NAPA VALLEY, Calif. – Life is all about the type of fun you prefer. For some, a cherry-red 2005 Lexus IS is where they need to be: bright-eyed good times, attitude in the translation of a single strong and compelling statement: Old man, I am filling up your rearview mirror.
Ah. Such youthful exuberance. The indisputable fact is that the 2005 Lexus IS was -- and is -- the perfect automotive symbol for the intelligence, optimism and energy of young men and women whose horizons are defined only by the breadth of their dreams. For those dreamers, Lexus presents the 2006 Lexus IS, with three trims from which to choose, one being an all-wheel-drive variant. With more power, thanks to a 3.5-liter V6 offered in the IS 350, to a stellar transmission – whether you choose auto or stick -- and safety features that include Toyota’s noteworthy Pre Collision System (PCS) and Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system. Put it together and it makes for a more mature vehicle. And smarter, too, thanks to technology that will save your life, make it easier to hear your favorite song and even allow you have more fun on the road. The evolution of the luxury brand’s entry-level car matches the growth of its buyers, as they move from show-me-the-money whoop it up fun to a more refined and mature symbol of the definition. The latter is, ultimately, one that is more fulfilling, and what we all increasingly expect from Lexus: a suave, fun to drive car equipped with the latest in terms of serious safety and performance technology.
In addition to being all new, the 2006 Lexus IS also offers three trims from which to choose. There’s the base IS 250, the cold climes IS 250 AWD and the top dog IS 350, which is powered by a 3.5-liter, V6 engine – a variation of the 3.0-liter engine that resides in the uptown GS 300. That 3.5-liter V6 manages a nice 306 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, and though the IS 250’s 2.5-liter V6 is also a fine engine, at 204 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, you may well want the extra oomph on the straight-aways. Getting friendly with those engines are two transmission choices: a manual six, available on the Lexus IS 250, and a six-speed automatic with steering wheel paddles, optional on the IS 250 and standard on the IS 250 all-wheel-drive and IS 350.
Pricing will be available later this summer, and the car goes on sale in October. You can bet, though, that the new Lexus IS will come in around its erstwhile competitor – the BMW 3 Series, with a base model available for those not quite ready for luxury prime time. All models come with an array of features designed to make your ride safe, smooth and sublime.
As with most luxury cars, features such as power doors and windows are standard on the 2006 Lexus IS. Other standard features on all models include SmartAccess keyless entry and engine start – the button you see on all the Lexus commercials – a six-disc in-dash CD changer, driver and passengerair bags all around, including knee bags for the front passengers. There’s also a 13-speaker audio system, and dual-zone climate control. Other standard features include steering wheel paddle shifters and low-profile 17-inch front and rear tires.
Standard safety equipment includes traction control (TRAC), antilock brakes (ABS), Brake Assist (BA), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Daytime Running Lights (DRL). There’s also a standard tire pressure monitor system on all IS models. Options seem to be where it’s at when you think IS, and according to Lexus this was done with the intent to have an attainable model – the IS 250 -- for the average 29-something crowd who made the IS popular. They’re betting that if they can keep the price within reach, they may be able make these young people fall in love with the new IS – don’t bet against it, though truth be told the new IS has lost some of its Wonderdog charm.
I suppose you have to grow up sometime. What makes the IS grow up quick is the option list, which includes an Adaptive Front headlamp System (AFS), High Intensity Discharge headlamps (HID), Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) – a plus, as laser-powered cruise controls are less accurate because of road conditions and weather. Also available are heated and ventilated front seats, a power tilt and telescopic steering wheel and the requisite Mark Levinson 14-speaker sound system.
The options list also includes many of Toyota’s most advanced safety innovations, such as a Pre-Collision System (PCS), which assists occupants before a possible accident by applying more power to the brakes and tightening the seatbelts. Another available feature, on the IS 350, is Toyota’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, the latest bit of safety wizardry that helps keep you on the road. Unlike the VDIM system on the GS, which is a bit intrusive, the VDIM on the IS is a nicely tuned gatekeeper for the car’s performance.
