For the upwardly mobile and others looking for a sport/luxury sedan in the $30,000-45,000 range, the choice has typically been the BMW 3 Series. Competitors like the Infiniti G35 and Acura TL have attempted to dethrone the BMW, and though impressive, neither ultimately captures the allure of the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Enter the 2006 Lexus IS 350, a wild-styled, 306-horsepower sedan that sits as the best challenger to the 3 Series yet. It goes up against a redesigned 2006 3 Series that features more subdued bodywork than other recent BMWs and comes with a more powerful engine. We thought that made for a great excuse for a comparison test, and pitted the new IS 350 against a BMW 330i. Not surprisingly, the BMW overcomes a dearth of power to maintain its position atop driving’s thrill hill. But in all other respects, the redesigned Lexus proves that the 3 Series is anything but invincible.
In the world of compact sport/luxury cars, there is one nameplate that has reigned supreme for as long as many drivers can remember. It’s the BMW 3 Series, and for 2006 it’s redesigned with a fresh new look and more power. Heck, BMW has even seen fit to make the frustrating iDrive ergonomic controller an option on the new Three, which helps to make the company’s smallest sedan also its most compelling. But there’s still room for some good ol’ competition, and the best of this year’s crop of 3 Series fighters is the 2006 Lexus IS, specifically the 350 model.
To keep things even, and to make life more interesting, the highest-powered, rear-wheel-drive trims of each model were used, the BMW 330i and the Lexus IS 350, each equipped with an automatic transmission.
2006 BMW 330i
Our Bavarian competitor was a Titanium Silver Metallic 2006 BMW 330i that had a plethora of options tacked on, including that fancy paint ($475); a Cold Weather Package ($1,000) that added heated front seats, headlight washers, and a fold-down rear seat; and a Premium Package ($2,000) that added a universal garage door opener, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with an integrated compass, power folding mirrors, power lumbar, a BMW Assist and Bluetooth communications system, and leather seats. To make sure the driving was as entertaining as possible, the Sport Package ($1,600) added 18-inch alloy wheels, a sport suspension system, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and front sport seats; but we did include a Steptronic six-speed automatic transmission ($1,275) since that’s what most people actually buy. Rounding out the list of options was an active steering system ($1,250); a navigation system ($2,000); and Sirius satellite radio ($595). With a $695 destination charge thrown in, the sticker on our Bimmer towered at $47,390.
Power for the BMW 330i comes from a 3.0-liter, inline six-cylinder engine generating 255 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 220 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,750 rpm. Transmission choices include a standard six-speed manual that offers an EPA-estimated 20 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, or the optional Steptronic automatic that returns 21 and 29 mpg, respectively. Our tester with the automatic tranny ran an average of 20.6 miles per gallon.
The 330i rides on a fully independent suspension, with struts and coil springs up front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard on all 3 Series sedans. Ventilated discs measuring 330mm in front and 336mm out back work with a standard antilock system, electronic brake force distribution, and electronic brake assistance to slow things down. Though our tester came fitted with 18-inch alloys, the 330i comes stock with 17-inch alloy wheels and 225/45 run flat tires. Among the long list of standard features is a free maintenance program spanning four years or 50,000 miles, front side airbags, front and rear curtain airbags, a 13-speaker audio system with surround sound, a power sunroof, and power front seats with driver’s side memory.
2006 Lexus IS 350
When it first saw the light of day for the 2001 model year, the Lexus IS 300 marked Japan’s first legitimate attack on the BMW 3 Series. Upon its debut, the IS was available with four doors, folded and creased styling that was boxy but sleek, 215 horses from its 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, and a price tag that hovered around the $30,000 mark. As expected from a brand like Lexus, the 2001 IS 300 was a critical success, but consumers outside of the Sunbelt stayed away in droves, allowing the 3 Series to remain the king of the hill. For 2002, Lexus added the SportCross, a five-door wagon that did little to increase sales. While Lexus went to work on the next-generation version, the original IS continued on through the 2005 model year with few changes. Even the price held close to $30,000.
For 2006, Lexus creates an all-new car with a completely different design vocabulary. Sporting a long nose/snubbed tail design borrowed from the larger GS, of the 2006 Lexus IS is available as either a 250 or 350 model. We got our hands on a pre-production IS 350, one that came without a window sticker, though such examples on your dealer’s lot will start at $36,030 including a $590 destination charge. Given that pre-production cars aren’t quite up to retail detail, we have to scratch comparisons of build quality from this head-to-head showdown. Nonetheless, we can tell you that our 2006 Lexus IS 350 was pretty well pimped out. Like the BMW, our IS had a Sport package that included a fully independent sport suspension utilizing double wishbones up front and a multi-link setup out back, and 18-inch alloy wheels wearing Dunlop Sport Maxx 225/40 front and 255/40 rear summer tires. Xenon headlights lit the way, and we enjoyed the optional 300-watt, 14-speaker, six-CD Mark Levinson sound system. This lush audio equipment is bundled with a navigation system that can play DVDs when the car’s transmission is placed in “park,” and our IS 350 also had both a Bluetooth wireless communications system and a reversing camera on board. Other perks included wood trim, heated mirrors with driver’s side memory, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel with memory, rain-sensing wipers, alloy metal pedals, and leather seats that were heated up front. In total, we estimate our pre-production Lexus IS 350 would sticker for roughly $44,000.
