By on April 8, 2011

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.

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42 Comments on “Review: 2011 Lexus IS350 AWD Take Two...”

  • avatar

    Granted, it’s a test car provided by Lexus, but did you really sit there in “Park” while revving the engine well into the red? Naughty, naughty – vehicle abuse. Stay away from my car.

  • avatar

    That greenhouse looks vertically challenged.

  • avatar

    I always wanted to like the IS, after all, whats not to like about a reliable, compact RWD sedan with decent amounts of power (in 350 guise)? However, the very qualities that draw me to RWD sports sedans seemed always to be missing. The car didn’t do anything wrong but it also didn’t offer much in the way of driving involvement. I don’t know if its the lack of an exhaust note or the over-eager stability control or the chassis tune, it just never stirred the senses. I’m hoping the next gen will fix that because I’d love a break from the high maintenance European brands.

    • 0 avatar

      I personally find the sound of this engine among the best in its class, along with those in the Acura TL and Volvo S60 T6. The car’s handling is an acquired taste–it feels larger and heavier than it is, but on the same note solid. Reliability has been strong:

      • 0 avatar

        Isn’t the IS the car that killed the CHiP and his family and got the whole “unintended acceleration” thing going?

      • 0 avatar

        No, it was an ES (sedan) with RX (CUV) floormats installed in it that the CHiP was driving.  The dealer put the wrong floormats in the loaner and the dealer was told by someone who previously had the loaner that the floormats were interfering with the pedal.  There is also nothing that prevents you from putting the car in neutral regardless of speed.  It was the perfect storm of the wrong floormat and the driver being unfamiliar with how to properly bring the car to a stop.

    • 0 avatar

      It is almost like it is the sports sedan for people who don’t like cars…

  • avatar

    I drove an IS250 when I was looking for a new car. First thing I thought when I sat in it was “hey, that’s almost the exact same center console as my buddy’s toyota venza”, which pretty much sums up my opinion of the entire car. Sure, it’s a premium vehicle, but there’s always that sneaking suspicion that if the “L” logo fell off the grille, a “T” logo from a Corolla would snap right in it’s place. In fact, that kinda sums up my feelings about the whole Lexus brand.

    I went with the A4, instead. I don’t need to go from 0-60 in 5.x seconds. 6.x is just as good to me. If I ever change my mind, I’ll call Stasis Engineering to fit that.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree that the lesser Lexuses are Toyota-ish and of questionable value, but have you ever put in serious time behind the wheel of an LS? The silence, refinement, comfort, and overwhelming quality of the LS are truly special. It’s a genuinely great car that, while not particularly sporty, makes the S-class Mercedes and 7-series BMWs seem a little half-baked and rough around the edges even though they cost more. The LS might err a little bit on the bland and unexciting side, but it’s hard to beat for a luxury ride.

    • 0 avatar


      is the same somehow? I’m baffled by your comparison. The RX maybe. And you know Audi and VW share a whole slew of components right? nice to met you, Pot, I guess I’m Kettle.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, it’s a premium vehicle, but there’s always that sneaking suspicion that if the “L” logo fell off the grille, a “T” logo from a Corolla would snap right in it’s place.

      I’d agree 100%.  At least in my experience the the Mercedes was special because of the sense of solidity and the superlative ride quality – both tactile sensations.  The specialness of the Lexus is in the quality and durability.

  • avatar

    There are some buyers who are dead set on spending $50K (at least) on a new car. Others not so much. If your’re in that first group, stop reading here X.

    Okay, value consumers, note that this IS is basically unchanged since 2006, and the car is due for an update. Also, Lexus is recognized for dependability and durability and for holding value. This adds up to the potential for a very attractive deal for the enterprising on a nice cpo IS coming off lease. A dealer near me has ample selection of 2007-08 250s, all with clean Carfaxes, for $24K-$27K. Pick the one that’s averaged 7,500 miles a year for the low price. Or the one that’s averaged 20,000 miles annually for the higher price.

