Faceoff: Lexus IS350 Vs. BMW 330i

Horsepower isn’t always the only thing

2006 Lexus IS 250/IS 350 by Paul A. Eisenstein (7/18/2005) The meaning of "IS" is...what?

2004 BMW 330i by Marc K. Stengel (12/15/2003) A new Performance Package endows BMW's 330i sedan with a distinctly sporty personality.

Last year was a bumper year for Lexus, having sold 303,000 vehicles in theU.S. and beating BMW's 266,200 units into second place in the luxury vehicle charts. But before you go feeling sorry for the BMW, consider this: BMW sold almost as many 3-Series models in Europe last year (229,932 units, despite a March '05 introduction) as its entire U.S. sales volume and found a total of 644,000 happy European customers in total, excluding MINI. And do you know how many vehicles Lexus sold in Europe in 2005? A grand total of 28,777, or about 4.5 percent of BMW's sales.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, Lexus has designed the new IS as much with Europe in mind as North America, which is why there's a manual 2.5-liter V-6, a 2.2-liter turbodiesel (the first ever diesel Lexus, in fact) and paddle shifters on the range-topping version, as well as the promise of sportier handling and better performance than ever before.

To see how successful they've been, we got our hands on a brand new Lexus IS350 to put it up against its closest Munich rival: a BMW 330i. And to complete the test, I've volunteered my services as the resident "picky European." I even skipped my morning shower especially for the occasion (like I needed an excuse).

Looking important

The styling of many recent BMWs have caused quite a ruckus in the automotive world and while BMW stands firmly and officially behind its chief designer, Chris Bangle, it has simultaneously diluted his 7-Series design and wheeled out a new 3-Series that's only got the bare minimum of Bangle influence. I, personally, rather like the sculpted surfacing and the athletic stance of the new 3-Series, and I also find the detailing around the front lights and grille both striking and appealing. The rear end, however, is a disorganized affair, ruined by those big, clunky taillamps and unresolved lines running amok across its busy butt. The 3 is also very sensitive to wheel size and color, looking much better in dark colors with 18-inch rims, which accentuate its bulging metalwork and make it look more sinister. The current 3-Series probably won't go down as a design milestone (as almost every previous 3-Series has) but that doesn't stop it being an imposing and impressive machine from most angles, nonetheless.

Lexus' designers have eschewed trendy "flame surfacing" in favor of clean, crisp metalwork, thereby dodging the kind of backlash BMW has endured, but that didn't stop them peeking at the 3-Series for inspiration. The shape of the hood; relationship between grille, lights, and fenders; even the kink in the rear quarter-light all have BMW undertones, though melded inoffensively into the IS' rather ambiguous overall shape. The IS does have a strong stance and broad shoulders, however, and the standard 17-inch wheels also fill out the wheel wells better than the BMW's, but compared to the first IS, which still looks good to this day, the new car's styling isn't going to have many heads turning for a second glance. Lexus should have modeled the IS after the more imposing GS and worried less about what BMW was up to, I think. Case in point, look at the back of the IS: Free from BMW influence, the rear end is taught, aggressive, and so perky you want to wrap it in spandex and make it do lunges. More originality from Lexus's stylists, please, because when left to their own devices they clearly possess the skills.

Internal conflict

Inside, things improve for both cars. The BMW's cabin might be a bombardment of black plastic, but it's the well-made, high-quality stuff that's a nice to touch and keeps unwanted reflections, smudges, and scratches to a minimum.

The cabin is also the epitome of ergonomic simplicity with buttons that are simple to find and satisfying to use, which only serves to remind us of the tragedy of iDrive (it only rears its ugly head if your 330i is ordered with satellite navigation).

The Lexus is much less oppressive thanks to the lighter hues, a greater variety of materials, and a more inviting overall design, though there's a disappointing number of Toyota bits dotted about the place and the silver-painted plastic on the center console looks cheap in such a car. Our Lexus was equipped with optional touch-screen navigation, so many of the ventilation and audio controls were split between solid dashboard buttons and virtual on-screen buttons, making basic operations unnecessarily complex and awkward. What is the general objection to dashboard buttons in luxury cars these days, I wonder?

I had expected the Lexus to trounce the snug BMW in terms of interior space but, surprisingly, the IS' interior dimensions are smaller than the BMW's in most respects despite it being a longer car overall. It does have a bigger trunk, but that's little consolation to the cramped rear passengers, now is it?

Specification-wise, the two cars pretty much match one another in terms of equipment and basic features, although there are four important areas where the Lexus really punished the BMW: Firstly, it has leather seats, which would cost $1450 extra in the euphemistically trimmed "leatherette" 330i, and secondly it comes with a six-speed paddle-shift automatic as standard, which is another sizeable $1275 option on the BMW.