Under the 2006 Lexus IS 350’s hood is a 3.5-liter, 24-valve, dual overhead cam V6 engine pushing 306 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 277 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. The only transmission offered is a six-speed automatic with a manual-shift sport mode. Mileage is rated by the EPA at 21 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway; we achieved an average of 19.9 mpg during our testing.
Each 2006 Lexus IS 350 sits on a fully independent suspension system using MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup in the rear. Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard. Slowing the 3,527-lb. IS 350 down, the four-wheel-disc, antilock braking system includes ventilated rotors that measure 334mm in front and 310mm in back. Electronic brake force distribution and an electronic brake assistance system chip in to stall the standard 17-inch alloy wheels wearing tires measuring 225/45 in front and 245/45 in the rear.
There are two aspects of this test that truly set the BMW and Lexus apart: Convenience and driving. As discussed in later pages, the BMW captures the crown for driving excitement, but it’s the 2006 Lexus IS 350 that takes the stress out of the daily commute. Our BMW tester was hampered by its optional iDrive system, so the Lexus’ mostly logical and intuitive controls were the clear favorite. But convenience is about more than radio controls and navigation systems. The IS pulls ahead with a larger cargo area, more interior storage capacity, and as simple as it may sound, better cupholders.
2nd Place: 2006 BMW 330i
Forget the fact that the 2006 BMW 330i has an optional split folding rear seat. Forget that the trunk is nicely lined with a grab handle in the lid and multiple tie-down points and cargo holds aplenty. Forget it all because it pales in comparison to the damned iDrive controller that comes with the optional navigation system. Some BMW owners and enthusiasts claim that if you take the time to understand this overly complex system, the benefits are real. Maybe so. But when you can get into a car like the Lexus IS 350 and navigate nearly every inch of the interior without ever cracking open the owner’s manual, yet get every bit as much functionality as you would from the BMW, it demonstrates that iDrive has been created for the sole enjoyment of masochists.
From the first twist of the BMW’s key, iDrive starts its cruel game. On the center screen is a message that requires the driver to “accept” before any further action can be taken, though there’s no obvious way of accepting. Either break out the owner’s manual, or better yet, avoid this option all together. Thankfully, the radio and climate control systems can be operated independently.
Needless to say, some buyers will opt to skip the iDrive option, but that doesn’t completely eliminate the 2006 BMW 330i’s interior issues. There are three cupholders – two of which pop out of the passenger side dash, and one small holder in the center armrest. Those dash-mounted cupholders are obviously hard to reach from the driver’s seat, and prove to be a bit intrusive for the passenger. Plus, they aren’t deep, and beverages contained there spill easily when the BMW is driven with verve. Rear seat storage is limited to a couple of seatback pockets and two cupholders that retract into the fold-down center armrest. And then there’s the radio, which totally loses reception when the rear window defroster is activated, a quirk that is sure to infuriate countless drivers on their chilly morning commutes. Last are the turn signals that have been over-engineered. One soft click of the signal stalk gets three blinks, which is great for changing lanes. But when making a turn, the stalk returns to center, an unusual and unnecessary action that is different from every other make of car on the planet. Sure, it’s a minor quibble, but when bundled with the lousy cupholders and frustrating iDrive, one that takes on weighted significance.
But it’s not all bad inside the BMW. The Bimmer has a trunk that offers a comfortable liftover height and is only one cubic foot smaller than the Lexus’s, and places power window and power door lock controls on the door panels where they’re expected to be.
1st Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
In contrast to the BMW, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 provides convenience more on par with a Swiss Army knife, as evidenced by its intuitive center touch screen, useful cupholders, and handy storage spots. The significance of this accomplishment, which continues to confound BMW engineers, was captured best by one editor’s comment: “Typical for a Lexus, cupholders are well done, and compartments are well designed. To go one further, the IS proves that yes, Gunter, you can have a driving machine and good cupholders. What a concept!” Also unlike an iDrive-equipped BMW, the Lexus features radio and climate control buttons that even a primate of moderate intelligence could master. The sound system can be manipulated using controls on the dash, menus accessed through the center touch screen, or via steering wheel-mounted buttons. Secondary controls, such as the power window and door lock switches, are intuitively planted on the door panel and dash. Adjusting the cabin temperature is a simple task with clearly marked hot and cool buttons, though drivers need to jump into the touch screen menu to increase or decrease fan speed or redirect air flow.
