I believe this is the Japanese marque's best-kept secret, a delight to drive, both hard and easy, to own and to keep. Alas, I had to return the test car, but the 350 proved to me how enticing and liveable the mid-range IS model is.
It certainly is a step above the base 250 version and provides more than adequate performance without a costly move further up the ladder to the wild V8-powered IS-F. It's a convincing luxury model that is not only fast and fun on twisty roads but sharply priced too.
The 350 is well worth the jump of about $5000 for the Prestige and F Sport and $8500 for the flagship Luxury Sports from the IS 250. The key is the brilliant 3.5-litre V6 engine, far stronger than the 2.5 and better suiting the car. I reckon the IS is the best looking of the Lexus range, with a very clean and sleek design.
The Sports Luxury is $87,700 drive away and stacked with gear.
Standard equipment on the Sports Luxury are satellite navigation, electronic stability control, eight airbags, HID head lamps with cleaners, LED daytime running lamps (DRL), multi-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels, reversing camera with sensors, Bluetooth, multi-information display, leather trim and ventilated and heated front seats.
Also standard are body kit, power-adjustable IS F-style sport seats with drivers' memory function, power tilt and telescopic steering column adjustment, auto-retract and self-dimming exterior mirrors, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, Mark Levinson 14-speaker premium audio system, active cruise control, Lexus pre-collision safety system (PCS), smart start-stop and woodgrain-look trim.
The $5000 or $8500 extra (depending on the model) for the bigger engine is well worth the extra dosh. It's a superb powerplant with 233kW of power and 378Nm of toque. It zips to 100km/h in just 5.6 seconds.
It is remarkably fast and smooth. The engine note has a quiet growl that grows on you and adds to the refinement. Indeed, on smooth roads there is virtually no noise at all from the road, the engine or the wind, although coarse bitumen does transmit into the cabin.
The linear power delivery helps hide the car's speed and a close eye needs to be kept on the speedo. This lovely powerplant spins smoothly all the way through to 6600rpm. There is no low-down surge of a forced induction engine and no kick at the top end of other naturally aspirated engines.
This will be a big plus for some drivers who enjoy winding the engine out. The six-speed automatic is not the world's fastest shifter, but it is more than adequate. Lexus has fitted the IS 350 with steering wheel-mounted paddles that are fun to play with.
Even better, the transmission has been designed to not change up until you want it too, which is not the case with rivals. On tight, incredibly twisty sections, the IS revelled in the corners, but they also emphasised that the 350 rides over bumps pretty well. The suspension was firm and yet it was quite comfortable over lumpy bits.
It allows for more body movement that you might expect from a dedicated sports model. It also means the IS350 leans a little more in turns. It doesn't wallow around, but doesn't sit as flat as a comparable German, although rides a lot better.
The steering is not the sharpest in the class, but it is not too bad either. The interior is similar to the previous model and is probably just what you would expect from a car in this price range, although there is more standard gear in here than is offered by competitors.
Delightful touches, such as the orange rings on the inside ring of speedo and tacho that glow when you go past a certain speed or rev point are pleasing to see. The seats are great and support the upper body well, but your bottom can start to slide off the flatter seat squab that has less pronounced bolsters.
The steering wheel is sporty without being overly chunky with just the right number of buttons for functions such as the phone and stereo. The cruise control system is an additional lever below the indicator stalk - a bit old-fashioned these days.
One glaring anomaly is the foot-operated parking brake. Definitely a no-no when others offer simple electronic push button systems. A large and centrally located standard satellite navigation is welcome as is the rich sound of the Mark Levinson sound system.
The IS 350 is a five-seater with the two outer rear seats shaped to support those occupants. There is a reasonable amount of head and legroom in the back and the IS has quite a spacious boot.
The IS 350 is the pick of the Lexus range and offers good value compared to newer rivals from BMW (3 Series), Audi (A4) and Mercedes-Benz (C-Class). It's now the oldest in the class, which shows in areas such as the foot-operated parking brake and the tighter rear seat room.
But the styling hasn't aged and it's a commonsense car with a lot of good value when rivals cost more, particularly when you have to pay more for the extras that are standard in the Lexus. It looks nice as well as aggressive with the mild body kit, without getting too carried away. However, the LED daytime running lights look like an afterthought and don't flow with the design.
The addition of the IS 350 adds some muscle to the IS range and provides the perfect model for customers who find the IS 250 a bit underdone but cannot stump up the considerable additional cash required for the V8 IS-F.
It's fast but not so furious, is still fun on the twisty bits and is quite comfortable. Given the strength of the engine and the value of all the standard features, this is a convincing version of the IS. The more I drove it, the more I liked the IS 350.
Lexus IS 350 Sports Luxury
Body: Four-door luxury sedan
Price: $87,700 drive away
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
Power: 233kW @ 6400rpm
Torque: 378Nm @ 4800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Fuel consumption: 9.4L/100km, (10.6L on test), premium unleaded, 65 litres
CO2 emissions: 223g/km
Performance: 0-100km/h in 5.6s, top speed 270km/h (limited)
Dimensions: Length 4585mm, width 1800mm, height 1425mm, wheelbase 2735mm
Warranty: Four years/100,000kms