2006 Lexus IS 250
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Review and photos by Haney Louka

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A smooth and eager V6, rear-wheel drive, and nimble handling: the IS 250 has scads of things going for it, but there was one feature in this new Lexus sports sedan that I found invaluable during my time with the car: Smart Key.

Standard equipment on all 2006 IS models, this nifty little piece of technology allows a driver to walk up to the locked car, open the door, get in, push a button on the dash, and drive away. The caveat, of course, is that the “key” (which is actually a small remote unit with a spare key inside it) needs to be somewhere near the driver’s seat.

Various forms of keyless-start technology are becoming more common in new cars in the $40K-and-up range, and most of the time it’s merely convenient. But throw in the -35C temperatures that invaded our city while I had the car, and this little convenience rises to a higher level of appreciation. Wearing big bulky mitts? No worries. Have two kids and a diaper bag hanging off of you? Relax. Just grab the door handle and open the door, load everybody in and drive away, warm fingers and all. Beautiful.

Okay, so that’s not really the IS 250’s best trait. But it does set the tone for this second-generation IS which, while almost as sporty as the original IS 300, puts a whole lot more emphasis on being a Lexus above all else.

2006 Lexus IS 250
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I can be counted among the old IS 300’s biggest fans; were I in the market for a $30,000 sports sedan, a used IS 300 with a manual gearbox would top my shopping list. That model, based on the Toyota Altezza (a car never sold in Canada) drew much criticism, mostly because it did not convincingly play the Lexus part. Its look was tuner-sporty, not Lexus-classy. Perhaps its Achilles’ heel was its interior, specifically its chronograph-style dash treatment that made it the black sheep of the Lexus family. But from the driver’s seat, that smooth inline six, balanced chassis, and crisp-shifting five-speed helped me forgive a lot, and made the car one of my personal favourites.

So what has Lexus done with my beloved IS? Well, pretty much everything, and for the most part, it’s good. To start, the number of models available has doubled to two, the 250 and 350. The IS 350, with its 306 hp engine, made a strong showing at last October’s Canadian Car of the Year competition and has forever silenced those who doubted Lexus’ ability to produce a world-class performance sedan.

2006 Lexus IS 250
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My tester was the more attainable IS 250, which is available with rear- or all-wheel-drive, and which packs a 2.5-litre V6 with 204 hp at 6400 rpm and 185 lb-ft of torque at 4800 revolutions. Base price for the 250 is $36,300 with the six-speed stick. Add my tester’s six-speed automatic transmission and the $5,000 Premium Leather package, and the as-tested price comes in at $42,900. Loaded AWD models top out at $53,700.

Standard equipment includes the aforementioned Smart Key, along with dual-zone climate control, 13-speaker audio, trip computer, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, side and curtain airbags, and a bunch of other goodies. The Premium Leather Package adds 17-inch wheels and tires, climate-controlled front seats, wood interior trim, and sumptuous hide upholstery.

2006 Lexus IS 250

2006 Lexus IS 250
Click image to enlarge

Looks-wise, this car is a knockout. Not only does it look like a Lexus, it looks intrinsically sporty without trying too hard. The body is wrapped tautly around the wheels, and the car has a very low-slung appearance that suits its character well. You think the Mercedes CLS looks like a four-door coupe? Check out this IS’s profile. It has classic long-hood, short-deck proportions that are normally reserved for 2+2s, but Lexus designers nailed this one. It’s a more successful interpretation of the company’s “L-finesse” design theme introduced in the larger GS cars last year.

Inside, the design isn’t quite as successful, mostly because it’s conservative to the point of being boring. The quality’s there, to be sure, but the emotion certainly is not; the promise made by the aggressive exterior does not continue within.

2006 Lexus IS 250
Click image to enlarge

That said, it’s refreshingly easy to jump into the IS and use most functions right away. The learning curve is minimal, which can’t be said for some of the German entries in this class. The redundant controls on the steering wheel are clearly identified. Gauges are backlit white-on-black.

The centre stack loses a few points for less-than-intuitive operation, though: the climate controls are easy to operate but too high on the dash, relegating the more-often accessed audio controls to an awkward split near the bottom. Dividing the radio and CD controls are the clock display and four-way flasher button. To me, the clock should be at the top for easy reference, audio controls below, with climate controls way down at the bottom.

2006 Lexus IS 250

2006 Lexus IS 250
Click image to enlarge

But back to the Lexus-ness of it all, the leather on the seats has to be the softest this side of 60 grand, and the whole thing is quite vault-like in its construction.