    Down the road from him is a VW dealer offering nifty GTIs that will carve canyons with the best of them (but there are no canyons hereabouts, maybe there are some around you which could affect the choice) and the msrp is $30K, which is sticker shock territory for me, considering the similarity to the $17,000 Golfs beside them.

    It’s your dough.

  • avatar

    Low MPGs.

    New one should be cool.

  • avatar

    If I fail to get a test drive of a CT200h tomorrow, maybe I’ll take an IS350 out.  I’ve never liked the high beltline (from the driver’s seat), but every review I read talks about how good the engine is.

  • avatar
    Dan R

    Looks dangerously like a tarted up Corolla.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, at first glance, it does look like a car.  A corolla, too, at first glance, looks like a car.  Thus, mathematically, the IS and Corolla look the same. Yes, they have 4 wheels, 4 doors, trunk lids, headlights, taillights, and a fairly traditional greenhouse (pillars and glass).

      But that is about where the similarity ends.  The corolla cabin is pushed over the front wheels because it is a FWD, transverse drivetrain.  The IS is AWD/RWD and has a longitudinally positioned drivetrain. This fact alone greatly changed the basic proportions of the car. Just based on styling features, the Corolla has the typical, somewhat bulgy Toyota styling while the IS is sharp, raked, and lean.  I don’t think the Corolla looks bad.  It just doesn’t look anything like an IS.  

      In case you forgot what a Corolla looked like… 

      BTW, nothing says “I don’t pay attention to details” like saying “it looks like a model_name_here ” when talking about the styling of a car.  Any time a new car comes out, the peanut gallery is trying say what it looks like instead of actually talking about the styling.  Why even bother commenting if you are going to put such little effort into the analysis of the styling?

    • 0 avatar

      It’s OK. It’s not just you. Last time my wife pointed to a B200 and asked if that’s a BMW.

  • avatar

    My IS was a 2010, and I went RWD, because I have no use for AWD, it adds weight, and does not permit me to run different rubber front and rear. It’s a very nice car. I cross-shopped it with G37, which was gruff.

  • avatar

    This car has never had much appeal for me. Yes its cheaper than the Audi or BMW, but it feels cheaper. The interior is drab, the packaging is poor, and it’s just not all that interesting of a car. The GS has the exact same problem when compared to the 5 series and A6. Lexus does a good job with the LS (not that I’d want one), but they just don’t seem to understand Euro style performance sedans, never have.
    Styling wise the IS is probably the best car in the line, but that’s not saying much. Lexus cars are not in your face ugly like Acuras, but they are not attractive at all. The G37 after its recent refresh looks better.

  • avatar

    Great car!

  • avatar

    Why anyone would pony up this kind of cash for this thing new is beyond me.  Not particularly attractive, pretty boring, hump in the driver’s footwell, pretty terrible back seat, unremarkable mileage.  Why does it, or most people, need the weight, complexity and extra cost of AWD in a road sedan?
    How is it being a Lexus anything really to brag about except to say:  “I’m boring and have no imagination whatsoever.”

    • 0 avatar

      Well, it is significantly more reliable than the euro competition.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s like asking, “How is it being a BMW anything really to brag about except to say:  “I’m a pompous ass obsessed with image, and rent my overpriced car to look much wealthier than I really am”

      What I don’t understand why there are so many haters on the IS350.  What would it take a diesel wagon version to make you fu**ers happy?

      It’s a compact rwd (or awd) sedan with great performance AND reliability.  Everything is a compromise.  You can’t have the cargo capacity of a suburban and the performance of a corvette.  You can’t get the gas mileage of prius, and the handling of 3 series.

      Some people, including me, place a high value on easy to own vehicles that you don’t have to get rid of before the warranty expires.

      So go be happy with your superior bmw and it’s superior electronic oil level reader and it’s much much superior highly praised run flat tires, and it’s extremely superior low cost of maintenance.  And don’t forget to have that smug look on your face when driving down the freeway in bumper to bumper traffic with the satisfaction of knowing that you are behind the wheel of the Ultimate Driving Machine……….

