2012 Lexus IS 350 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Lineup of sports sedans, coupes and convertibles expands further.
The Lexus IS lineup of sports sedans, coupes and convertibles expands for 2011 with more performance and more all-wheel drive availability. The Lexus IS models, available in three body styles, are designed to offer style and performance comparable to that of the BMW 3 Series but at lower prices.
2011 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 are available with a new F Sport Package. The 2011 Lexus IS 350 now offers all-wheel drive, which continues to be available for the IS 250. And Lexus IS sedans get subtle styling revisions for 2011. The F-Sport Package ($2,440) for IS 250 RWD and IS 350 RWD includes the F-Sport suspension, sport pedals, aluminum scuff plates, special 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18 tires (summer or all-season), front and rear spoilers, sport grille, sport steering wheel and shift knob, sport seat with microfiber inserts, heated front seats.
The Lexus IS models are built on a rear-wheel-drive platform, the correct choice for sporty handling. Trim, sleek and relatively light, these cars offer paddle-shift transmissions, good brakes and strong acceleration performance. Boasting 306 horsepower, the Lexus IS 350 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds.
The IS F is a special high-performance coupe powered by a 416-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, allowing it to compete with the BMW M3. Boasting a top speed of 170 mph, the IS F is fast by any measure. The 2011 Lexus IS F benefits from suspension changes.
The IS 250 and IS 350 come in sedan and convertible versions. The sedan is comfortable for two and can seat five, but it is not a family car like the Lexus ES 350. The back seat is not commodious, with rear legroom at a premium, though there is a car seat anchor for the little one.
The Lexus IS 250 C and IS 350 C are true convertibles, converting from hardtop coupe to top-down roadster with the press of a button. With the top up, they look like coupes. With the top down, they look like convertibles.
For 2011, new HID headlamps with LED daytime running lamps are standard on the IS 350 and optional on the IS 250. In addition, a new front grille and bumper highlight the 2011 Lexus IS sedans, while at the rear, there's a new taillamp cover and revised tailpipe design. The IS models also feature new standard 17-inch and optional 18-inch wheels.
The new F Sport Package for 2011 IS 250 and IS 350 rear-wheel-drive models uses the new suspension tuning of the IS F, and 18-inch alloy wheels with a dark super-chrome finish. The F Sport package includes a front lip spoiler and rear deck spoiler, a matching dark chrome front grille insert, F Sport badging, and the addition of Ultrasonic Blue Mica to the exterior colors. For the interior, unique front seats feature a special microfiber insert and leather side bolsters to provide grip for the driver and passenger during cornering, and F Sport badging to the steering wheel.
All 2011 Lexus models have a standard new brake override system that automatically reduces power when the gas and brake pedals are applied at the same time.
2011 Lexus IS models come standard with leather upholstery; dual-zone climate control; SmartAccess keyless entry with pushbutton engine start; and a satellite-ready 194-watt, 13-speaker stereo with 6CD changer and MP3 auxiliary audio input jack.
The IS 250 comes with a 2.5-liter V6 engine and a 6-speed manual gearbox ($32,145) or 6-speed automatic ($33,315). The IS 250 AWD ($35,775) features all-wheel drive and comes standard with the automatic transmission. The AWD model also gets special perforated leather upholstery and Bird's-eye maple trim.
The IS 350 ($38,570) comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and 6-speed automatic. More sophisticated braking and electronic stability systems augment its additional performance. The 2011 IS 350 AWD ($41,030) adds all-wheel drive.
The F-Sport Package ($2,440) for IS 250 RWD and IS 350 RWD includes the F-Sport suspension, sport pedals, aluminum scuff plates, special 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18 tires (summer or all-season), front and rear spoilers, sport grille, sport steering wheel and shift knob, sport seat with microfiber inserts, heated front seats.
The IS 250 C and IS 350 C are two-door models that feature a convertible hardtop, The IS 250 C is available with 6-speed manual ($39,890) or 6-speed automatic. The IS 350 C is also available with a choice of manual ($41,060) or automatic ($45,340).