Rear seat legroom has increased by a modest 9 mm, but head and shoulder room are down from last year’s already-tight rear passenger compartment. But this is a sports sedan, and rear seat passengers had best just buckle up and hang on for the ride.

The driving experience in the new IS isn’t quite as engaging as in last year’s version. The V6 isn’t as seductively smooth in its operation as the old inline six was, and I lament the decision to go with the more conventional vee layout. Despite the 50-plus kg weight advantage of this year’s model over last year’s, the new base engine is less powerful than the only one offered last year. The result? As eager and capable as the 2.5-litre engine is, more thrust would certainly be welcome.

Winnipeg’s cracked and pothole-ridden streets provide a rigorous test bed for any car’s suspension. The IS certainly rides firmly, and even feels harsh on the worst of roads. But be assured that this taut attitude is a great side dish when cornering is on the menu.

My test car was fitted with Pirelli Snowsport winter tires, which helped the vehicle’s on-board driving aids do their job. Being the sportiest member of the Lexus clan, the stability control is less of a nanny and more of a help on slick surfaces. The car’s tail can be made to step out, but the system quickly regains control. Unfortunately for those who like to keep that tail hanging out, the stability control system cannot be defeated.

2006 Lexus IS 250

2006 Lexus IS 250

2006 Lexus IS 250
Photos: Grant Yoxon. (Pictured: 2006 IS 250 with Sport Package including 18-inch wheels, P255/40R 18 rear and P225/40R18 front performance summer tires). Click image to enlarge

The car’s six-speed automatic turned out to be a competent unit, which is a good thing, since only about one out of every ten IS 250s are sold with three pedals on the floor. Manual shifting can be done by either nudging the shift lever fore and aft, or pulling on the wheel-mounted paddles, with the left paddle for down and the right one for up. There’s even a display on the dash that tells you which gear you’ve selected, and also which gear the transmission is currently in. Overall, it’s a very interactive and entertaining experience.

The transmission also has sport and winter modes, and I found the winter mode particularly useful on icy streets. While the sport mode alters the shifting behaviour of the transmission to hold lower gears longer and downshift more aggressively, the winter mode actually changes the throttle response to make it a lot lazier, which is what you want when the road is slick and traction is at a premium. It’s much more effective than a second-gear start, which is the strategy many other snow-mode transmissions use.

While the change to this new IS is dramatic, I’m happy to report that the original’s DNA has survived intact. This is the kind of car that’s a complete joy to drive in and a pleasure to behold.

Shopping Around

Sports sedan shoppers are a fortunate bunch: there are competent entries from all over vying for buyers’ dollars, such as these:

  • Acura TSX ($35,900)
  • Audi A4 ($35,270)
  • BMW 323i ($35,200)
  • Cadillac CTS ($35,555)
  • Infiniti G35 ($39,900)
  • Jaguar X-Type ($41,995)
  • Mazdaspeed6 ($35,995)
  • Mercedes-Benz C230 ($38,450)
  • Saab 9-3 ($34,900)
  • Subaru Legacy GT ($28,495)
  • Volvo S40 ($31,120)

    Technical Data: 2006 Lexus IS 250 RWD

    Base price $36,300
    Options $6,600 (Automatic transmission $1,600, Premium Leather package $5,000)
    Freight $1,675
    A/C tax $100
    Price as tested $44,675 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
    Type 4-door, 5-passenger sports sedan
    Layout Longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
    Engine 2.5-litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves
    Horsepower 204 @ 6400 rpm
    Torque 185 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
    Transmission 6-speed automatic
    Tires front P225/45R17 Pirelli Snowsport winter tires
    Tires rear P245/45R17 Pirelli Snowsport winter tires
    Curb weight 1558 kg (3435 lbs)
    Wheelbase 2730 mm (107.4 in.)
    Length 4575 mm (180.1 in.)
    Width 1800 mm (70.9 in.)
    Height 1425 mm (56.1 in.)
    Cargo capacity 378 litres (13.3 cu. ft.)
    Fuel consumption City: 9.8 L/100 km (29 mpg Imp)
      Hwy: 6.7 L/100 km (42 mpg Imp)
    Fuel type Premium unleaded
    Warranty 4 yrs/ 80,000 km
    Powertrain warranty 6 yrs/110,000 km
    Assembly location Kurokawa-gun, Japan
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