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The completely new Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 models are so full of technology that it might be easy to overlook how well they function as fun-to-drive sports sedans.
Lexus is eager to bust out of its role as a maker of luxurious but conservative automobiles. They want to make performance and style as much a part of the marque's appeal as finely tailored cabins and cutting-edge amenities. Therefore, the target for the new IS models is no less than the BMW 3 Series. Of course, BMW is a proclaimed target for many car makers, but Lexus and parent company Toyota are not given to idle boasts or hopeless goals, and now they want to become known as the best driving machines from anywhere, not just Asia.
With that in mind, Lexus has introduced two all-new models, the Lexus IS 250 and IS 350, featuring a choice of V6 engines and available all-wheel drive.
The new IS 250 and IS 350 are considerably larger than last year's IS 300 models and they're stuffed with creature comforts. They look sporty, with bulging muscles and a purposeful stance. Their looks are backed up with genuine sports sedan attributes: rear-wheel drive and handling and performance aspirations tuned more for driving than, say, the softer, front-drive Lexus ES 330. For the most part, the new IS models deliver on the promise. We enjoyed driving them, particularly the more powerful IS 350. It's fast, it sticks in corners and it stops with authority. The IS 350's VDIM electronic stability control steps in very early to keep the driver out of trouble. The IS 250 AWD model's all-wheel drive makes it a good sports sedan for the Snow Belt.
Leather is now standard on the IS 250 and IS 350; and the IS 250 AWD comes with perforated leather-trim with Bird's eye maple accents. All models come loaded with standard features: dual-zone climate control, SmartAccess keyless entry with pushbutton engine start, and a 194-watt 13-speaker stereo with a six-disc in-dash CD changer; the audio system features digital signal processing, an electronic crossover network and built-in theft deterrence. It's satellite-ready and includes a new audio input jack in the center console that accepts any external audio source (iPod, Walkman, etc.) to the AUX input.
Safety features that come standard include driver and front-passenger knee airbags. The brakes are large and effective four-wheel discs, vented at the front and clamped by aluminum four-piston calipers. Augmenting the big brakes are ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, and Brake Assist. Vehicle Stability Control and traction control (TRAC) comes with every IS 250, while the IS 350 gets TRAC as well as the more sophisticated Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM).
Standard exterior items are fog lamps, projector beam headlamps, puddle lamps on the underside of the outside rearview mirrors (which are also heated), dual polished stainless steel exhaust pipes, infrared and ultraviolet reducing glass on all the windows, and a color-coordinated front airdam.
The standard running gear is 17-inch aluminum five-spoke wheels fitted with low-profile high-performance radials. The IS 250 AWD comes with 225/45R17s at all four corners. The IS 250 and IS 350 come standard with 225/45R17 tires in front and wider 245/45R17s in the rear, a staggered setup to increase grip under acceleration. Optional 18-inch wheels are available for the IS 250 and IS 350, fitted with 225/40R18 tires in front and 255/40R18s in the rear.
Options include a sports suspension, two different styles of 18-inch wheels, summer performance tires, high-intensity discharge headlamps with AFS (that automatically swivel to light up corners when the steering wheel is turned), rain-sensing wipers, sport pedals, metal scuff plates, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel with memory, 10-way power seats, heated/ventilated seats, driver and front-passenger seat memory, leather console, rear armrest storage, wood interior trim, perforated leather trim, an auto-dimming memory reverse tilt-down mirror, and other features. The Mark Levinson audio/navigation system adds an additional speaker, advanced discrete amplifier technology with 300 watts and 7.1 channel speaker architecture. Other options include the navigation system, which features voice activation, a rear backup camera (a great safety feature); Bluetooth; Park Assist; Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar cruise control; headlamp washers; power moonroof. Accessories include a high-performance exhaust system and a body kit and rear spoiler.
Once underway, there's little to criticize. The new Lexus IS, in both rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, can do everything the safe and sane driver might ask of it. It's fast, pulls enough g's in the corners to make a seasoned sailor carsick, and stops with authority.
The IS 250 AWD is the best choice if winter weather invades your neck of the woods, when the all-wheel-drive system's increased grip is most welcome. The AWD model is heavier than the IS 350, but it hauled us over the San Gabriel Mountains on fabled Angeles Crest Highway without exposing any dire penalties due to its weight.
On a racing circuit, the IS 350 is the way to go. At Willow Springs International Raceway, the "fastest racetrack in the West," the IS 350's muscular torque and free-revving engine pulled the car around the hilly course with almost lackadaisical ease.
We drove several examples of the IS models at competition speeds relentlessly in temperatures that rose above 110 degrees and not one of them stumbled or misfired. Because of the hot, slippery track surface, the tires constantly fought for grip, but the advanced chassis electronics kept everyone on the pavement. The car's inherent balance made it easy to push it to the limit, causing the electronic aids to step in and dampen the thrill.
We prefer the automatic over the manual. Though our traditional side still likes clutch pedals and manual shift levers, the new generation of manual automatics is so responsive that it takes a really good manual gearbox to draw us away from the auto-shifter. The IS 250's manual six-speed doesn't quite fit that description and isn't quite good enough to make us opt for it in lieu of the optional automatic. The paddle-shifted automatic is mostly wonderful, though driver control is never complete to help protect it against damaging shifts.
The all-new Lexus IS models are a quantum leap forward for the Lexus brand in terms of cutting-edge style and higher levels of performance. But BMW still has an edge when it comes to claiming itself the ultimate driving machine.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg N. Brown filed this report from Southern California.