The 2011 IS 350C F Sport Special Edition ($55,120) comes loaded with everything. Only 175 of them will be built. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
The IS F ($59,010) is a special high-performance coupe featuring a powerful V8 engine, 8-speed transmission, speed-rated tires, and sports suspension.
Lexus IS sedans employ tightly drawn, edgy bodywork to create a sophisticated, sporty identity. The convertible IS C and the high-performance IS F models have longer bodies and unique body panels, but all models share the Lexus IS family resemblance.
A wide track and high rear deck give the IS the crouching, forward leaning stance of a sprinter in the blocks. The front tires are one size smaller than the rear tires, which accentuates the road-hungry look. Carefully shaped body contours, a subtle ducktail-curved trunk lid and aerodynamic taillights contribute to a sleek profile with a 0.28 coefficient of drag. High performance, high-efficiency LED taillights, brake lights and license plate lights are molded into the design. The stainless steel exhaust pipes signal performance.
The IS C convertible retains the fundamental features and characteristics of the sedans, but in a two-door, four-passenger configuration. The windshield angle has been revised, and every body panel except the hood required some modification to blend with the folding roof. Visually, with the top down, the ISC looks lower and wider than the sedan.
To make access to the rear more practical, the doors are longer, and they open wider. The rooftop folds up when the driver holds down a button on the dash, using 15 electric motors to convert for open-air driving in 20 seconds.
In any convertible, frame strength is an important safety consideration. The frame of the IS C has been reinforced by use of thicker rocker panel structure, additional steel in the A and B pillars, and a system of V-shaped braces across the underbody. To reduce impingement on trunk space, the IS C body was enlarged by 2.25 inches to help accommodate the top mechanism.
The Lexus IS cabin is oriented around driving. The front seats blend luxury with performance. They are secure and supportive, but not overly firm, and 10-way adjustable. We found they were comfortable even on a daylong drive, at least for our average frames. The seats are mounted on a fairly long seat track to provide 44 inches of front legroom for taller drivers, but at the expense of back-seat accommodations.
Rear-seat access in the sedan is reasonably easy. We found generous hip room, but not much legroom, in the back. The rear seat is rather upright, with two deeply dished seats at either side. The seating for a fifth passenger would be on the center hump. Although there is a headrest and seatbelt set for the middle seat, it's clearly designed for temporary use, or possibly a car seat. We view the IS as a car comfortably built for driver and passenger, plus two more on occasion.
The Lexus IS cabin uses sophisticated lighting and contemporary design to convey a sense of quality and luxury. The interior features intelligently designed displays and controls that are easy to see and use. A focused cockpit area conveys the sporting intentions of the car, while premium interior materials and attention to detail remain consistent to the Lexus identity. Smartly integrated metallic or maple trim helps create an elegant environment.
Controls and gauges are designed to reduce visual clutter, including the bright, clear Optitron gauges. The gauges are brightly lit, located front and center, dominated by a 160-mph speedometer and 8000-rpm tach. The multi-information display located within the speedometer integrates a trip computer that combines six different informational functions in one location, including outside temperature, driving range, average fuel consumption, average fuel consumption since refueling, current fuel consumption, and average speed. The display also includes an oil-maintenance reminder and system warnings. Additional features are added to the multi-information display depending on selected options. When an IS model is equipped with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, the display can show a car icon with the selected following distance. When equipped with Intuitive Park Assist, the display can show a car icon with the location and distance of objects detected near the bumpers.
The IS C is different from the sedan in a number of ways. Like all hard-top convertibles, the IS C roof intrudes on trunk space when folded. With the top up, there is almost 11 cubic feet of trunk space; with the top down, just 2.3 cubic feet, assuming a standard spare tire. That's still enough for two golf bags, though the vinyl cargo cover may cause some consternation to the unschooled. To create more space, run-flat tires are offered as an option, which eliminates the need for a spare tire.