Elsewhere in the cabin, numerous storage compartments include a generous glovebox, a front center armrest that slides back or tilts up to reveal the contents within, and a cubby in the folding rear center armrest. At 13 cubic feet, the 2006 Lexus IS 350’s trunk is one cubic foot larger than the BMW’s, though it matches its German competitor with regard to cargo area cubbies and tie-down points. Unfortunately, that trunk sits behind a rear seat that can’t fold like the BMW’s, leaving IS 350 owners with only the limited versatility of a rear seat pass through. Another complaint focuses on the odd angle of the power switch panels on the front doors that forces the driver and passenger to bend their wrists in an uncomfortable manner.
Awkward angles and fixed rear seat aside, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 is the clear choice when it comes to convenience. However, simply excluding iDrive from the equation would aid the BMW 330i significantly, though not enough to outrank its formidable Japanese counterpart and its superior design of cupholders and interior storage – simple things that become increasingly important over the course of ownership.
Flashy or conservative. Sharp or soft edges. Wood trim or aluminum. They’re each choices in the subjective category of automotive design. In this test, competitors from Japan and Germany offered two distinct interpretations of the look that should represent the entry sport luxury sedan segment, with Japan offering a bold, exaggerated form with its Lexus IS 350 and Germany going the more traditional route with the relatively conservative BMW 330i. In the end, our editors gave a slight edge to the Lexus’s aggressive, muscular stance and look-at-me styling that was just one massive rear wing shy of being over the top. But, without that hopped-up Honda Civic add-on, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 makes a powerful statement, something that should be required of any sport luxury sedan with an as-tested sticker in the $45,000 range. The 2006 BMW 330i, on the other hand, represents with a powerful stance, but the off-the-shelf look of the taillights, for example, relegates the Bimmer to the Lexus IS 350’s shadows.
2nd Place: 2006 BMW 330i
Inside and out, the 2006 BMW 330i exudes quality. Our test car’s sport seats were upholstered in durable and soft leather, the metal accents were carefully placed throughout the cabin, a woven headliner was attached overhead, and all of the soft-touch and hard plastics are solidly affixed and own a heft that suggests everything will feel just as tight when the odometer hits 100,000 miles. The doors close with a comforting thunk, and the overall package feels more like it came off the line amidst indestructible Caterpillar front-end loaders than the precision-crafted machines with which it shares the BMW namesake. But, the 330i proves that a gathering of quality materials may not necessarily be visually stimulating.
Awash in a sea of black, both of the leather and plastic varieties, our test car’s interior was what one editor called “austere.” Indeed, aside from the driving aspect there really is nothing terribly uplifting about solid black surroundings. True as that is, the dark color was only one reason why our BMW 330i felt a touch impersonal. Many drivers desire generous use of such bits of trim, but in the absence of soft shapes, warm colors, or even a bit of offsetting wood, the result is a cabin that feels cold – especially with its real aluminum trim on the dashboard.
Similarly, the exterior design of the 2006 BMW 330i fails to raise the needle on the excitement meter, despite the least controversial tail design to hit a Bavarian Motor Works model in recent years. The body is slung low to the ground in front and hard creases run along the hood and flanks, which in total yields an aggressive appearance. That’s especially true when the 330i is outfitted with 18-inch alloys, as was our tester. Up front are streamlined headlights and a split chrome grille that creeps onto the leading edge of the hood, while the rear end features a subtle rendition of the tiered BMW tail that has been so often criticized. Where the design loses some of its luster is in the generic red and white taillight assemblies that lack the inspired styling of those on the Lexus IS 350. From the driver’s perspective, the Bimmer offers a larger greenhouse, and less obstruction from the rear pillars impedes visibility, though the rearview mirrors are on the small side and the hood looked too long to one of our editors.
1st Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
A one-eyed dog with a cataract could see the design chasm evidenced in this comparison test. If the rather sedate BMW 330i were black, the conspicuous Lexus IS 350 would most definitely be white. While it’s true that both models sit low to the ground in front and sport relatively short rear overhangs, the similarities end there. With an up-swept shape to the grille, headlights, fog lights, and the lower front air dam, the IS looks as though it just emerged victorious from a battle with a wind tunnel. Sharp ten-spoke, 18-inch alloys are placed inside flared wheel wells, which sit below a power dome hood up front and a snub rear end. Above the beltline is a greenhouse that is recessed about two inches from the body, a design element best viewed from the front or tail end. Once inside, drivers will notice that window space is small, and when coupled with the wide rear roof pillars, that puts a big dent in visibility. The large rear headrests and tapered rear side windows don’t help, either. The same can be said of the high dashboard and steeply raked windshield. Luckily, large rearview mirrors give a good glimpse of what’s going on around the car and the hood is easy to see over.
Inside, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 is more inviting than the BMW 330i. The leather seats are super soft, and as in the BMW, soft-touch and hard plastics are bolted down tight. Multiple colors add some flair to the interior, with black used on the dash cap, door sills and center console, contrasting with tan door panels, seats, lower dash panels, and headliner. Graphite circles the gauges, the instrument panel, and the top of the center console, while alloy trim is used on the door pulls and pedals. Finishing things off are chrome accents on the door handles, shifter handle, vent knobs, and start button. One editor wrote that the interior gave the 2006 Lexus IS 350 an “up and comer, long hours and happy hour” attitude, suggesting it may be the perfect ride for the upwardly mobile young professional.
