenger knee bags, front-side airbags and front and rear head curtain airbags.
One optional safety system that is worthy of note is a Pre-Collision System and is included when you order the Radar Cruise Control. This optional system is a safety feature that can sense an impending unavoidable collision and brace itself (and you) to lessen the severity of the crash. The system uses radar to detect a crash before it happens. It will then cinch up your seat belt, and pre-initialize the Brake Assist to reduce brake reaction time.
Safety, luxury, comfort, performance and style, all present and accounted for. If you are looking for that perfect blend of performance and comfort to carry you off into the sunset in a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi Yo Silver, The Lexus IS 350 is a hard car to beat.