Review and photos by Grant Yoxon

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2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

Toronto, Ontario – When Lexus debuted the IS 300 five years ago, the comparisons to the BMW 330 were inevitable. After all, the new IS was about the same size and it had a smooth, powerful in-line six cylinder engine driving the rear wheels, just like the BMW. It emphasized driving pleasure over driver comfort and was priced right in the BMW 3-series range. The new sport sedan, Lexus hoped, would attract those same young, upwardly mobile, drivers to the Lexus brand, ensuring a life-long love for Lexus luxury. Lexus, in fact, was partly responsible, encouraging automotive writers and potential buyers to make the comparison.

That the 2001 IS 300 came up a bit short in the comparison was viewed by many as criticism. But those who came to know and appreciate the old IS – including myself – would say that what differentiated the IS 300 from the BMW 330 was exactly what made it such a great car.

“In a BMW 3-Series, you feel like part of the car,” Autos’s editor Greg Wilson wrote in 2000, “whereas in an IS 300 you are a guest in the car.” It is an important difference, and not necessarily a negative one.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

They are simply different interpretations of the sport-luxury theme, just as two 5-star resorts may have very different ideas of what constitutes the perfect get-away vacation. The experience may or may not be equally satisfying.

Now that Lexus has a new IS, it is inevitable that the question will once again be asked, does the new IS come any closer to the BMW that many believe the IS should aspire to?

The answer is both no it doesn’t and no it shouldn’t.

Instead of building an IS that more closely resembles a German ideal, Lexus has instead chosen to create a car that more closely resembles it’s own identity. In that sense, the new IS is as different from the old IS as it is from a BMW.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

Gone are the quirky chronograph gauges and chrome cue-ball shifter, even though they gave the IS much of its character, replaced by modern, readable – and very slick – Lexus Optitron dials. Gone is the 3.0-litre straight six, replaced by two V-6 choices, one quite conservative, one quite killer.

In fact there isn’t much of anything about the old IS that remains with the new IS except the IS name itself.

The new car is actually built on a platform derived from the new GS. It shares the GS’ affinity to the Lexus L-Finesse design direction and the resemblance to the GS is noticeable.

Whether it inspires passion as Lexus hopes, is to my mind a matter of taste. In the past Lexus design has often been characterized as conservative. The goal of L-Finesse is to project an image of sophistication and refinement through simple lines and elegant appearance. Frankly, I find the concept of L-Finesse not that easy to understand. It’s a philosophy, a commitment to values, words on paper. It is best understood as interpreted by designers on sheet metal.

2006 Lexus IS 350
2006 Lexus IS 350. Click image to enlarge

The new design, with its single long, high belt line that rises uninterrupted from headlight to rear taillight, and sloping fast-back-like rear window and short deck, is handsome, but not bold. It may be enough for those with an eye for quality, but will it be enough for the nouveau riche to tell the world that they have arrived?

Certainly those with a passion for speed will take a closer look at the IS. Equipped with the optional 306 horsepower 3.5-litre V6, this is one very fast car. It is, in fact, the fastest Lexus ever, capable of moving from zero to 60 miles per hour (96 km/h) in just 5.3 seconds, according to independent testing conducted by Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. (Lexus’ estimate for 0-100 km/h is 5.9 seconds). Anticipated fuel consumption is just 7.7 L/100 km on the highway and 10.8 L/100 km in the city.

2006 Lexus IS 350
2006 Lexus IS 350. Click image to enlarge

And in the city, the IS 350 is a compliant, pleasant drive, unless one purposely pushes hard on the accelerator. The new six-speed automatic is obviously set up for fuel economy, as it very quickly moves into a docile sixth gear at almost any speed. To wake up the monster within requires a flick of the wrist, sliding the shifter over into manual, which immediately drops the transmission down two notches. Another flick back — or with the steering wheel-mounted paddles – will bring it down into third. Then it is time to hold on and remember to shift up.

Should you consider that the IS 350 is simply a straight-line warrior, reconsider. Steering — electric power rack and pinion – is again, wrist-flick fast. One need only think lane change and the deed is done.

2006 Lexus IS 350

2006 Lexus IS 350
2006 Lexus IS 350. Click image to enlarge

Although the new IS 350 feels heavier in the hand than the old IS 300 (and I suspect is not as good a handler, though that will require more time behind the wheel).

The steering gear has been moved forward of the axles changing the steering angle to a toe-out condition during cornering and providing a smoother response during high speed driving. The front suspension is a double wishbone design, while the rear suspension uses a fully independent, multi-link design with upper and lower control arms and a toe control arm to stabilize toe changes during acceleration and braking, and to control squat and lift.

Standard wheels and tires on the IS 350 are 17-inch with all-season radials. A sport package takes the size up to 18 inches with performance summer radials. The IS 250’s standard wheels are 16-inch alloys with all-seasons. 17- and 18-inch wheel and tire packages are also available for the IS 250.

Lexus has given the IS 350 its latest version of VDIM — Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management — which monitors a variety of sensors and adjusts braking, engine control and steering control to keep the IS 350 off the grass or out of the ditch during overly-spirited driving without interfering with the spirit of driving.

