2006 Lexus IS 350

A beautiful car that is surprisingly fun to drive but can it beat its main rival, the BMW 3-Series?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Speed, classy interior, paddle shifters

The Bad: Cramped rear seat, lack of stick shift

The Bottom Line: A Bimmer rival, but can it rival the ’07 Bimmer?

Up Front As I test drove the new Lexus IS 350, I kept wishing car reviewers could do blind test drives like the blind taste-tests that wine writers do. This car is designed to compete head-to-head with BMW's 3-Series, the darling of most driving enthusiasts, so it's hard not to nitpick the Toyota (TM) upstart.

But would our judgments be the same if we could isolate the driving experience and weren't sure which car we were driving at any given time? I'm not so sure. I've done blind taste-tests, and they can be pretty humbling.

The IS 350 and the BMW 3-Series sedans are similar, at least on paper. Both have rear-wheel drive with the engine up front. The Lexus is 180 in. long, 71 in. wide, 56 in. high, and weighs 3,527 lbs. The Bimmer (this year's 3-Series is called the 330i, while the '07, which comes out in October, is designated the 335i) is 178 in. long, 71.5 in. wide, 56 in. high, and the '07 with an automatic weighs 3,605 lbs.

The Lexus' wheelbase measures 107.5 in., the 335i's is 108.7. The Lexus even looks a little like a BMW, especially from the side, and it seems designed to have a sporty, German-style road feel.

The Lexus' big selling point this year is that it has a more powerful engine: The 305-horsepower V6 that was in my 2006 IS 350 test car compared with a mere 253 horsepower inline six in the 2006 BMW 330i. However, as of the 2007 model year (surprise, surprise), BMW has matched its rival. The engine in the new 335i is a twin-turbocharged inline six that delivers 300 horses.

The BMW costs more. The 2006 Lexus IS 350 starts at $36,030, and the base price is only rising by $265 for the '07 model, which is much like this year's. In the real world, the average buyer is paying $39,765 for an IS 350 right now, according to the Power Information Network—which, like Business Week and BusinessWeek.com, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Cos.(MHP).

The 2007 BMW 335i with an automatic starts out more than four grand higher than the Lexus, at $40,670. However, according to Power, the real-world selling price of the 2006 3-Series right now is $41,570, only slightly higher than the Lexus.

The IS 350's exterior fit and finish are flawless. The gaps around the doors, hood, and trunk are narrow and uniform, and the car looks sleek. The IS 350 has a remarkably low co-efficient of drag—a measure of how slippery a car's exterior is—of just 0.28.

That lack of wind drag is one reason the car is rated to get a reasonably good 21 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. In a stretch of 212 miles of driving I only got 21 mpg, but I drove the car hard. As with a BMW, the Lexus runs on expensive premium gasoline.

The new Lexuses are hot sellers. Toyota has sold 31,794 IS 250s and 350s combined though the end of July, while BMW sold 68,941 3-Series cars of all types in the U.S. in the same period.

The average IS 350 spends a mere 15 days on dealer lots before selling, according to Power. By contrast, the BMW 330i spends 26 days on the lot, which isn't bad considering that the new, improved 3-Series is about to come out.

Behind the Wheel I can only give driving impressions for the Lexus because I haven't yet driven the new 3-Series sedan. But I can tell you that both cars are quick. BMW says the 335i will do 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds with a manual transmission and 5.6 seconds with an automatic.

Lexus says the IS 350 will jump from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds, but it did better than that in my tests. With some practice (which was a lot of fun) I got my times down to 5.2 seconds using the paddle shifters, versus 5.7 seconds letting the automatic transmission do the actual shifting. This is a car that can compete with the Bimmer speed-wise, if that's what you're interested in.

The Lexus also handles extremely well. As with a BMW, weight is almost evenly distributed between the front and back (52% in the front versus 48% in the rear), which helps make the IS 350 feel stable.

The suspension feels sport-tuned, and the steering wheel has a solid feel in your hands. The seats have extra side bolstering and are quite supportive.

The interior design is classic and understated. My test car was outfitted in elegant black leather. Leg- and headroom in the front seats are adequate, but (as in most sports sedans these days) the rear seats are cramped. I'm 5 ft. 10, and with the front seat set for my height I barely had enough leg and knee room in the rear seat. The curvy roofline reduces rear head space, too. I felt as if my head might bump the ceiling at times.