Nuts & Bolts
Powering the 2006 Lexus IS 250 is a 2.5-liter V6 that generates 204 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, and is mated to either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddle shifters. Lexus car guys say that the engine has a new direct-to-cylinder fuel injection system that helps to keep the cylinders cool, creating greater compression and better efficiency. It’s all part of a powertrain that, when combined with the new suspension setup underneath, provides seamless power and plenty of torque. In fact, the powertrain – and dual exhaust – is so efficient at doing its job that engine noise is but a whisper inside the cabin. Same is true for the larger engine in the IS 350 – a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower at 6,400 rpm.
You can barely hear it.
Ordinarily, that would be a good thing, but one would think that a nice angry-bee engine note would be part of the experience. Worse than that, though, is this: the base rear-wheel-drive 2006 Lexus IS 250 is the only model that comes with a manual transmission, even though the real performance car of the group is the IS 350. Ah, to have a manual six-speed in that 304-horsepower luxury rocket, that would truly be a delightful adventure, so much so that it may even cause a sweat bead or two to break out on a Bimmer’s pretty little brow. Buyers of the IS 350 will have to be satisfied with a six-speed automatic transmission, with paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
There’s not much else to be disappointed about when it comes to the nuts and bolts of this car. Mostly the result of exciting new equipment and technology, the Lexus IS is a driver’s car with luxury appointments, a grown-up car that will not make you feel old on a curvy road. Like its stablemate, the Lexus GS, the IS is a rear-wheel-driver with an all-wheel-drive trim that biases engine power between 70/30 and 50/50 front to rear. In fact, you could call the IS a GS mini-me, as the two cars share engines (IS 350), suspension and brakes. That suspension is an independent setup that includes double wishbones up front and a multi-link arrangement in back. Steering is a speed-sensitive, rack-and-pinion system that provides excellent road feel. There’s really no numb-fingered feeling at all, which is a bit surprising given the electronic disco going on under the hood. Brakes are a four-channel, four-sensor ABS with large, vented discs on all four wheels. Front discs measure 11.6 inches, while the rear tapes out at 11.45. The IS 350 gets slightly larger rotors – 13-inches up front and 12-inches in back. The system is enhanced by Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD); Brake Assist (BA); Traction Control (TRC); and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC).
Based on the LF-A supercar’s edgy style, the IS is the second Lexus model to don the company’s new direction in design. More of the same from Lexus is hopefully close behind, as the look retains its sporty, edgy appeal yet adds a swooping line and a dramatic beltline. This new Lexus is much more emotive than past generations. Notably, the stance is wider and the wheelbase is longer than the previous generation IS, and the result is a more aggressive style. More significantly, the new Lexus IS looks like the finished thought that that was the previous IS design – elements such as the grille, tail lights and headlamps seem drawn through to completion, with sharper edges, larger badges and closed shapes.
Those themes are carried on throughout the cabin. Whereas the previous IS was docked points for a generally unfinished and un-Lexus-like interior, the new IS takes the next step toward finishing the thought with touchy-feely surfaces, comfortable seats and – though the test vehicles were pre-production – a level of quality you would expect from Lexus. The only possible exception here is the base IS 250: More in terms of materials and features, sitting inside the IS 250 is a different experience than lounging in the more luxurious IS 350. This seems to be done at least partially by design. Lexus officials say they are attempting to offer a new IS within financial reach of the crowd that put them on the map in the first place: 29-year-old men with just enough money to pretend to be within hailing distance of luxury.
In other words, the guys who like to go fast and impress girls with a cool, upscale nameplate. These guys don’t go for maple trim and leather, really, and are quite happy with finely crafted plastics, close-fitting gaps and soft-touch surfaces. They’ll get plenty of that in the new Lexus IS, no matter which trim they choose, along with typical Lexus simplicity when it comes to the layout of entertainment and environmental controls. Optitron gauges are standard on all IS models, as is the Lexus’ Smart Access entry with push-button start system. A telescoping steering wheel is also standard, with a power version available as an option. The standard stereo, with 194 watts of power and 13 speakers, is enough sound for most people. Just do yourself a favor: Before going with the included system, make the salesperson sit inside an IS with the Mark Levinson setup – 300 watts and 14 speakers – and turn that sucker up, way up.