Like the rear seats of these diminutive luxury sedans, scoring for overall comfort was tight between the 2006 BMW 330i and 2006 Lexus IS 350. Neither of these cars is ideal for individuals of expansive girth, but they are terrific for thrilling back road endeavors. Both provide serious front seat bolsters and tilt/telescopic steering wheels covered in leather, providing a comfortable and secure seating position for the driver and front passenger. But overall room is lacking for all five occupants, especially for those in back. Obviously, the topic of comfort is a mixed bag with these cars, varying a great deal depending on whether they are viewed from a luxury or performance perspective. However, given that this is a comparison of luxury/sport vehicles, the contender that best addresses both perspectives wins. It’s the Lexus IS 350 that offers the everyday commuter softer leather and cushioning that make the seats more comfortable, yet provides plenty of bolstering to keep bodies glued down in the twisties. The BMW does a commendable job as well, albeit with firmer seats and stiffer leather that make rush-hour captives long for the plusher IS.
2nd Place: 2006 BMW 330i
Talk about comfort and immediately thoughts turn to seats and headroom, but it really starts with opening the doors. That’s where folks climbing into the BMW will notice a substantial distance between the outer edge of the rocker panel and the edge of the seat. As a result, drivers and front seat passengers need to stretch a bit to get into the car, and exiting requires an equal amount of care, so as not to soil pant legs. Improving the situation is a tilt and telescopic steering wheel that moves well out of the way and doors that open wide. Rear seat passengers have an even tougher go of it, with wheelwell humps that extend into the edges of the seat and make entry a bit difficult. After gaining entry, rear passengers should take care not to bang their knees on the hard front seatbacks.
Once inside, the BMW’s seats prove to be worth finding. Though narrow, the front buckets feature effective bolsters on the seat bottom and power bolsters on the seatback. The seat bottom can be extended in front, contoured headrests are well-placed, and two-way power lumbar maximizes the comfort potential. Front passengers are treated to just the right amount of cushioning and support, so even over the long haul aches and pains are kept at bay. However, compared to the Lexus, the BMW’s seats are noticeably stiff. Head, shoulder, and foot room are adequate, but the shallow dash puts the windshield and A-pillars in relative close proximity, and with the narrow seats makes the ride up front feel a bit tight.
Rear seat passengers are not treated quite as well as those up front, though the backrest is nicely positioned for support and both the door panel and fold-down center armrest are padded. Still, those hard front seatbacks can be rough on the knees, the wheelwell humps are intrusive and eat up valuable space, and the overall feeling is tight.
1st Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
One of Lexus’ strengths has always been interior comfort, and the 2006 IS 350 isn’t about to change that – for the front seat occupants, anyway. The leather upholstery feels soft yet durable and cushioning is ample. An optional power tilt and telescoping, thickly padded steering wheel moves out of the way for easy entry, though like the BMW, there’s a substantial rocker panel to cross. Also like the BMW, the front seats are fairly narrow and may not be the best choice for larger individuals. Seatback bolsters are meaty and do an excellent job of keeping occupants pinned in place. Rear seat passengers get four fewer inches of leg room and three fewer inches of shoulder room as they do in the BMW, making the Lexus punishing for passengers. However, there’s an abundance of cushioning, so while it’s tight back there, the seats are more comfortable than the relatively flat bench in the BMW. Clearly, the best place to be in a 2006 Lexus IS 350 is in the driver’s seat or riding shotgun..
That sounds like a lot of negative talk for the more comfortable car in this test. Indeed, it is. But sport sedans are not purchased for generous rear seat room or copious dimensions. buy a Lexus LS 430 if that’s your bag. Cars like the Lexus IS 350 and BMW 330i must balance the need for comfort with the desire for g-forces support, and that’s where the IS pulls ahead. Both cars deliver confining interiors, but it’s the Lexus that offers the proper blend of soft, supple leather over plenty of padding with excellent side bolstering. The leather steering wheel with power tilt and telescoping functions and the sliding center armrest are icing on the cake. With its relatively stiffly bolstered seats, the BMW is perfect for aggressive canyon carving, but city drivers long for more forgiving chairs. Like those in the 2006 Lexus IS 350.
Convenience. Design. Comfort. The 2006 Lexus IS 350 wins each of these categories. Could the previously infallible BMW 3 Series actually suffer a shutout? Maybe, but not here. That’s because the last category for judging, the driving experience, goes to the 2006 BMW 330i, though the final tally was surprisingly close. The BMW offers better steering. The Lexus offers lots more horsepower. The BMW offers better handling. The Lexus offers paddle shifters. The BMW offers the much less intrusive Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system. The Lexus offers, well, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), a system that steals from Fun to pay Safety. The result is a Lexus that cuts power too early, triggers flashy warning lights, and diminishes your role in making driving decisions. With DSC, the BMW 330i gets drivers through hair-raising corners with equal security, though it does so while providing more throttle, braking, and steering control. That’s a serious issue for enthusiasts, and when coupled with the BMW’s superior handling, it pushes the 330i over the finish line first.
