Jinking through traffic somewhere above the ton, it quickly became apparent that the Lexus IS 350 wasn’t the ideal car for the job. The erstwhile sports sedan bumped and jiggled over surface imperfections like a tied-down tunermobile. It rolled through directional transitions like a luxobarge, helming with unacceptable imprecision and unwelcome lean. While the powerplant provided more than enough shove for the work at hand, the IS 350’s dynamics drew a definitive line between “doable” and “enjoyable.” If further proof were needed that I was in the wrong car at the wrong speed, the BMW M3 keeping pace provided it.
After a few polite lead exchanges, the M3 dropped the hammer and disappeared. I rejected the idea of visiting V-Max. The IS 350’s 3.5-liter V6 holsters a surprising percentage of the mighty M3’s oomph (at a fraction of the price), but it’s no Bimmer beater. More specifically, maxxing-out a 3-Series anything is like gently drifting through the tunnel of love, compared to the baby Lexus' Autobahn of Doom stunt show. What upmarket motorist needs THAT kind of excitement? Indeed, why would anyone suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous ride and handling when any number of similarly priced cars offer a more pleasurable driving experience?
It’s all about the big O: ostentation. The IS 350 may be as manic as a radio controlled Kyosho Inferno, but the Lexus badge on its nose and tail tells the world that its driver is a man of wealth and taste. Thanks to a few meticulously-engineered models and exceptional dealer service, US public opinion has elevated Lexus to level-pegging with BMW, Mercedes, Audi, et al. Meanwhile, back where the rubber meets the road, Lexus has lost the plot. Although the company continues to manufacturer some superlative wafty coddlers, the IS 350 is yet another Lexus displaying a stunning lack of brand consistency. It’s no more a luxury car than a Mustang GT.
Thankfully for sales, looks can be deceiving. The IS 350’s combination of sharply-tailored creases and sensual curves create a perfectly judged blend of accelerative intent and stately elegance; a recipe that's bound to make upmarket buyers feel good about driving a small car. The bland butt is a tad too Toyota, but the rest of the IS 350's sheetmetal projects all the restrained modernity that Chris Bangle failed to realize for BMW. Overall, Lexus’ mid-market model proves that their new house style-- “L-Finesse”-- is more than a pissed-off Pokemon in a Brioni suit. It’s a pissed-off Pokemon in a Brioni suit with a touch of Maserati thrown in.
The IS 350’s cabin certainly isn’t the swish inner sanctum you’d expect at this price point. Although you can’t fault the pliability of the soft-touch plastics or the leather’s Velveetatude, close your eyes, press a button and you’ll swear you’re sheltering inside a top-spec Avalon. The sooner Lexus replicates Audi’s haptic hit squad, the better. And while they’re at it, the Japanese designers should L-finesse some of that lustrous wood onto the main fascia; the dark grey plastic surrounding the IS 350’s instruments and gauges is about as classy as a quilted toilet roll holder. Still, you get some aluminum paddle shift wings and a dead cool “engine start” button…
That hooks you up to one of the most mental motors made. It sure doesn’t sound like much-- a Pontiac Grand Am’s pushrod powerplant whines to mind-- but the Lexus’ V6 is ready to go anytime, every time, all the God damn time. With 306 horses underfoot, and a six-speed automatic gearbox that grabs the next gear like a two-year-old coveting her sister’s Nintendo DS, going fast is simply a matter of forgetting to go slow. Drop a couple of cogs via the paddles, plant your right foot, and the IS 350 will punch through the ether at a ferocious clip, belied by a dearth of engine vibration. Not to put too fine a point on it, this dog will hunt.
But it won’t dance. The IS 350 is only slightly less hard-riding than a Skyline GT-R-- with none of the corresponding car control. Woe betides any hard-charging enthusiast who finds an expansion joint or a big old bump in a tight corner; the little Lexus will hop, skip and jump like a colt struggling to get out of a horsebox. Switch off the electronic Nanny, and it’s woe Nellie!-- oversteer oblivion courtesy of the sharpest yet least progressive brakes money can buy. By the same token, I pity the poor bastard who bought an IS 350 thinking he could cruise through an urban landscape without an overly-intimate exploration of the concrete topography.
In short, the IS 350 is a bad BMW, rather than a great Lexus. Shame. As I watched the M3 evaporate that afternoon, I wished I was driving an LS, SC or RX. I could have cranked-up the tunes, kicked back and… relaxed.