Walking up to the IS 350, the wide stance and sporty wheel arches immediately made me feel I was about to get into a car that meant business. The current shape and design was launched back in 2006, and except for a few more recent changes like the LED daylight running lights, some aspects of the car appeared dated when compared to more recent competing models. (A new model is scheduled for release in 2014.)
The interior has a good quality, solid feel and I felt very welcome in a driver’s seat surrounded by all the electronic gadgets you do not expect finding in a car in its price class. Satnav, electric seats, front and rear park distance control, reverse camera, bluetooth and a USB interface, to name only a few, are very expensive options when looking at similar offerings from other manufacturers. These are all included at no extra cost. Something that did bug me was the lack of interior trim options. With only wood and piano black to choose from I felt let down as I am certainly not old enough for wooden trim, and I have a personal vendetta against the use of piano black. The glossy surface of Piano black, as used by so many manufacturers, scratch very easily and fine scratches were already evident in this demonstration model I was about to drive.
My disappointment did not end there. Except for a very impressive gauge sweep and the instrument cluster lighting up as I started the car, I did not experience the thrill one would expect from the 3.5 litre 233kW V6 under the bonnet. After putting the gearbox in drive and disengaging the parking brake, an oddly located pedal in the footwell, we were off to experience the 5.6 second beast.
First impressions were great. Minimal cabin noise and smooth gear changes make sure you know this is a luxury car, but I knew this already. I was here to experience the new found power Lexus boasts about. Welcome the IS350…
The moment I put my foot down it became clear this was no ordinary Lexus. A deep growling soundtrack fills your ears, and a very satisfying surge of power propels you all the way to the red line. Gear changes were quick and precise, paired with this engine, definitely a winner. The drop of power I expected, as experienced with many turbo charged engines, never came and I was reminded why many drivers still prefer naturally aspirated engines. Something else that never came was a sense of speed. The only indicator that you are accelerating is the speed dial, and for a driver like me, chasing the adrenalin rush, this was a disappointment.
On the open road I struggled to get the cruise control working, and although the display indicated that it was engaged, the speed kept dropping. Unlike the BMW I currently drive, there were no indication of the set speed, so i had no idea whether it was recalling a previous speed setting or simply did not function correctly. I gave up. Reading the manual might help.
On our way back to the dealership a few corners demonstrated the capabilities of the IS suspension and traction control. I also took this opportunity to activate the “Extra Power” mode, adding a few more torques and sharpening up the throttle response. Even when trying to get the IS 350 to misbehave, perfect control was maintained and I never felt I was about to lose the car. Even though this makes one feel very safe and confident, I could not help wanting just a little bit of leniency or the slightest indication of skid, being kept from me by the very protective electronics. At low speed the gearbox became indecisive and revs became erratic as the car struggled to determine in which gear it should be. This might have been caused by the sharpened up throttle and a possibly unstable foot, but was alarming non the less. A lack of steering feedback made me feel distant and not sure what was happening between the rubber and tarmac.
Back at the dealership I started playing with all the gadgets, and here I was thoroughly impressed. Everything is easy to use, within arms reach and you do not need an engineering degree to figure out what all the buttons do. An excellent sound system blew me away, only to be faulted on not displaying the song title from my test-drive USB compilation while in Satnav mode.
Although in no way a perfect car, you will be hard pressed to find ANY competing brand that gives you as much for your money as the IS 350. Not only does it shine in the accessories department, the engine and gearbox will inspire you towards finding out just how quickly you can empty the petrol tank. If I had to choose a performance sports sedan priced below R500,000, this would be the one I would purchase. Personally though, the need to feel connected and involved every second of the drive still draws me back to the Germans, and while I can still afford to drive their cars, BMW will be my brand of choice.
The service I experienced from Lexus Lynnwood was top-notch. I always feel very welcome when walking in their door. Not only do they employ friendly staff, these guys know their product and all questions are answered without hesitation. I might not have been overly impressed by the IS 350, but their service is something other car dealerships can learn from.
IS 350 EX: R499,700
IS 350 SE: R548,600
What I liked about the Lexus IS 350:
Engine sound and performance
What I did not like about the Lexus IS 350:
Thin steering wheel
Lack of steering feedback
Park brake on foot
Piano black or wood interior trim options
Uninformative cruise control
Indecisive gearbox while in “Power Mode”
No song titles while in Satnav mode
Lack of rear legroom.