Given that the open-air driving experience can be marred by ambient noise, wind and exposure to heat or cold, special attention has been paid to top-down comfort. Wind noise has been kept to an absolute minimum, and turbulence in the passenger cabin has been reduced by careful study of the mirrors and interior design. Indeed, this makes driving around the neighborhood with the top down most pleasant. The IS C instrument panel is shared with the IS sedan, but the dials are a different color, with more contrast to improve visibility when the top is down.
Based on the roof position and the amount of sunlight, the climate control system compensates for ambient temperature by adjusting air outlet temperature and air flow volume. The audio system is also automatically equalized to maintain the current acoustic field, regardless of outside noise, when the top is opened or closed.
We found the standard audio system sounded great in this quiet cabin, and it was easy to carry on a conversation in a quiet tone of voice.
The Lexus Premium Audio System (standard) features a six-disc, in-dash CD changer, 194 watts of total power and 13 speakers. Automatic Sound Levelizer (ASL) maintains consistent sound levels at varying vehicle speeds. Also included are iPod/USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and an integrated satellite receiver.
The 14-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound audio system, available as a stand-alone option or in conjunction with the optional DVD touch-screen navigation system, features discrete 5.1 multi-channel playback with 7.1-channel speaker architecture. Its 10 amplifier channels provide 300 watts total output at 0.1 percent total harmonic distortion. The Mark Levinson system plays conventional CDs and DVDs, plus MP3/WMA-formatted CDs. DVD movies can be viewed on the optional navigation system's color seven-inch touch screen, though only when the parking brake is engaged.
The Lexus IS is a quick, taut car, but it's easy to drive. Meanwhile, in traffic jams, and crowded roads, any IS can be a serene cocoon. We found that there is hardly any road noise coming through the tires, very little vibration at the wheel and pedal, steering is light and easy, and wind noise is kept to a minimum.
On winding roads, the Lexus IS is nicely balanced. (This is especially true of the IS 350 C, which has a 52/48 weight distribution, front to rear.) The IS models transition from side to side with minimal body roll, and sharp brake/throttle/brake applications don't create appreciable front-end dive. The multi-link rear suspension offers a good ride with ample compliance over the bumps, with a commensurate level of road holding and competence under lateral transitions.
Steering is through an electric power-assisted system. The advantage of electric power steering is that it reduces energy consumption, yielding a 3 percent fuel economy improvement over conventional hydraulic systems. During an afternoon driving inland from the San Diego area, we thought the steering felt connected at higher speeds, with good on-center feedback at low speeds. Steering might not be as positive as that in a BMW 3 Series, but it takes less effort at low speeds, and the difference between the two seems small.
The IS 250 is equipped with a 2.5-liter V6 engine that delivers 204 horsepower at 6400 RPM and 185 pound-feet of peak torque at 4800 rpm. The IS 250 is EPA-rated at 21/29 mpg City/Highway. We found it offers plenty of power for everyday driving.
The IS 250, manual or automatic, is a fun car to drive. We drove an IS 250 with a manual transmission around the challenging Infineon road racing circuit near Sonoma, California. We found the 6-speed manual's shifting completely solid.
We drove an IS 250 C and found ride quality to be nice and relatively comfortable, though not soft, over bumpy neighborhood streets and decaying freeways. The top is very easy to operate. While motoring top-down we noticed our surroundings far more than in a hard top.
The IS 250 AWD, the slowest and heaviest of the IS cars, has a weight penalty of some 220 pounds over the RWD automatic model. That said, the AWD can still do 140 mph and 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, and offer all-weather performance in places that see significant rain and snow. The AWD is the only model that includes heated front seats as standard equipment.
The IS 350 is faster than the IS 250 by a large margin. The IS 350 has a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque, and can hit 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. Not only does it have more power than the 250, it has bigger brakes and more aggressive rear axle gearing. On the Infineon track, we zoomed past another driver in an IS 250. There is ample torque throughout the rev range, so throttle management is a relaxed process under all but the most critical circumstances. The IS 350 is not a hugely demanding car to drive.