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      “Why anyone would pony up this kind of cash for this thing new is beyond me.”
      Especially when the Infiniti G37xS exists. Infiniti seems to have successfully dealt with the engine problems (excessive oil consumption and engine replacements at 60-80k miles) that plagued 1st gen G35 cars. Plus, Infiniti interiors are much nicer than they were in the mid 2000s.

      • 0 avatar

        I cross-shopped G37 with IS. The G37 was kinda too rough. Nice headroom and a powerful performer, I’ll give you that. IS won on nicer ergonomics, fitting the driver better, and the marvelous 2.4L v6. I didn’t get the AWD though, I live in the south.

        P.S. Frankly if I wanted to give up refinement for performance, I would’ve gotten a Z, not its stablemate. The G37 coupe has the same wheelbase as the sedan, e.g. a quarter longer than Z’s.

    • 0 avatar

      Why does it, or most people, need the weight, complexity and extra cost of AWD in a road sedan?
      Why does anyone need the weight, complexity, and extra cost of anything beyond a base model sub-compact?  This may surprise you, but some people drive on snow and ice every day for a few months of the year.  If you can afford it, you want AWD in that situation.  It makes driving far more enjoyable to be able to accelerate among traffic like it’s summer.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but I’ll add that I use winter tires regardless of drivetrain configuration.  Many who criticize the existence of AWD think that winter tires and AWD are mutually exclusive.

  • avatar

    When the E90 came out, many of my friends and I had to figure out life after BMW. One bought a new IS250 with whatever must be the top interior option. It is too small for a 4 door sedan, offering about the interior room of an E30 or an E36. My friend tells me the turn-in is not as crisp as it was in his E46 325xi. That’s it for criticism. The interior of that little car redefines luxury, making the borrowed 2001 740i Sport I was driving when he bought it feel like a taxicab. The heated and cooled seats, fit and finish, materials, and somewhat showy design were enough to make me reconsider my general preference for spartan and purposeful interiors. I’m perplexed by characterization of the IS interior as middle of the road. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about design decisions made by Toyota, but that one is ridiculous. I’ve been in all the competitors, and some cars that are priced several times as much. The IS interior is one of the best in every way except for being too small. If the point was to talk people out of buying a Lexus, pointing out that it is a luxury car for dwarfs ought to do it. Why criticize it for areas where it is best in class?

    Incidentally, my friend that bought one in 2007 still has it. His career has taken off in the past 4 years, and he had four cars in the 7 years I knew him leading up to the Lexus, but he hasn’t even mentioned looking for another car.

  • avatar

    Still have my IS300 among my stable.  Don’t like the current one anywhere near as much.

  • avatar

    Ahh, cars, especially sport sedans. I for one would never buy a new Lexus or Acura. They are so reliable you can get one with low kms on it and save yourself a bundle of cash.

    As for the fabled machines of the Black Forest, if you cannot afford a new one, you really cannot afford a used one; speaking from personal experience, they are money pits.

    I bought a used 2005 Acura TL three years ago. Since then,  I have done the brakes, tires and oil changes, that’s it. Nothing has broken or gone wrong and I still love the car.

    The TL replaced a 1999 525i, bought in 2003, a “BMW Certified” car. I could not begin to list the grief that thing brought me. In fact, my niece’s husband, a BMW tech, told me to get rid of it.

    However, this will not deter the denizens of the Black Forest. They kind of remind me of Macheads; when you pay so much for something, you simply cannot admit it ever breaks.

    • 0 avatar

      Do I really have to point this out? The problem with your “Macheads” comparison is that according to independent surveys, Macs actually do break less often; BMWs don’t.

  • avatar

    I have a 2006 IS350 which is a blast to drive. I agree that the car is very quiet. I fixed that by adding the Lexus F-sport Intake and Axle-back Exhaust. :-)

  • avatar

    I love this car.

  • avatar

    A sporty Lexus? That is as absurd a notion as an economical and reliable German car.

    Forget all this debate, I’ll just take an Audi R12 and go away.

    However, a G37 gets my vote for worldly cars in my price range. Wife has a G35 with 110k miles, no repairs but is tough on brakes. Stiil runs like new. It is our first Infiniti and a great surprise. It is a powerful sports car with 4 doors. Terrific car.

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