You won’t be happy with the standard stereo for long.
Impressive. Few people will be able to drive the new Lexus IS and walk away unimpressed with its energy and handling ability. Those who are, well, perhaps they are too jaded or simply need to get a job that pays the wage they need to afford the car they desire. The worst transgression here is the lack of a six-speed manual transmission on the IS 350. In order to compete for the hearts and minds of the luxury sport crowd you’ve got to have a stick in your 300-horsepower beast. The paddle shifters are fun, granted – but serious drivers expect a clutch to go with the finest engine in the model lineup.
That will hurt. Also not so hot is the grunt generated from the IS 250; buyers will find themselves wishing for a little more when going fast in a straight line. Of course, Bob the Lawman lives where it matters, and if you are a consistent guest in that man’s house – perhaps a Prius is the more responsible choice, given the speeding tickets that likely litter the back seat of your car.
So there you have it – the best IS happens to be the IS 350 with the manual six-speed transmission. Go ahead and buy one today. Failing that – and you will, since it doesn’t exist – you could go with any of the actually available models and be very happy with your purchase. On the road, the IS 250 and the IS 350 provide a spirited driving experience. Steering feel is remarkable, especially given the amount of electronics going on under the hood. Brake feel is much improved over the GS, and the ever-present and looming VDIM has been “dialed” back in order to provide a more thrilling driving experience. So Lexus says – though it’s not really clear what “dialed” back means. Whether the result of changes to the system by engineers or a convergence of brake size, wheelbase, powertrain and curb weight, the IS largely escapes the velvet hammer of Toyota’s VDIM safety system.
With more freedom from VDIM’s electronic choke chain, and two great engines to choose from, the Lexus IS loves to roam – and you will love going along for the ride. Those engines, in fact, are a major reason for this vehicle’s appeal – even though the base model’s powertrain is a little light in the britches. Both the 2.5-liter, 204-horsepower V6 or the 3.5-liter, 306-horsepower V6 provide plenty of continuous power; torque is spread across a wide band for an instant boost when needed, and the 306-horsepower version will punt you fairly far back into your seat when you mash the slender pedal.
As for us, make ours the IS 350 – even over the GS – for driving spirit, steering accuracy and brake feel. Just one question: Can we special order one with a stick?
How much will the IS cost? Pricing will be announced later during the summer. For now, our guess it that it will be very competitive with the BMW 3 Series, from a base sticker price of about $30,000 to a top-trim sticker of around $38,000.
When will the IS be available? Check back in October, at a Lexus dealer near you.
Will they build a convertible IS? Don’t bet against it. Though Lexus officials are mum, they are reportedly looking at additional variants. An obvious choice would be convertible.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Lexus IS 250; IS 250 AWD; IS 350
Price Range: TBA
Engine Size and Type: 2.5-liter V6 (IS 250); 3.5-liter V6 (IS 350)
Engine Horsepower: 204 at 6,400 rpm (IS 250); 306 at 6,400 rpm (IS 350)
Engine Torque: 185 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm (IS 250); 277 lb.-ft. at 4,800 rpm (IS 350)
Transmission: Six-speed manual (std. IS 250); six-speed automatic (opt. IS 250 and std. IS 250 AWD and IS 350)
Curb Weight: 3,455 lbs. (IS 250); 3,435 lbs. (IS 250 AWD); 3,651 lbs. (IS 350)
EPA Fuel Economy: TBA
Length: 180.1 inches
Width: 70.9 inches
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Height: 56.1 inches
Legroom (front/rear): 43.9/30.6 inches
Headroom (front/rear): 39.6/36.9 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: Five
Max. Cargo Volume: 13.0 cubic feet
Competitors: Acura TL, Acura TSX, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CTS, Chrysler 300, Infiniti G35, Jaguar X-Type, Lincoln LS, Lincoln Zephyr, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan Maxima, Saab 9-3, Subaru Legacy GT, Volkswagen Passat, Volvo S40, Volvo S60
Photos courtesy of Lexus