2nd Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
Sometimes it’s about more than horsepower. Blasphemy. Crazy talk. Whatever – it’s true, and a comparison test between a 2006 BMW 330i and a 2006 Lexus IS 350 is the only proof needed. The redesigned IS comes to play with 306 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque, numbers that trounce the BMW’s 255 ponies and 220 lb.-ft. of twist. And, let there be no doubt about the effectiveness of the Lexus’ abundant power, as there’s bountiful low-end torque and gobs of passing power for those Autobahn runs. A six-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters transmits the 3.5-liter V6’s output to the rear wheels. There’s also a manual mode using the shift knob on the center console. On paper, the Lexus seems the clear choice. But what a car promises on paper and delivers on the street can be quite different.
With more than 300 horsepower, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 feels downright potent, but it’s the engine’s supporting cast of characters that steal some of the car’s thunder. Our editors were mixed on the performance of the automatic transmission, with some praising the shift paddles while others complained about the system’s delayed shifts and the chintzy feel of the actual paddles. In routine city driving and when simply clicked into “drive,” the Lexus moves effortlessly through traffic, offering seamless gear changes and minimal wind and tire noise. However, push the sport mode button on the dash behind the steering wheel, and the transmission focuses more on quick power delivery at the expense of those silky shifts. At times, the sport mode can make the throttle feel jerky, as if the transmission can’t quite find the right gear.
Charged with reigning in the IS’s power is a braking system that is impressive overall, though is not without its quirks. Comments on the brakes included “driver feel is sacrificed and, with the slew of VDIM systems hooked to braking, there’s a definite disconnect” to “sometimes a little hard to modulate near full braking.” The brakes are effective and are generally well-modulated, but with all of the technology working behind the scenes there are scenarios, such as sudden stops, where the binders’ efficacy may surprise you. After a long run down a twisty mountain road those brakes lost a bit of their grip and started to fade. The BMW handled the same run with no noticeable fade.
Lots of power and effective brakes are great, but if you’re like us, you want to know how this sports sedan handles on challenging back roads. Simply put, the 2006 Lexus IS 350 is a hoot when pushed…just not as much as the BMW 330i. But, ooohh, it’s close. Under aggressive driving conditions the body remains balanced, exhibiting little body roll and neutral cornering. The beefy 18-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx tires grip well, but screech under duress, and the steering does an excellent job of absorbing bumps, even in the middle of corners. Steering is nicely weighted and responsive with no dead spots, and the engine’s power delivery is linear, except for when the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system kicks in.
VDIM controls the stability control, traction control, antilock brakes, and various braking components, making it worthy of kudos for safety but it gets big time demerits for pulling the fun rug out from under the IS’s driver. Beneficial as it may be, all of that VDIM technology robs the driver of power in hard corners, as beeps sound and warning symbols illuminate the dash to indicate that handling limits are being approached. As VDIM takes charge by adding some brake pressure here and lessening a smidge of throttle there, a driver can be left dead in the water when exiting a corner as the IS’s computer catches up. Picture coming out of a turn, knowing that a maniac in a BMW 330i is barreling along right behind you, only to find that a solid plant of the throttle as you pass the apex of a corner does nothing. That’s VDIM at its finest, much like systems offered by countless other manufacturers. However, BMW lets drivers dance a little closer to the edge of safety before taking over, an important factor appreciated by driving enthusiasts.
1st Place: 2006 BMW 330i
For such a conservative looking car, the 2006 BMW 330i packs a helluva lot of fun. Some may guess that the high grin quotient is due to the BMW’s tight steering, unrelenting power delivery, infallible brakes, relatively unobtrusive stability and traction control systems, smooth gearbox action, or unflappable suspension. And they’d be right. It’s true that the 330i rides a bit stiffer than the Lexus and provides an interior that is several degrees shy of lukewarm, but that is all forgotten when traffic subsides and the twisty roads ahead start calling. Excessive speeds come quick and easy, though drivers of the IS 350 will notice better throttle response at takeoff. Transmission shifts are smooth, smoother in fact than the Lexus when switched into sport mode. Keep the throttle planted, and the 330i pulls hard to redline, remaining composed as the needle spins across the tachometer. Impressive, but not any more so than the Lexus. In the corners is where the BMW is most alluring and shows its mettle against the IS 350. It’s in the hairpins and blind, decreasing radius turns where the driver can fully appreciate tremendous grip, steering that is as precise as it is responsive, brakes that provide excellent feedback, and vehicle control systems that keep the car on the right side of the double yellow while still allowing the driver to hammer the throttle when necessary. The Lexus IS 350 looks fast and has lots more power, but it’s the 2006 BMW 330i that glides through the hairiest of twisties like water through a straw.
