When I was car shopping back in 2006 the Lexus IS350 found its way to the top of my spreadsheet, and I do mean spreadsheet. With anal resolve I had evaluated 8 vehicles, scored them, photographed them, ranked them and the IS350 came in second. What was first? A Volvo V70R (apples and oranges, I know). At the time I thanked the helpful Lexus sales guy and told him “if there was an AWD IS350, I’d buy it tomorrow.” Well, 5 years later there finally is an IS350 AWD, but am I buying it tomorrow? Let’s find out.
Like any fading Hollywood star, the IS line went in for plastic surgery in 2009. The nip/tuck consisted of some subtle tweaks to the front bumper and headlamp assembles with lightly-reworked lines and some LED daytime running lamps styled after the LF-A. The rhinoplasty is so subtle that unless you park a 2006 IS next to a new one, you’d scarcely know the difference. On the up-side the look has aged well; on the downside, it looks just like your neighbour’s 2006 IS250. Calling a spade a spade, flashy styling is not what this segment is about.
Our tester came with the $1,320 “Luxury Plus” package which includes heated and cooled thrones slathered in upgraded semi-aniline leather, real wood trim, HID lamps, electric tilt/telescope wheel, memory seats, rain sense wipers and a power rear sunshade. The big ticket item on the options list is the $3,905 audio/nav system package which included the ubiquitous Lexus nav system and a 14 speaker Mark Levinson sound system with backup camera. While I do find some fault in the “that’s-so-80s” faux-marble styling that the system’s menus employ, functionality is nevertheless high and responsiveness is good. Audio quality from the Mark Levinson system is as high as you would expect from a system this expensive.
Inside the cabin the IS’s age begins to show. Lexus opted for the very lightest of interior refreshes in 2009, largely focusing on the centre stack’s button shapes. This means that the soft touch plastic used on the dash and doors looks nice but has a somewhat rubbery feel. While the surface texture is pleasing to the eye and touch, its rubbery surface attracts dust like a lint roller. Oddly enough once dust and lint is attracted to the dash, it doesn’t wipe down as easily as I would like. If you live down a gravel road as I do, keep your sham-wow handy. Still, the interior is decidedly middle of the road being neither too cheap nor overly impressive. And that’s no small feat after this much time on the shelves.
Standard on all IS models is keyless entry and ignition meaning that the IS doesn’t suffer from oddly located slots or “blanks” located where a key would go in more pedestrian vehicles. Pressing the aforementioned start/stop button summons all 3.5 litres of the IS350’s V6 to life with a quiet purr. Despite being the sporty Lexus, the engine note of the V6 is decidedly demure even when the go pedal is stomped to the floor. If you need more aural satisfaction, Lexus would be happy to sell you the V8 powered IS-F. Fortunately, the 306 naturally aspirated ponies and 277 lb-ft of twist manage to almost match the linear turbocharged-thrust the BMW 335xi enjoys… almost. With direct injection and variable valve timing on hand to appease the EPA, the IS350 AWD delivered a respectable 26MPG highway as tested, with our 750 mile average hovering at 22.5MPG. It should be noted for readers comparing mileage figures with my previous reviews that I have recently moved and my average commute now involves commuting over hilly country roads.
A word about that AWD system: since the IS350’s AWD system uses a mechanical centre differential with an electronic clutch pack to control lockup, it doesn’t seem to behave quite as well as the always-on Audi Quattro system or the Haldex slip-and-grip systems at low speeds. While torque is available to the four wheels virtually instantly (unlike some Haldex implementations), I noticed mild binding at full lock during parking maneuvers. While not distracting, they are slightly less refined than the feel in the latest Audi, Acura and Volvo models.
As with other IS models, the IS350 AWD uses Lexus’ 6-speed automatic, part of me would love to see the 8-speed unit in the ISF, but something tells me we won’t see it until the redesign. My only beef with the silky-smooth slush box is with Lexus’ decision to “me-too” some sporty paddle shifters on the tiller and saddle the car with 1990s software. Rather than having a true manual mode where “4” means you want the transmission to be in 4th gear, the indicator merely indicates the highest gear the transmission may use whenever it feels like it. Think of cars that have D, D5, D4, D3, etc. in their shifter’s repertoire. Despite any shortcomings the transmission may have, V6 is an excellent companion. Turbo? Lexus didn’t see the point, and with a 5.18 second 0-60 time (as tested) I’m inclined to believe them.
