Lexus IS350 review

Well, it's about time. Five years since the launch of the second generation Lexus IS, it finally gets the engine it needed, and the local Lexus lads wanted, all along.

For all its visual appeal, rear-wheel-drive dynamics and having a 2.5 litre V6 for German four-cylinder money, the lardy IS250 is hard put to trouble the Merc, Audi and - the one Lexus most wants touch up - BMW.

Now Lexus has the IS350, the variant with a litre greater capacity than its underdone sibling, massively superior output and the capacity to reach 100km/h from standing more than three seconds quicker.

Moreover, they've bought it in at a price which has not only embarrassed pundits such as yours truly, whose prediction was out by a good $25K, it's been placed so sharply as to amount to a declaration of hostilities.

If ever you've felt that the 3 Series, C-Class and A4 were obscenely over-priced (and let's face it, they are) here's the proof.

VALUE

Fairly staggering, actually. All models lines are packed with standard kit that's optional in its rivals almost to the extent of costing five figures if all boxes were ticked. For $64,800, the Prestige packs sat-nav, heated seats, reversing camera, HID lamps with daytime running lights, 17-inch alloys and metallic paint.

At $71,300, the "F Sport" kicks off this new badge - an obvious riposte to M Sport and Audi's S model. It has dedicated suspension, lower profile tyres, great front seats and go fast bits.

The more supple Sports Luxury is  $81,300 and gets - well, everything - 18-inch alloys, active cruise control, front and rear parking sensors, keyless entry and start, 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio, ventilated/heated seats, moonroof and self-dimming and heated side mirrors.

TECHNOLOGY

The dual VVTi 3.5-litre engine, familiar from other Lexus lines, uses direct and port injection driven via a six-speed sequential auto that has a gratifying degree of manual override via shifting paddlers with the self-shifting smoothness of a torque converter - as opposed to a dual clutch. Hardly innovative of itself, but a quick, seamless model marriage with this engine.

DESIGN

For all the embellishments, revised interior, value added bling and swaggeringly aggressive pricing, this is still where the whole IS package falls down. It's just a bit cramped in there, especially in back, where it's no more a true five seater than it is a people mover.

Up front is more cockpit than cabin and I for one would happily pay extra not to have the headroom-eating sunroof. Haven't done the old golf bag test on the boot, but it's a minor cavity at best. And there's no avoiding the fact that this first generation "L Finesse" shape is showing its age.

SAFETY

All the active and passive acronyms you've heard of, plus some you likely haven't.

The Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Package houses stability and traction controls and hill start assist. Brakes are formidable, 334X30mm front discs, four channel ABS with brakeforce distribution and brake assist. The top variant gets active cruise control and a pre-collision safety system that automatically tightens the seatbelts under heavy braking. We can tell you this works.

The spare's a space saver, but at least it has a spare.

DRIVING

Finally imbued with the ticker it's required, the IS is now more than a slightly left field alternative to the obvious choices. I'm trying, but failing, to think of circumstances in which your 3 Series - disregarding the third world country's GDP price difference between them - seriously outplays the IS350 in remotely legal circumstances.

You would have to say that the Lexus is a little too polite for gratification. Even in the sports variant, the engine is refined to an eerie extent - unless the throttle is mashed or the shifter forced back into an unfeasibly low gear (it'll refuse only redline exceeding requests), a modicum of wind and tyre noise are the only aural inputs. And while there's not an abundance of torque down low - the engine does its best work from 4000rpm on up, firing up a lightshow around the speedo - acceleration is fairly linear.

So too is the electric rack and pinion steering - a little numb around the centre, plentifully informative and progressive when called upon. It is, especially in the sport version, a confidence enhancing balance ride/handling compromise, which is not unsettled even by significant bumps in the road's surface.

While the Sport Luxury (we'll get into the Prestige in coming weeks) leans even further to the traditional Lexus verities of composure and refinement - to say nothing of loads of standard fruit - it's in no danger of being left behind.  It's a question of degrees of difference.

It helps that no variants have grown significantly in weight over the 250 - 1580-1645kg. All - it's claimed - get to 100km/h from standing in 5.6 seconds.

VERDICT

How do you say "Show us where the money is, Fritz" in German?"

LEXUS IS350

Price: from $64,800-$81,300
Engine: 3.5L V6 petrol; 233kW;378Nm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic; RWD
Thirst: 9.4L/100km

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Price From $64,800

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