2006 Lexus IS
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Lexus is known for quiet, powerful, refined cars, so one can be blamed for being a bit skeptical when it brings out a car to tromp BMW's iconic 3-series sedan.
Lexus attempted to do just that with its brash, first-generation IS compact sedan, which arrived in America as a 2001 model called the IS 300. By then, that car had been sold for a few years in Japan with a smaller engine as a Toyota. (Lexus is Toyota's upscale division.)
What was Lexus thinking? There was no way it could seriously challenge the 3-Series with such a car.
However, the trim IS 300 has been the most fun-to-drive Lexus and has gained it experience in the entry luxury sports sedan market. More importantly for Lexus, it's captured a young audience because the median buyer age of an IS 300 is only 29.
Higher Sales Expected
The IS 300 attracted only 9,972 buyers in this country in 2004. The 3-Series—also sold as coupe and convertible versions—found 106,549 buyers in 2004, making it BMW's top-selling auto series in this country.
Larger and More Stylish
The new IS looks sleeker and more muscular than its predecessor and is partly derived from the redesigned new Lexus midsize GS sedan. The IS wheelbase is up 2.4 inches to a fairly long 107.5 inches, and the car is 3.5 inches longer overall, 3 inches wider and nearly an inch higher.
The new rear-wheel-drive IS is less edgy than the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 but is far more of a 3-Series sedan rival. Car and Driver magazine's October 2005 issue compared eight respected entry-level sports sedans, including the top-line IS 350 and BMW 3-Series, and said the IS finished a close second to the winning 3-Series.
Tight Rear Seat
However, there's good room up front in the quiet, upscale, nicely designed interior, which has good materials, supportive bucket seats and easily read Optitron gauges with needles that appear to float.
The trunk is roomy, but the car's racy styling causes its opening to be rather small.
Variety of Trim Levels
The rear-wheel-drive IS 250 comes with a 6-speed manual transmission or new 6-speed automatic that allows manual gear selection with a floor shifter or steering wheel paddle shifters for $31,160. The all-wheel-drive IS 250 comes only with the automatic, as does the IS 350.
The automatic transmission shifts crisply when left in drive mode. The paddle shifters are fine as long as you're driving in a straight line, but are confusing to use when turning the steering wheel. There's nothing confusing about starting the engine with the keyless start feature—you just push a dashboard button to start or stop the engine.
Hot Rod Version
The IS 350's engine will make this version hard to pass up, but Lexus says most buyers of the new IS will choose the IS 250, if only because of its lower price. Lexus also says a good percentage of buyers in northern states will order the all-wheel-drive version.
Good Fuel Economy
The IS 250 delivers 20 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway with the manual gearbox and 24 and 32 with the automatic. The heavier all-wheel-drive version provides 22 and 28 and the IS 350's economy numbers are 21 and 28 despite its sizzling performance.
The IS 250 versions have traction control and a Vehicle Stability Control system. The IS 350 gets a more sophisticated Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system. Both help keep the car on the road under trying conditions.
An optional performance package with 18-inch (vs. standard 17-inch) wheels and lowered sport suspension isn't really needed unless one is a genuine car buff.
Options include a sunroof, heated-ventilated front seats, leather upholstery, wood interior trim, easily operated navigation system with a rear TV camera, more upscale audio system, steering-linked headlights and a collision avoidance system with radar cruise control.
Lexus has proved that it knows a thing or two about building highly competitive cars. If I were BMW, the IS would make me a little nervous.