So why did that Volvo win a place in my garage over the IS350? It all came down to AWD and a useable back seat. Lexus has rectified the AWD problem, but rear accommodations are still an IS family shortcoming. On the practicality score list the IS makes up for the lack of rear legroom by delivering one of the quietest rides in the class. Sadly there is one more hump on this camel, and it’s in the driver’s footwell rather than on its back. Because the floor-stamping in the RWD IS models doesn’t allow for the AWD componentry, the AWD IS models have a unique floor pan with a sizeable hump that extends from the centre tunnel well into the driver’s footwell mid-line between the seat and the accelerator pedal. If your feet are over a US size 11, then you might find the hump’s position a more than awkward. The kicker of course is that RHD versions of the IS put this on the passenger side, to which my response would have been: “who cares? That’s not where I sit as the driver.” Since my shoe of choice is a US size 10.5 loafer, I found the hump more of an oddity than a deal breaker but I am constantly reminded that the A4, Acura TL and Volvo S60 are completely hump-free.
Out on the road the IS350 AWD behaves more like an LS460 with firm springs than an Audi S4 or BMW 335. The steering is precise; the heft is as close to perfect as any, but the feel is isolated. This problem is partially due to the AWD system, as most AWD sedans feel less connected than their RWD relatives, but even the RWD IS350 suffers from a relatively numb tiller. Still, the 30/70 power split (variable to 50/50) more than makes up for any loss in feel when rocketing down wet and mossy back country roads in the Santa Cruz mountains. The short wheelbase and stiff suspension combine to make short work of windy roads, but broken pavement and cupped freeway concrete make the ride fairly unpleasant at legal speeds. Compared with the AWD IS350, the RWD IS feels more nimble with slightly better balance due no doubt to the wider rubber out back. For 99% of buyers the IS350 AWD is exactly like a regular IS350 except more stable on slippery roads. Our Facebook fan’s most frequent request is for a “burnout quotient” so here it is: zero (but then that’s sort of the point).
The IS350 AWD is up against some stiff competition as it goes into its final years but pricing and image may be the IS350s best assets. Our tester rang in at $46,579 as tested, well below the competition from Germany. The BMW 335xi offers undoubtedly superior interior finish and more electronic gadgets than a Japanese toy store, but with a comparably equipped MSRP of $50,925 it’s easy to overlook the IS350’s rubbery dashboard. If Audi is more your style, the A4 is far less swift and the new S4 at $56,175 is in a totally different price class. Perhaps the most direct and stiff competition for the IS350 AWD comes in the form of the Infiniti G37x, which feels more nimble, and the new Volvo S60 T6 AWD. Both the Infiniti and Volvo ring in within $1,000 of the IS350 AWD depending on options selected, with the IS350 straddling the fence between the sportier G37 and softer S60. Lexus’ trump cards in this competitive set are image and reliability. Lexus has a better brand value proposition than Volvo or Infiniti, and reliability is unquestionably higher than the BMW or Audi competition. So, 5 years later would I take the second best girl to the automotive prom? No, I’d probably take a BMW 335xi, but after the initial fun wore off I’d probably be left to dream about the IS350 AWD all over again.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for the review.
Another perspective on this car can be found here.
Performance statistics as tested:
0-30: 1.93 seconds
0-60: 5.18 seconds
Average economy: 22.5MPG overall
Facebook followers: Steve S: The biggest difference with the RWD model is the slimmer rubber out back, combined with the AWD it causes a little less grip in the dry but a more balanced feel. Tony J: The A4 offers a better feeling interior. Phillip W: Power slide? In a Lexus? Yes, but only just. Scott C: The suspension is fully independent front and rear. Up front we have double-wishbones with coil springs, monotube gas-pressurized shock absorbers and the usual hollow stabilizer bar, out back we get a multi-link setup with coil springs, inverted monotube gas shock absorbers and another stabilizer bar. It is the same basic setup as the RWD model with only slight geometry changes where required.