Those corkscrew back roads are great fun, but in reality most drivers will find themselves creeping along in workday traffic. The BMW 330i is fine for that, too, thanks to an active steering system that decreases the rotation of the steering wheel at slow speeds. A good example is a tight turn in a cul-de-sac – instead of twisting the steering wheel two or three turns lock-to-lock, active steering allows the front tires to be turned to full lock by rotating the steering wheel only half a turn. The system also makes quick and easy work of parallel parking. Road feel through the steering wheel is more pronounced in the BMW. Drivers who don’t like to know about every bump in the road may be better off with the Lexus.
After seven days and hundreds of miles of driving along busy city streets, crowded highways, and gnarly mountain roads, it’s the 2006 Lexus IS 350 that comes out victorious against the heralded 2006 BMW 330i. Though the BMW shined in the driving category, the Lexus edged out its German competitor in all other respects, from seat comfort to exterior design.
2nd Place: 2006 BMW 330i
“Buy it if you love to drive. Period.” This quote from one of our editors pretty much sums up the staff consensus about the 2006 BMW 330i. There is simply no disputing that the 330i is an engaging ride, one that makes the casual commute fun and the twisty back road thrilling. If this was a comparison based solely on the sport aspect of sport/luxury, the BMW would be our winner. However, when luxury is considered, the BMW’s relative lack of interior comfort, stiff leather, and questionable ergonomics relegate the 2006 BMW 330i to second place.
1st Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
Some buyers will inevitably choose the 2006 Lexus IS 350 just because they think it looks cool, which it does. Others will appreciate the IS’s abundant power, edgy styling, comfortable and useful interior, and impressive handling, viewing the Lexus as the best alternative to the BMW 3 Series. And if driving dynamics aren’t high on your list, the Lexus is, prepare yourself, a better choice. Such a bold statement may seem ridiculous, but one need only consider the relative strengths of the Lexus to appreciate its merit. The IS offers a more inviting interior with its plush materials, abundant usable storage, and superior ergonomics, which are all extremely important factors for car buyers who spend the majority of their time commuting, as most drivers do.
Plus, like we said, it looks cool.
|BMW 330i||Lexus IS 350|
|Base Price||$37,295 (includes $695 destination charge)||$36,030 (includes $590 destination charge)|
|Horsepower||255 at 6,600 rpm||306 at 6,400 rpm|
|Torque||220 lb.-ft. at 2,750 rpm||277 at 4,800 rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed automatic||Six-speed automatic|
|EPA MPG (city/highway)||20/30 mpg||21/28 mpg|
|Observed MPG||20.6 mpg||19.9 mpg|
|Legroom (f/r – in.)||41.5/34.6||43.9/30.6|
|Headroom (f/r – in.)||37.4/37.1||39.0/36.9|
|Shoulder room (f/r – in.)||55.4/55.1||54.4/52.7|
|Cargo Volume||12 cubic feet||13 cubic feet|
|Curb Weight||3,450 lbs.||3,527 lbs.|
|Basic Warranty (months/miles)||48/50,000||48/50,000|
|Powertrain Warranty (months/miles)||48/50,000||72/70,000|
|Corrosion Warranty (months/miles)||144/unlimited||72/unlimited|
Opinion - Blackett
Tie – 2006 BMW 330i and 2006 Lexus IS 350
Coffee or tea? Sometimes that can be a hard choice. Both are beverages served hot or cold, caffeinated or decaffeinated, with or without additions like cream. They’re the same, but different, much like the 2006 BMW 330i and the 2006 Lexus IS 350.
Each is considered a sport/luxury sedan, and both offer similar features packaged within similar dimensions and are offered at similar prices, though each is bundled in a uniquely designed wrapper. That’s the part that is, for the most part, the same. However, get inside to discover two completely different approaches to interior design, separate takes on seat design and comfort, and in the case of our iDrive-equipped BMW, an example of when good technology goes bad. With so much being different on these similar cars, the question for the buyer becomes what do you want versus which do you want?
For the driver who gets excited about the act of driving, the BMW 330i offers a powertrain and handling setup that simply outmatches the Lexus IS 350. Granted, the Lexus has more power, but that overzealous VDIM puts a serious damper on the fun factor and all but negates any advantage afforded by the higher horsepower and torque ratings. Also, the BMW offers understated luxury – people who know cars will recognize the freshened 3 Series, and those who don’t will likely appreciate the BMW badge. Conservative it may be, but when you’ve built respect over the long run the way the 3 Series has, there’s no need for eye-popping design. That’s the BMW 330i in a nutshell – a car that offers a helluva ride yet can blend in to a certain extent. Don’t come looking here for the most comfortable ride and soft suspension – there’s good reason for a BMW being called the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Poised at the opposite end of the spectrum is the 2006 Lexus IS 350. In contrast to the BMW 330i, the IS 350 offers exaggerated interior and exterior design cues, soft and luxurious leather and wood interior appointments, and large paddle shifters on the steering wheel. The ride is just as stiff as the BMW’s, but better seat padding makes the IS 350 easier on the ol’ keister. Overall, the Lexus offers a sense of luxury and warmth not found in the BMW, though it comes in a less athletic package.