The automatic transmission is remarkably intuitive about sensing driver throttle demand, so when asked, it holds onto a gear past 5900 rpm, and perhaps more important, downshifts when appropriate. When we took control of the shifting via paddle shifters, the car demanded more attention and a willingness to manage the revs. We don't think we would use the paddle shifters on an everyday basis. On a winding mountain road, we found paddle shifting was fun for a while, but we're not sure it was all that much faster. On a racetrack, the paddle shifters can result in more mistakes, and mistakes are not good for lap times.
The IS 350 F Sport has a different character than the standard IS 350. It isn't difficult to drive, though on the race track it beckoned us to go faster and faster until our skills were challenged to drive the car as fast as it was capable. This is a car that has huge potential, in its cornering and brakes. We enjoyed the paddle-shifting transmission. On the street, ride quality is firm. We found the F Sport suspension annoyingly rough on neighborhood streets. A full cup of coffee would be sloshed all over your hand.
While on the track, we checked to see the role played by the electronic stability control system. We first drove an IS 350 F Sport with the electronic stability control switched on and found that it wasn't too intrusive. In fact, it kept us out of trouble at one moment. Then we turned it off, and let the F Sport drift, to feel its wonderful balance. Lexus said the 2011 suspension changes to the shock absorbers, springs, anti-rollbars and bushings have improved the precision of the handling a lot, keeping the chassis flatter.
Brakes on the IS 350 offer strong, straight stops and inspire confident driving. Light pedal pressure brings lightly progressive slowing but it's possible to invoke immediate stopping power with just a bit more pedal. The system is built around four-wheel disc brakes; the IS 350 gets four-piston front calipers. The tires are one size smaller in the front than the rear, which enhances steering response and the braking power of the front discs.
The IS F with its V8 engine has an electronically limited top speed of 170 mph and is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. The Lexus IS F is one fast car. The IS F comes with Y-rated tires, a stiffer suspension, 8-speed transmission and a full-throttle exhaust note that means business. The IS F is about three inches longer than an IS 350 in order to fit its 416-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 engine under the hood. Even with the V8, the IS F has an EPA rating of 16/23 mpg.
The 2011 Lexus IS F features significant suspension changes. Among them: shock absorbers (new internal springs that limit rebound), spring rates, anti-rollbar stiffness, and control-arm bushings with steel inserts to increase rotational stiffness.
Active safety is much in evidence on the Lexus IS. For emergency stopping, there is four-channel anti-lock braking, plus six different electronic systems assisting with traction, stability, and emergency control. These systems are unified by the comprehensive stability control system Lexus calls VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) that makes electronic intervention much less obtrusive than any of the usual safety systems alone. We didn't get to a spot where we initiated action from the VDIM, but we have tested it in controlled circumstances in other Lexus vehicles, and we know how well it works. In an extreme emergency, VDIM can actually lock individual wheels to force a car through a turn it would never make by driver intervention alone. And it can do it without scrubbing off much speed. VDIM is billed as a safety system, and it is, but it brings such hugely effective handling enhancements we think it could be considered a performance system as well. The system is switchable, but VDIM is so much less obtrusive than stand-alone stability control that there are few occasions when we'd feel the need to switch it off.
The Lexus IS models are fast, fun, sports cars with rear-wheel drive. They offer Lexus-quality workmanship, contemporary design, and a surprisingly diverse array of prices, performance options and luxury appointments. The IS 250 is a sensible coupe, fun to drive. The IS 350 delivers excellent performance. Add the F Sport packages and you'll have a real sports sedan. The V8-powered IS F delivers racecar levels of performance.
John Stewart contributed to this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Lexus IS models near Newport Beach, California; Sam Moses reported from Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, California.
Lexus IS 250 ($32,145), IS 250 automatic ($33,315); IS 250 C ($39,890); IS 250 C automatic ($41,060); IS 250 AWD ($35,775); IS 350 ($38,570); IS 350 C ($45,340); IS 350 AWD ($41,030); IS F ($59,010); IS 350C F Sport Special Edition ($55,120).
Tahara and Kyushu, Japan.
Options As Tested
Lexus IS 350 ($38,570).
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