My buddy Josiah (yes, that is his real name) was shopping for a new car. He just got a new job, and his company car (a Dodge Charger) was a casualty of the change. Every few days at the dog park, Josiah would tell me about the luxury compact sedans he had been test driving. High on the list was the 2009 Lexus IS 350. Not a bad choice for a successful Los Angeles lawyer. The 2009 Lexus IS 350 carries a base price of $36,605 ($45,060 as tested) with EPA fuel economy estimates of 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
First Glance: Time for a second opinion?
Josiah’s dog Rutherford is a tennis ball fiend. You have to keep him running to wear him out, so Josiah and I have plenty of time to talk cars at the dog park while we take turns with the ChuckIt. When Josiah mentioned that he had driven the Lexus IS, I flashed back to the first generation (1999–2005) of the sedan. I really enjoyed driving that car, but its styling was very generic, and very, well, Toyota. I looked up the review that Aaron Gold, our esteemed Cars Guide, wrote of the current (second) generation, and I was a little discouraged about its prospects as Josiah's next ride. In his review, titled "The Thrill Is Gone," Aaron said "Buyers to whom sport is more important than luxury...should look elsewhere."
When I pointed Aaron’s review out to Josiah, he told me that he loved the way the new IS looked. "Check out those front fenders (link goes to photo). It’s got that long hood and that low roof – I think it looks really hot." I had to admit, the 2009 IS is sexier than the '05 ever hoped to be. Lexus’s corporate grille graces the front of the car, with slightly feral headlamps cut into each corner. Standard 17" wheels or optional 18s fill the sculpted fender wells. The roof swoops down to meet the short trunk lid, giving the IS a teardrop shape.
Every detail is Lexus-fine, that is to say, great fit and finish. Smooth chrome, deep, glossy paint, and even, tight seams and gaps. There’s a good reason why Lexus has risen to challenge the leaders in luxury in such a relatively brief time on the market. I decided to get my hands on an IS and check it out for myself.
In the Driver’s Seat: Size matters
My test vehicle turned out to be a 2009 Lexus IS 350. Based on Aaron's review, I already knew that I’d be disappointed in the performance of the smaller-engined IS 250, so I was pretty happy to get the 350 instead.
Cramming myself into the IS 350's driver's seat was a bit of a chore. Josiah's in great shape. He goes to the gym every morning, and I'm talking like 5 am every morning. He’s not all that tall, though – I’d guess 5'8" or 5'9". I’m in terrible shape, but I'm 6'2". So, the IS that fit limber, average-sized Josiah just fine made me feel like an economy airline passenger. The high shoulder line that looks so hot on the outside trapped my left arm when I was seated inside, and it was hard to find a comfortable resting position. After spending a lot of time sitting upright in SUVs (I’m About.com’s Guide to SUVs), the legs-out-front seating position in the IS took a little readjustment time. The IS's roomy footbox made this somewhat easier, though.
The IS's dash assaults the senses with high tech wonder. My test vehicle was equipped with a $3,990 package of options that included DVD-based navigation and a Mark Levinson sound system, which is really one of the best car audio systems I've ever heard. I made a point of bringing some favorite new music on CD with me wherever I drove, just so I could revel in the sound. Still, four grand is a lot of lettuce for a car stereo and GPS.
On the Road: Enjoying the power and the silence
As I threw the ball to Rutherford, Josiah dropped the bomb that he was leaning toward the IS 250 rather than the 350. He kept telling me that he didn’t care that much about performance; he valued fuel-efficiency and smooth driving more. I guess I’m not a very good listener, or maybe I was just trying to preserve our friendship by ignoring him. The IS 250 comes with a 2.5 liter V6 that produces 204 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque, and it’s good for 21 mpg city/29 highway, according to the EPA. Its base price is about $4,000 lower than the IS 350, as well. IS 350 gets a 3.5 liter V6 that cranks out 306 hp and 277 lb-ft – what’s that, like a 50% increase or something? Why would you want that?
In practice, the power sometimes overwhelms the IS 350, especially if you find yourself on particularly technical curvy roads. With rear-wheel drive and 306 hp, it's easy to induce a bit of oversteer – that is, sliding out the rear end on a curve. Very assertive traction control intervenes to keep things from getting hairy (or too much fun). The IS 350 is much happier on straightaways, where all that power just keeps coming on, and passing slower traffic is as easy as thinking about it. The IS 250 can be ordered up with all-wheel drive starting at $34,785, which would certainly improve on the IS 350's behavior in the twisties. Too bad you can’t get all-wheel drive on the 350.
The IS definitely has that legendary Lexus quiet. I found myself turning off the tunes, rolling up the windows and driving in silence through the city sometimes. Very Zen, very serene, a cocoon in the urban jungle.
Journey’s End: All's well that ends well
I ran into Josiah the other day. My dog Truman, a standard poodle, was acting up, harassing some poor pit bull until it was ready to bite him. Just another day at the dog park. Rutherford dropped his filthy tennis ball at my feet as I tried to understand what Josiah was telling me. "I just bought my IS." He decided to get an IS 250 after all – he really didn’t care about the extra horsepower.
Before buying, Josiah had done his homework. He drove all of the competition. He drove the iconic compact sports luxury sedan, the BMW 3-series ("Girl’s car"). He drove the Acura TL ("My dad would have liked it"). He drove my personal favorite, the Infiniti G37 ("Racer boy"). He drove the Mercedes-Benz C-class ("Feh") and the Audi A4 ("Meh"). He even drove the Saab 9-3 ("Wacky") and the Cadillac CTS ("Why did you make me drive that?").
Josiah’s very happy with his IS 250. And we’re still friends, despite his 100 hp deficit. So, I guess the moral of the story is, drive them yourself and see what you think. Either that, or I’m an incredibly tolerant friend.
Gotta go. Truman’s messing with that pit bull again. -- Jason Fogelson