In the end, I couldn’t say that one was better than the other as a whole. Both are fantastic cars that appeal to different tastes and satisfy different senses, making them the same…but different. -- Thom Blackett
Opinion - Chee
First Place: 2006 Lexus IS 350
The 2006 BMW 330i is the second place car in a two-car race because, well, BMW engineers still haven’t figured out how to design a decent cupholder.
Yes, you can build the world’s ultimate driving machine, even improve on it, but in this country people like to drink and drive – lattes and water and such – and they also like having interiors designed for busy lives as well as twisty corners. And while it’s amazing to give this car the runner’s up pin when you consider the driving joy that comes with this newest rendition of BMW’s bread and butter car, the 3 Series, it’s especially amazing when you consider the car that knocks the BMW down a peg: the Lexus IS 350, straight from the “import Buick” division of Toyota, though Lexus hasn’t heard that little rhubarb in quite some time. The facts is the facts, though, and if this test were labeled “The Most Fun Car to Drive Up a Hill Comparison,” the BMW would win, and fairly easily. Sadly, most of us aren’t forced to drive a twisty mountain road every day, and the stark reality of life is that the way home is a left at the onramp, bub, and then a long straight line. BMW sells cars on the dream that one day, maybe, if you happen to go up to the mountains, you’ll experience a Real Machine.
But then you won’t have the nerve.
And your wife will nark you out as a fraud, the trip ruined and your mood cast into a deep funk. Alas for German aficionados, ours is a test on the best car, top to bottom, twisty corner fun to sticker price value and interior comfort. Taken as a whole, things such as cupholders matter greatly because they are indicative of simplicity of function – of designing a car to be used, as well as driven. In each area where this factor comes to play, the BMW falls short. Yes, it is a marvelous machine. No, it’s not the best luxury sports sedan, dollar for dollar, available. Blame it on the cupholders, blame it on iDrive, blame it on an uninspiring exterior design that borders on boredom. Better yet, blame it on the folks at BMW who still haven’t figured out the magic of holding a liquid receptacle and have stubbornly refused to give in on the iDrive argument.
But still -- come on. To drive the BMW 330i is to drive through cream, come out on the other side and punch someone in the mouth. Gripping the steering wheel is like taking hold of a real sport wheel, nice and thick, the input coming through being exactly what you expect -- plenty of road -- on which the BMW is incredibly stable. The steering is that good, the power band that superb. Guaranteed, just a few minutes behind the wheel on a mountain road will plaster a goofy smile on your face. Darting in and out of corners is smooth, and going fast in a straight line is the ultimate feeling of empowerment. What few negatives there are usually come out in contrast with the Lexus IS 350, in terms of transmission and horsepower. Low-end torque is not as much of a party, either, but the bottom line is that driving the thing is darn near a perfect experience. There is no squat, no roll, oversteer and understeer is virtually eliminated, and tires grip the road like industrial grade Polydent. You can’t really feel the Dynamic Stability Control system (DSC) kick in, unlike the Lexus – which is not only intrusive but also tells you so with a lovely ding, ding, ding….
That’s a bright idea when it comes to safety. But not so much when it comes to enthusiasm, unless you like the idea of subtle yet sudden loss of power or a boost in braking as the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) kicks in, slaps you on the wrist and tells you to behave. Aggressive driving brings out some moans and groans from the tires, and a very small tendency to oversteer. That’s all fine and dandy, however, when you have a powertrain like the one that sits inside the Lexus IS. An astonishing 306 horsepower matched up with 277 lb.-ft. of torque says it all: the Lexus is a faster cat, and more fun to drive when the driving doesn’t include hairpin corners -- or anything that triggers that darn VDIM. The engine is mated with a silky transmission slightly better than the 2006 BMW 330i, with paddle shifters that add a bit of enthusiast credibility to the cockpit – and are quite fun to use, more so than the stick employed in the BMW. That’s boring, frankly, as is the rest of the BMW’s interior. Comfortable, yes – with nice sturdy leather. And well built, with good materials and proper execution. Gaps are tight, seats are comfortable and well bolstered, and plastics are well machined. There is, however, a preponderance of dark colors and chrome throughout, with not much flair or style tossed in. Add to that the non-practical cup holder that shoots out of the dash on the passenger side, mocking you and your large latte cup. There should be a sticker on the passenger side, in fact: Warning – Passengers May Get Scalded.
There’s little chance of that in the Lexus. Cupholders are deep and perfectly placed; leather seats are softer than inside the BMW and there’s more style – from wood grain trim to the grained plastics, warm interior colors and woven headliner. Overall, the Lexus offered a more inviting and comfortable experience, no matter what you do or where you drive. Front seats were more comfortable, visibility in back was better, and controls are simple to use.
Check that out: simple to use.