The Lexus remains somewhat less of a pure driver's car than the BMW. For instance, you can get the 335i with either an automatic or the stick shift that hardcore driving enthusiasts prefer. The IS 350 only comes with an automatic (though you can get a manual transmission in the cheaper, slower Lexus IS 250).

The IS 350 does come with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, though, which allow you to do the shifting yourself if you want to. As I mentioned, they're fun to use and seem to allow you to eke a little extra speed out of the car.

Like a BMW, the IS 350 comes jam-packed with high-tech safety and performance gear, including antilock brakes, brake assist (which automatically applies the brakes harder when the system senses panic braking), vehicle stability control (which limits skidding when you swerve), traction control (which keeps the rear wheels from spinning when you accelerate on slick roads), hill-start assist control (which keeps the car from rolling backward when you start up on a hill), and something called Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management.

This last feature integrates all of the other systems and intervenes if you happen to, say, swerve on a slippery road, by (to quote the owner's manual) "controlling the brakes, engine output, and the movement of the front wheels."

In addition, the IS 350 has a Pre-Collision System that uses a radar sensor in its grill to scout for obstacles on the road ahead. If you brake hard, the system kicks in even if "no obstacle has been detected," according to the owner's manual, snugging up the seatbelts and assisting with the braking.

All sorts of other things can cause this system to kick in, too, the manual notes, including "an obstacle by the roadside at the entrance to the curve," "driving on an uneven road surface," "passing an oncoming vehicle on a curve," "a metal object on the road surface" and "driving over a narrow iron bridge."

These sound like great safety features. But do you really want the car taking over so much of the driving when you're just putting your new IS 350 through its paces? In the BMW, you can at least shut off the traction control system, either partially or completely, which driving enthusiasts like to do when they drive a car hard.

In the 2006 IS 350 you can only shut down the traction control at low speeds. It comes back on automatically when you top 30 mph. On slippery blacktop roads, I found it hard to put the IS 350 into a slide for more than a split-second before the controls kicked in (what fun is that?). On the 2007 version, Lexus says it's (surprise, surprise) adding a BMW-style cut-off function to the car's traction and stability control systems.

Buy It or Bag It? You have to consider a number of questions before buying this car. For instance, do you want a real enthusiast's car, or just a car that's fun to drive? The IS 350 is great to drive if you won't mind an automatic transmission (which is what most Americans want anyway). It's also cheaper than the BMW. But if you're really into driving, wait until the 2007 335i comes out in October and test-drive the two models head-to-head. The Bimmer may be worth the extra cash.

Also, keep in mind that most shoppers end up paying far more than the base price for either car. BMWs are notorious for going up in price as you add options. On the Lexus, there are nine sports and/or luxury packages to choose from that hike the price by anywhere from $6,845 to $8,016.

For the extra money, you get such add-ons as a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 18-in. alloy wheels, a voice-activated navigation system, parking assist, headlamp washers, adaptive front headlamps that swivel to provide more illumination during turns, heated and ventilated seats, and (in the more expensive packages) stuff like bird's-eye maple interior trim, satellite radio, and a rear spoiler.

If you're not into speedy driving, or want all-wheel-drive (which isn't available on the IS 350), consider doing what most shoppers do: Drop down to the cheaper IS 250, which starts at about $32,000 with an automatic and $35,000 with AWD. The tradeoff is that the IS 250 has a smaller engine and only does 0 to 60 in 7.9 seconds with rear-wheel drive and 8.3 seconds for the AWD version. The equivalent BMW, the 328i, which also has optional AWD, will be out in October.

You also might test drive cheaper rivals that are similar to the Lexus IS 350. According to Power Information, the Acura TL is going for $32,885 on average these days, the Infiniti G35 for $34,496 (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/21/05, "This Infiniti Is a Big Step Up"), and the Audi A4 for $35,959 (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/23/05, "2005 Audi Sedan/Avant").

The Infiniti looks so similar to the Lexus that I mistakenly tried to get into one when it was parked on the street behind my test car. All are worthy alternatives to the Lexus and BMW, depending on your priorities.

To see more of the Lexus IS 350, click here for the slide show.

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