Also bear in mind that the Lexus costs $1200 less than the BMW to begin with and you begin to see just how much showroom appeal Lexus has built into the IS350. The Lexus IS350 isn't even available with a manual gearbox, which is a bummer for any European worth his speedo-wearing salt but not really an issue for most Americans, and the BMW does fight back by offering expensive swiveling xenon headlamps, even if they do vibrate annoyingly and really don't work very well. Finally, there's the issue of performance, which is where the Lexus, quite literally, streaks ahead of the Bimmer.

Power player

With an extra half liter of capacity and a whopping 50 more horsepower and 57 extra pound-feet of torque, the IS is a whole second faster than the BMW to 60 mph from a rest (5.3 seconds versus 6.3) and maintains that second advantage all the way to the quarter mile (very low 14s versus very high 14s). In reality the Lexus feels even faster than the numbers suggest, surging ahead of the BMW in any gear at any speed, while those paddle shifters are programmed to operate responsively and smoothly, further enhancing the sensation of speed and looking rather cool into the bargain.

The 330i can't compete with the IS 350's eye-widening pace or its flashy paddle shifters, although its automatic transmission is actually more responsive and sporty than the Lexus', despite making do with a lever-operated manual mode. Both cars have electronically limited top speeds - 142 mph for the IS350 and 130 for the 330i unless it's fitted with the sport pack, in which case it can run to 149 mph. And it's not like the Lexus punishes you at the pumps, either. All kinds of valve timing and lean burning is used to give the Lexus almost identical gas mileage to the less powerful BMW.

However, if you delve deeper than the Lexus' impressive on-paper figures, you'll find there's only one true driver's car in this comparison and that's the BMW 330i. At low speeds or in a straight line, the Lexus feels like it could be amusing but wind things up a notch and it becomes clear that the focus is on grip and safety whereas the 3-Series is all about fun and unflappability. The BMW's steering, though not the info-fest I expected, is still sharp and responsive compared to the Lexus' mute and stodgy helm, while throttle response and brake feel are also more intuitive in the BMW than those of the Lexus. The BMW even rides more comfortably than the Lexus, despite being more firmly sprung, though the Lexus seems to be a quieter cruiser.

Switch off the BMW's stability control and the BMW will hang its rear end out all day long, a consequence of its carefully honed balance and razor-sharp controls, although the 330i isn't fitted with a limited-slip rear differential and would possibly be even more fun thus equipped. The Lexus doesn't even have a stability control switch and if you try to get fresh with the IS' spandex-clad rear end it will slap you hard and intrusively on the wrist. The VSC system can be overridden if you know the right combination of pedal prods (I kid you not) and when you do manage to switch the system off, the Lexus shows signs of possessing a balanced chassis, hinting that there might be some potential in the IS' platform after all. To unleash the beast within, though, Lexus would first have to rework the suspension and improve the steering tuning, while also install a "VSC off" button for those of driver that learned how to drive before computers took over 95 percent of the task.

Danke, und guten nacht

As it stands today, though, the 3-Series trounces the Lexus in terms of driving satisfaction. The two cars are in different dynamic leagues and that, right there, is the reason that Lexus sells so few cars in Europe. The IS is an extremely well presented and polished product but that's not the same thing as being a great car. I have no doubt that Lexus will sell every car they can build because a fine appliance like the IS350 is exactly what many people want to meet their transportation needs. But for those folks who sometime go for a drive when they really have no place to go, the BMW 330i is the easy choice. It's infinitely more fun than the Lexus and while it might seem like poor value compared to the faster, better equipped Lexus, ask yourself this: Who ever went on vacation to save money? Not everything in life can be quantified in dollars and cents. If pleasure is your measure of value, then the BMW 330i is a steal.

2006 BMW 330i

Base price: $36,660



Engine: 3.0-liter in-line six, 255 hp/220 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, RWD (as tested)

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 21/29 mpg

Wheelbase: 108.7 in

Length x width x height: 178.2 x 71.5 x 55.9 in

Weight: 3417 lb

Safety equipment: Front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction control

Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control; adaptive headlamps; rain-sensing wipers; power front seats; 17-inch alloy wheels

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

2006 Lexus IS350

Base price: $35,440



Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 306 hp/277 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, rear-wheel drive

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 21/28 mpg

Wheelbase: 107.5 in

Length x width x height: 180.1 x 70.9 x 56.1 in

Weight: 3527 lb

Safety equipment: Front, side, and curtain airbags; knee airbag; anti-lock brakes, stability, and traction control

Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control; ten-way power front seats; six-CD changer; leather trim; 17-inch alloy wheels

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles