2009 Lexus IS350

A Lippizzan Lexus

2009 Lexus IS350
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Lexus has produced a good product here. The IS350 looks fantastic, with smooth flares to the wheel arches and an athletically-muscular stance. All truly great automobile designs share this trait, from the Porsche 911, to the Ferrari Enzo, to the boxy-yet-svelte Datsun 510 SSS “Bluebird.” The lines simply flow from front to back in concerted harmony to impart a sensation of speed to the sheet metal (or plastic, carbon fiber, aluminum, etc).

FAST FACTS

1. The IS350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 with 306hp and 277 ft-lbs of torque.

2. 60 mph comes in just 5.6 seconds.

3. A convertible model is set to go on sale in summer 2009.

4. Both a manual transmission and AWD are offered, but only on the 250 model.

In comparison, so many other cars on the road look like camels – horses designed by a committee. The IS350 is no camel.

In life, there are when you want to cut loose and make like the proverbial “bat out of hell.” For me, these times coincide with gaps in congested Los Angeles freeway traffic. When a hole opens up, I want to accelerate immediately, with torque, without waiting for a turbo to build boost. I can unequivocally say that the 2009 IS350 delivers torque in spades. With it’s 4.08 to 1 rear differential ratio, it feels stronger than its 277 ft-lbs suggests.

A HORSE OF ANOTHER SORT

Out on the street, the IS350 darts through traffic with elegant composure. While the suspension is sportier than a Toyota Camry, it’s still not going to wow a person who really loves to drive hard. If you’d substitute “luxury touring” for “sport” in all of the Lexus brochures or commercials, you’d have a more accurate assessment of its performance parameters.

The posted fuel economy of 18 city/25 highway is competent for it’s class, though our lead-footed testing generated a lower combined figure.

As for usability, the IS350 offers a large trunk with a well-sized opening, but forces rear seat passengers into contortionist shapes if they’re over six feet tall. Virtually every luxury amenity exists inside except for a tissue dispenser and espresso bar. There are configuration settings of every sort, both for the dashboard displays and for the large, bright, and clear navigation screen. You may have to root through a few menus to get where you’re headed, but eventually, with some luck, the system will accede to your demands.

A note to Lexus on the stock “Premium” audio system; it needs more bass frequencies. We did enjoy the useful back-up camera though!

PECULIAR MANNERS

While there’s much to like about the IS350, there are two sour apples; the transmission and the steering. There’s no manual transmission offered for the IS350. Evidently, the manual transmission from the 2008 IS250 won’t handle the torque of the bigger V6. This is coming from the same company (Toyota) who would have you believe that their trucks can pull more than any other similarly-sized trucks.

We’re certain they could build a better six-speed manual box if they wanted, but Lexus probably has no interesting doing so due mostly to the minimal demand for such a thing.

Besides, there’s probably a bean-counter committee in Japan who insists that producing a transmission with the higher torque capacity would simply bankrupt the company… and in the current economy, they might be right. Whatever the case, there is no manual transmission available in the 2009 IS350.

The automatic six-speed (and the key word is “automatic) is never quite happy in the “S” mode setting. Pulling on the up or down paddle on the steering wheel produces nothing… for a very long time. When it does shift, around a full second later, it produces the typical automatic transmission “lurch.” Audi’s quick-shifting DSG shoehorned into the IS350 would make it a fearsome competitor for the BMW 3-series sedans.

But before that can happen… Lexus must fix the steering. Perhaps it’s only an alignment issue, but the two units we sampled had the same ailment; exceptionally numb on-center steering feel. If the wheel was touched to the left, the car went left. If touched to the right, the car went right. In no case would the steering “return to center” and sit there. Nicely weighted, not over-boosted, easy to turn, yes. Precise? Sadly, no.

While the chassis did not exhibit any tendency to understeer, thanks to the “summer” Bridgestone tires (included with the 18-inch wheels included with the Navigation system package), it refused to haul down a straight line with the accuracy and precision a modern “sport” luxury touring car should have.

NO HOOLIGANISM PERMITTED

Depending on your view, owning a powerful car that refuses to spin a tire could be either the greatest technological advancement you’ve ever tried, or the most frustrating experience of your life. Lexus concludes it’s the former. They call it VDIM, shorthand for Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, and it includes both Traction Control (TRAC) and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC).

Turning it completely off, by holding down the Traction Control button on the right side of the steering wheel for three seconds, simply tells the transmission to keep itself in the next higher gear at all times (in “D“ mode), again to prevent wheel spin. The electronic nanny controls do their best to prevent unruly behavior. If you DO manage to break the rear tires loose while cornering, the IS350 turns the inside rear tire into smoke. There’s no limited slip differential option.

THE VERDICT

This is the perfect vehicle for eighty percent of the buying public interested in an affordable (MSRP as tested, $42,525, including the $825 delivery fee) luxury sedan. It is more than competent in all areas except true sport performance driving. It has the looks of a race horse, but the breeding and manners of a Lippizzan stallion.

PLUS

Great “real world” acceleration due to immediately available 277 ft-lbs of torque
Eye-catching styling
True luxury amenities

MINUS

Navigation/DVD/Bluetooth system is a $5,100 option
Transmission’s “S” mode is extremely slow to shift
Steering lacks return-to-center feel

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