For its 2005 launch, Lexus maintained high aspirations for the IS 350, positioning it as a BMW 3-series killer. But in the intervening years, the IS 350 hasn't taken a huge bite out of BMW's sales and reputation. Instead, it solidified its place as a comfortable luxury car with some sport attributes.
And with the 2011 Lexus IS 350 update, we're not seeing another attempt at the crown. Lexus settled for maintaining its ground, fitting the new IS 350 with updated cabin tech, including its new telematics service, and adding the now de rigueur LED parking light strips to the headlight casings.
And to hold its position against upstarts such as the Acura TL SH-AWD, Lexus added the option of all-wheel drive. But as yet there is still no manual transmission available, one element keeping the IS 350 from true sport car status.
A high point of the IS 350 remains its engine, a 3.5-liter V-6 using an innovative fuel delivery system combining direct injection and port injection. Lexus developed this system to get the efficiency advantages of direct injection, and at slower speeds preserve the luxury character of the vehicle with the lesser noise of port injectors.
The result is an engine that outputs 306 horsepower at 6,400rpm, and 277 pound-feet of torque at 4,800rpm, power figures similar to what competitors get with a 3.7-liter V-6. With its new all-wheel-drive system, the IS 350 earns EPA fuel economy of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Even with our heavy-footed driving style, we turned in 18.5 mpg at the end of our time with the car.
With this engine, the IS 350 produces satisfying acceleration and a pleasing exhaust note to go with it. The car gave us confidence to pass others on two-lane highways and our choice of merging spots when entering a freeway. It's reasonably quiet when idling, but Lexus probably could have used sound-deadening materials rather than the extra port injection system to achieve this result.
One thing that keeps the IS 350 from being a real BMW 3-series competitor in the eyes of enthusiasts is the lack of a manual transmission. Instead, drivers have to settle for a six-speed automatic. Granted, this transmission offers a Sport mode and manual gear selection, but there's no getting around the inferior performance of its torque converter.
As we roared over some favorite roads in the hills, the transmission's Sport mode kept the engine speed up around 4,000rpm, putting a good amount of the car's power to the ground. But Sport mode is not particularly aggressive, refusing to downshift as we hit the brakes before going into a corner. And it showed typical torque converter sluggishness when responding to heavy accelerator input, with a little lag between gear changes.
Likewise, manual shifting wasn't as snappy as we would have liked. The car's shift paddles are attached to the steering wheel, with upshifts on the right and downshifts on the left. These paddles have a good, solid feel. The console shifter can also be used to select gears. But with the gear change lag, we tended to leave the transmission in Sport mode.
The suspension isn't particularly high-tech, but it strikes a very satisfying balance between offering a comfortable ride when cruising, and maintaining stability while cornering. We found the ride quality very pleasing when traversing rough pavement, serving up some Lexus luxury.
The new all-wheel-drive system, which comes from the IS 250, should help handling a little. It defaults to a bias of 70 percent torque to the rear wheels and 30 percent to the front, but will shift torque to a 50/50 split as needed. Lacking torque vectoring, we didn't find it offered as noticeable a difference as Acura's, Audi's, or Mitsubishi's all-wheel-drive systems. We expect the Lexus all-wheel-drive system will make a bigger difference on muddy or snowy roads.