Lexus IS350 2011 Review

Lexus IS350 2011 Review

In 1989 Toyota decided to create its Lexus premium division and many fans of the dominant European brands scoffed in unison. They wondered and doubted exactly how Lexus would develop class overnight. But Lexus was running a different playbook and knew that class would come with time, what it needed from the offset was character. It’s this distinctive character that has charmed many buyers over the years including those who purchased the popular second generation IS250. But as elegant, distinctive and well appointed as the IS250 is, for some it just didn’t pack a sluggers punch in terms of performance. Lexus recognised the opportunity to introduce a more powerful IS model and now the better-endowed IS350 has reached NZ shores. With a larger engine and two specification levels the IS350 is cutting a new edge into Lexus’ character. Car and SUV took a drive in both the IS350 Limited and F-Sport to experience their charms first hand.

Under the bonnet both IS350 variants are the same, sporting a longitudinally mounted 3.5-litre V6 engine. While many performance-focused machines are now turbocharged this V6 stays naturally aspirated and has a suitably smooth feel. It’s strong too, utilising tech like direct and port injection to achieve a power output of 233kW with 378Nm of torque. That’s good enough to take the IS350 from standing to 100kph in just 5.6 seconds and it feels every bit as rapid as this figure would suggest. It’s a far angrier and more purposeful machine than its IS250 stablemate and with 80kW more power and a full litre more displacement, visual appearance is the only characteristic the two IS models share.

Transmission options on the IS350 are limited to a single 6-speed electronically controlled automatic box that transfers power exclusively to the rear wheels. Fuel consumption is quoted at 9.4l/100km combined but if you want to have some fun (and you would) the IS350 will get much thirstier – expect 12 to 15l/100km to be easily achievable.

Exterior design is largely unchanged from the second-gen IS250 that first debuted back in 2006. That said it’s a contemporary and attractive shape that remains an eye-catching mixture of elegance and broad-shouldered aggression. What is new is a fashionable strip of LED driving lights that lie underneath the Xenon headlights and further modernise the IS face. Bumpers and taillights have also been reworked with subtle but pleasing results and there are new alloy wheel options as well. The F-Sport model (pictured) receives some extra exterior upgrades like a unique body kit with side skirts, a boot lid spoiler and a F-Sport badge on the front guards. Both model variants roll on 18-inch alloy wheels but the F-Sport receives an extroverted 5-spoke design while the Limited opts for a more conservative 15-spoke rim. As you’d expect in a Lexus the exterior build quality is a highlight with precise shut lines, a reassuring weight to the doors and gleaming paintwork.

Inside, the IS350 is quite unique in both its appearance and ambiance. Far more a cockpit than a cabin, space is limited and the steeply raked windscreen makes for quite a reclined driving position especially for taller wheelmen. This isn’t a fault, more a characteristic and it imparts a cosseting and sporty drive experience furthered by a high centre console and broad main control stack. Tall occupants don’t do so well in the back seat, which is well shaped, but both headroom and legroom is on the tight side. In the boot there’s a 398-litre luggage capacity, which is usable if not class leading and while the rear seat doesn’t fold forward, there’s a ski port for longer items. The front leather seats differ between the models with the F-Sport opting for a more heavily bolstered sports bucket and the Limited a luxury chair. Both sets of seats are comfortable and heated, the Limited’s front seats are also cooled and the F-Sport’s offer greater lateral support. The F-Sport further differs from the Limited by using metal-look trim in the cabin instead of maple-wood and has detailing like a F-Sport sports steering wheel, kick plates and alloy pedals.

Instrumentation and switchgear is easily viewed but is beginning to show signs of age. A 7-inch multi-vision touch screen is user friendly and provides info on navigation, climate and audio controls so there’s no issue here. It’s the smaller details where points are lost like the 80’s era basic digital clock and a series of static lights in the instrument cluster showing current gearstick position rather than a more modern LCD screen. While the main control stack functions without major issue it feels halfway between being completely touch screen based and still relying on buttons – this can cause confusion. But for these small niggles, you couldn’t call the IS350 interior boring and its quality and durability are hard to beat. The dark soft plastics are pleasant to the touch and while the contrasting chrome and metal/wood trim may not suit all tastes there’s no doubt the cabin has a bulletproof finish.

The equipment list is fitting of a luxury sedan and includes quality kit like a high-resolution reversing camera, 14-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio system with Bluetooth and voice command, dual-zone climate air-con, cruise control, engine immobiliser and alarm, satellite navigation, power seats with memory settings and a multi-functional trip computer.

On road the IS350 can show some serious pace with its peaky V6 that revs out to 7,000rpm. Acceleration is delivered in a predictable and linear fashion and while there isn’t masses of low down torque mid-range and top end power is grin inducing. At times the conventional six-speed gearbox is slow in keeping up and can be a notch sluggish changing gears. The sports mode helps keep it on point but for the most engaging drive the steering wheel paddles offer sharper shifts and the ability to keep the big V6 in its power zone. During suburban and city driving the IS350 keeps well mannered and remains so refined that the cabin is almost completely silent. Get it on the open road and it becomes a far more lively and stimulating steer.

On twisted roads the IS350 is supremely capable with high levels of grip and a low-slung body shape that helps give it superior balance. Just point the nose into a corner and the IS350 rails around with no dramas even at higher speeds. It really is difficult to evoke over or understeer from this Lexus, the only complaint is that the traction and stability control systems can cut in too early and too heavily which kills the party. It can be turned off but with 233kW at the rear treads there are regular occasions when it’s a necessity.

The electronic rack and pinion steering is a touch vague on centre but firms up nicely through the bends. Both variants have a compliant ride quality, the F-Sport has a more sports focused suspension tune and it shows through slightly higher handling capabilities. The F-Sport also rides firmer than the Limited but absorbs bumps and dips well and feels every bit a luxury cruiser during motorway duties.

Safety systems are all in check with large ventilated front disc brakes stopping the IS350 with strength. Front, side, curtain and driver’s knee airbags are on board and all seatbelts have pre-tensioners and load limiters. Stability and traction control, ABS brakes with brake assist and hill-start assist are also included. It’s a comprehensive safety package with no notable omissions.

The bottom line with the IS350 is that it’s a luxury compact sedan with an engaging but refined driving demeanour. The IS range in NZ has finally got the powerful engine it always needed but it might have arrived too late in the second-generation model’s lifespan. While the exterior design is proving evergreen the IS interior has stayed static while some key competitors like the BMW 3-Series have moved on. The larger V6 motor is a fun, free-revving unit that has breathed new life into the IS model without negating its refined nature. Like most Lexus models the IS350 has a slightly conservative character but it’s not necessarily a conservative choice. At over $100k for either model it’s not a cheap option either and may be one for Lexus badge fans and those disgruntled with European brands.

Price: Limited $101, 900, F-Sport $103,300

What we like:

  • Accomplished and engaging handling
  • Powerful V6 engine is a good fit
  • Exterior styling can still turn heads
  • High safety specification

What we don’t like:

  • Gearbox is powertrain’s weak point
  • Interior switchgear looks dated
  • Traction/Stability control can be intrusive
  • Fuel economy

Who will buy this car: Traditionally it would be newly retired execs looing for a smart compact luxury sedan. But with the F-Sport, Lexus is targeting a younger buyer and may prove successful.

Cool Factor: High, the IS is still a very sexy machine and anyone who has gone for the bigger more powerful IS350 likes to roll low and fast. Watch out.

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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