I have maintained that while a seriously flawed and confusing system, iDrive is okay once you put the time into learning how to use it. The theory goes that if you’re willing to plunk down extra cash for a luxury car, you ought to be willing to learn a thing a two about how to operate the thing. I take it back. The system stinks, and while maybe you can make that argument for the 7 Series – real luxury buyers pay for innovation, and are willing to take the chance – lower market luxury cars don’t need iDrive, should not have it and should never get it. What could be a decent driver’s interior is ruined by this ill-advised system, along with BMW’s aforementioned inability to grasp the concept of cupholders. It all adds up to convenience for drivers, and a choice one must make: do you buy the car that does virtually everything really good, or the car that does one thing really, really, good?
My answer – the Lexus IS 350. From interior design to exterior style and practically perfect performance, it’s the car you’ll never regret buying.
Opinion - Wardlaw
BMW, but just barely.
Lexus has been chasing the BMW 3 Series since it introduced the first IS 300 for 2001. That car, with its inline six and automatic, drove like a decade-old German sport sedan, almost raw in its responses, a delight to run hard, but distinctly lacking in luxury what with its hard plastic surfaces and stiff seats. A manual transmission came along for 2002, and a cool wagon model surfaced, too. But aside from in SoCal, the IS didn’t sell well, Lexus able to move a fraction of what BMW sold of the 3 Series.
Credited with starting the sport sedan movement and creating the concept of entry-luxury, the 3 Series has served as the benchmark since 1977, morphing over the years into a sedan, a convertible, a wagon, and a high-performance M version. The 1999-2005 model clearly led the pack in almost every way. Stylish, fun-to-drive, and comfortable, the 3 Series holds universal appeal regardless of gender, age, or socioeconomic status.
Each of these cars is completely redesigned for 2006. I didn’t flog them hard, sticking to my normal commute between Orange County and Long Beach. And while most people will think that the new 3 Series and IS are closer to one another than ever, I’d suggest that they have actually gotten farther apart.
The BMW is still the pure driver’s car. The moment you start the silky inline six, select a gear, and take off down the road the 3 Series comes alive under your feet, seat, and fingertips. I love the BMW’s Active Steering, which makes low speed maneuvering and parking a snap. And the driving position is perfect. BMW’s dedication to providing a proper driving environment, then, makes iDrive that much more quizzical. I don’t care how much time the BMW public relations team spends trying to sell me on this system’s benefits: Six actions just to thread my way to the radio station pre-sets is unacceptable. And I never did figure out how to get a map-view of my location. Plus, what is with the turn signal stalk that returns to center? Three times in less than 50 miles I wound up signaling a turn rather than a lane-change. Finally, the F1-style manual Steptronic shifter is counterintuitive. Yes, I know it’s set up like a racing car. Last time I checked, though, nobody in a 3 Series is downshifting under such severe deceleration force that the driver is thrust against the seatbelts or accelerating so hard that the driver is pinned to the seat, which means that pushing up to get a downshift and pulling back to get an upshift doesn’t make any sense.
As a daily driver, the Lexus is the better car. Want to choose a radio station? Push the “Audio” button and select your station on the touch-screen. Care to see your location on a map? Push the “Map” button and a beautiful high-resolution image appears, with simple zoom-in and zoom-out touch-screen controls. Perfection. And since touch-screens aren’t an industry trade secret, the Germans have no excuses. Better still is the fact that all controls are clearly labeled, located in logical positions, and operate with seamless fluidity. Lexus has even cribbed the handy twist-knob sunroof control from Audi and VW. And comfort, for front passengers anyway, is exceptional, with smooth supple leather and softly padded yet supportive seating. Just don’t try to get into the rear seat with your legs still attached.
Remember how I said the first IS 300 was raw in its responses, driving like a decade-old German sedan before Audi, BMW and Mercedes started loading them up with electronics? For 2006, that pure driving experience is gone, replaced with a bunch of techno-gimcrackery that I cannot appreciate. The brakes and steering are clearly inferior to the 3 Series, the former lacking feel and difficult to modulate, the latter a bit numb on center and lacking linearity off. During the morning rush, I jammed on the brakes when some punk in a tan Altima, who was playing tag with a buddy driving a black S-10, suddenly cut into my lane, and the Brake Assist system hauled me down to nearly a dead stop, feeding in more brake power than was necessary and causing the speeding moron in the black S-10 to whiz by on the right shoulder to avoid crashing into the back of the Lexus. Frankly, I don’t want some engineer in Japan determining what my requirements might be in that situation. Instead, just give me good brakes and call it a day.
OK, so the BMW is more fun to drive and has more space in the back seat, the Lexus is more comfortable, luxurious, and is easier to use. On styling, I’ll call it a draw. Each is artful, neither is particularly attractive. I’m certain BMW and Lexus don’t want to hear this, but after having a chance to take a longer test drive than any consumer might, I think I’d ditch ‘em both for a clean, low-mileage, certified-used 2005 330i or 2005 IS 300. For me, the deal breaker is the unnecessary technology. But if I had to choose between one or the other, I’d take the Bimmer and leave the navigation system, and its stupid iDrive system, off the order sheet. – Christian Wardlaw
Photos courtesy of Ron Perry