2006 Lexus IS 350
2006 Lexus IS 350. Click image to enlarge

This version of VDIM is less aggressive than that found in the GS 430 sedan. It is designed to enhance the driving experience, not intervene. It allows for more aggressive driving with corrections being made most often without the driver even knowing it.

VDIM is not available on the considerably less powerful IS 250 which, instead, makes do with a full complement of lesser Lexus technology — vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and even hill-start assist, which holds the car for five seconds when starting off on an incline.

The standard 2.5-litre V6 produces 204 hp and 185 lb.-ft. of torque, a bit less horsepower and quite a bit less torque than the outgoing in-line six. Small displacement sixes are inherently smooth, and this one is a smooth operator too. But so too was the old 3.0-litre in-line six, with torque-on-demand-at-any-speed and a wonderful, mechanical feel that raised the hairs on your neck every time the pedal went to the floor. It will be missed.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

The IS 250 comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, while a six-speed automatic is optional. I have to say that I wasn’t pleased with the manual. Both clutch pedal and shifter have longer than necessary travel and it is difficult to feel the clutch engage, making it nearly impossible to achieve a smooth shift. Again, more time behind the wheel might change my initial impression.

My guess is that most buyers will opt for the 6-speed automatic transmission, which provides smooth, trouble free shifts and, for those moments when the urge arises, shifter paddles on the steering wheel.

The IS 250 will also be available with all-wheel-drive — a model I didn’t drive during my day with the IS. The Lexus AWD splits power 30% front, 70% rear under normal conditions, but will transfer additional torque to the front wheels as required, up to 50/50. An automatic is the standard and only transmission available on the IS 250 AWD.

Lexus anticipates that a full 50% of IS sales will be all-wheel-drive models.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

Despite being marketed to a younger audience as a car that puts performance ahead of luxury, this new IS – particularly the IS 250 with automatic and IS 250 AWD – will likely appeal to a broader range of buyers. I would guess that there are quite a few empty-nesters out there who will be attracted to the Lexus brand of refined luxury and sophistication in a smaller and, relatively speaking, affordable package.

An IS 250 with rear-wheel-drive and manual transmission starts at $36,900, almost $1,100 less than the IS 300 it replaces. Although equipped with manually adjustable cloth seats, the base IS 250 contains luxury features that are anything but base — SmartAccess keyless entry system with push button start, premium AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with 6-disc in-dash CD changer, mini-input jack for portable MP3 players, 13 speakers and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, dual zone climate control, tilt and telescopic steering, auto up and down power for all windows, multi-information display, and a variety of other comfort and convenience features.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

Standard safety features include the world’s first twin-chamber passenger-side airbag that creates a depression in the centre of the airbag, lessening the impact on the passenger. As well, there are front-seat mounted side airbags, and front and rear side curtain airbags, and driver and front passenger knee airbags. Fog lamps and halogen headlamps are standard, but Bi-xenon projector high intensity discharge headlamps and an adaptive front lighting system that swivels the left and right headlights independently so the driver can see further into a curve, are optionally available.

Two levels of leather seating, optional power moonroof, 10-way power adjustable front seating with and without heating and ventilation fans and all-season tires on 17-inch rims can bring the price up to $42,600, $44,200 with automatic transmission.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

A sport package, priced at $45,900 with manual transmission and $47,500 with automatic transmission adds even more – sport tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels and performance summer tires (P225/40R18 front, P255/40R18 rear), memory seat system, power tilt and telescopic steering, electrochromic side view mirrors, rain sensing wipers, aluminum sport pedals, chrome scuff plates, Bi-xenon HID headlamps and adaptive front lighting system.

Similar packages are available for the IS 250 AWD, which starts at $41,900, however instead of a sport package, the all-wheel-drive model gets a luxury package that adds power rear window sunshade and illuminated scuff plates instead of bigger wheels and tires and sport suspension. Fully loaded, an IS 250 AWD is priced at $50,200, $53,700 with navigation system.

The base price for the IS 350 is $48,900 but includes such amenities as heated and ventilated power adjustable front seats with premium leather. A power moonroof and the summer wheel and tire package is available at $51,150. The Sport package ($53,700) adds sport suspension, limited slip differential, power tilt and telescopic steering, memory seats, electrochromic side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, Bi-xenon HID headlamps and adaptive front lighting, aluminum sport pedals and chrome scuff plates.

The IS 350 luxury package ($54,550) is the same, but delete the sport suspension and add illuminated scuff plates, power rear sunshade and woodgrain trim. A navigation package is also available that includes a 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system at $59,700.

2006 Lexus IS 250
2006 Lexus IS 250. Click image to enlarge

When introduced in 2000, the 2001 IS 300 ranged from $40,830 to $47,025. But its singleness of purpose and narrower audience dictated a much narrower price spread. And its BMW 3-series pretensions relegated it to also-ran. This latest iteration of the IS has no such ambitions and puts performance ahead of luxury only if you want it that way. And unlike the old IS, it may well appeal to a much broader audience.

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