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4322You remember her. She was your high school sweetheart. She was beautiful. Sexy. Drop-dead gorgeous. And she had a unique sense of style. Her penchant for chronograph watches and amber and red-on-silver illuminated jewelry were somewhat controversial and polarizing. Some people loved it. Others thought it was unbecoming of the youngest member of a rich, conservative family. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, and, by the time she was a high school senior, many freshmen tried to imitate her look. None of them, however, could pull it off with the panache that she could.

It was her looks that first captivated you, but her intellect, smoothness and class were every bit the match for her beauty. Better yet, she was reliable and trustworthy, and a very willing companion for any adventure you wished to embark on.

Alas, you both graduated and went your separate ways. Now, though, after college and grad school, she's back. She's gotten a little bigger and put on a few pounds. The unique jewelry is gone, and the halter tops and jeans have been replaced by Prada and Manolo Blahnik or whoever the designer du jour is. The look is more sophisticated and "grown-up" now, but it's still sexy and no less alluring. You can't help but wonder, however, how her personality has evolved. Is she still as much fun to be around as she was back in the day?

Most people will find such use of allegory a bit insane or "over-the-top" for describing a car, but an automotive enthusiast that has been smitten by the Lexus IS300 totally understands where this is coming from. The Lexus IS wasn't for everyone, as sales that went from one IS300 sold for every seven BMW 3-Series sold in the U.S. in the year 2000 to a 1 for every 10 ratio this year will attest. Sometimes, though, the passionate intensity of "cult" appeal will trump boring, sanitized mass appeal. Just ask the fans of bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish or the Dave Matthews Band.

Indeed, creating a sequel to the Lexus IS300 was surely a daunting task. Lexus wanted a bit more mass appeal and higher sales numbers for the new IS, and make it "fit in" more with the rest of its model lineup. With its totally unique styling cues and an interior far more redolent of sporting function than luxury, the first-generation Lexus IS (née Toyota Altezza) could well be described as "the accidental Lexus". Further, Lexus is in the unique position of having two entry-luxury sedans, one for the younger, sportier crowd (the IS) and one for an older, more conservative crowd wanting a cushy plushmobile (the ES), and squandering this advantage would be foolish. The more intense "Lexification" of the second-generation IS, however, also runs the risk of "cannibalizing" sales from the ES or, conversely, turning away potential conquest sales from folks currently driving entry-lux competitors with a sportier bent. So, has Lexus hit upon the right formula with the new IS?

IMG_7654-02.jpg The original IS300/Altezza was a beautiful aesthetic breath of fresh air on the automotive scene. My only quibble was the jarring contrast between the bright silvery surround of the round taillights and the surrounding bodywork, especially when the car was painted in a dark color. "Smoking", or darkening this silver surround on dark-colored cars neatly solved this problem. The IS250/350? It's a less "original", but no less beautiful shape. The quibbles here are Lexus' silly penchant for different "mesh" patterns in the main (upper) grille versus the bumper (lower) intake. Only now, with the vertical "fan" pattern in the top grille and a horizontal squished honeycomb in the lower grille, the contrast is even more jarring. Let's hope the aftermarket comes to our rescue on that one. The other complaint is that, absent the subtle, gorgeous side spear sculpturing of the IS300/Altezza (surely a precursor to what the L-Finesse look is all about), there appears to be too much "sheetmetal" between the top of the rear wheelwells and the bottom of the greenhouse (cabin/window area) of the IS250/350.<BR CLEAR="right">

All right, enough philosophizing. It's time to drive! The first of the new-generation Lexus IS models I stumble upon happens to be one of the two most appealing configurations for a true enthusiast: An IS250 Manual with the Performance Plus Package, among whose highlights are the same, identical drilled aluminum pedals as found in the IS300/Altezza (in fact, this is the most surefire way to tell that a given IS250/350 has this very desirable package, since otherwise, your new IS will have conventional full black rubber pedals, and the 18" wheels are available as a separate option without this package). The single main feature included in that package, though, is the sport suspension, which includes the 18" wheels and tires in conjunction with a ½" lower ride height (courtesy of shorter springs) and slightly stiffer overall shock damping. This vehicle had no sunroof and the standard (built by Pioneer) stereo, with a Breakwater Blue exterior and a Sterling (gray) smooth (non-perforated) leather interior.

Step inside, and it's a wholly different world from the IS300/Altezza. The ambiance is classier and more luxurious, putting the new E90 BMW 3-Series and Infiniti G35 interiors to shame. This applies even to IS models without the wood interior trim, such as this IS250 (and all ISs outfitted with the Performance Plus Package). In fact, other than the aluminum pedals, the cruise control stalk (redesigned on 2004-5 IS300s) is seemingly the only carryover item in the interior. Settle into the seats, and you’ll note that they feel more comfortable and “embracing”. New to the IS is a manual telescoping function for the steering wheel (a manual tilt function remains) and power lumbar support for both driver’s and passenger’s seats, both welcome extra adjustments. Even the mundane ritual of firing up the engine is totally different. Now, as long as the “key” is in the vicinity, you press the clutch and brake pedals and hit the start button. The engine purrs to life. The clutch and manual shifter action feel smooth, fluid and reassuringly familiar to anyone who has driven an IS300 Manual. If anything, the shifter throws seem a tad shorter than the longish throws on the IS300. In a curious nod to Germanic practices, however, reverse gear engagement is the diametrical opposite of the IS300: You pull up on a ring below the shifter knob and then move the lever to the left and up.

Once under way, the IS250 Manual feels (sorry to repeat myself) reassuringly familiar. The 4GR-FSE V6 feels every bit as silky smooth as the IS300’s inline 6. (How much of the smoothness is inherent to the engine versus the result of much judicious insulation, however, is something I can only speculate about). The steering also feels similarly weighted to that of the IS300, and, while quite decent for an electric power steering system, it shows no improvement in feel over its predecessor. Even the standard radio’s sound quality is comparable to the IS300’s. On the limited twisty bits of road on our route, the handling was very good and firmly planted. With all this talk of similarity to the IS300, though, the roughly 180 extra pounds of weight and 30 less lb/ft of torque of the IS250 made themselves felt. Make no mistake, the IS250 moves at a very respectable clip, but you do have to mash your foot deeper into the gas pedal than you would in the IS300.

IMG_7539-02.jpg Conversely, the extra work Lexus put into the wind tunnel fine-tuning the new IS’ shape and outside mirrors has really paid off with MUCH less wind and road noise than in the IS300/Altezza. And, for those who regret the loss of the IS300’s amber fog lights and groundbreaking “Altezza” taillights, don’t fear, Lexus hasn’t given up on lighting innovation on the new IS. Like the C-pillar area, the taillights of the IS250/350 are full of refined, faceted sculpturing that is hard to capture in photographs. And that sculpturing isn’t strictly for aesthetics’ sake. As Lexus describes it, an “air kicker” molded into the taillight lens cleans airflow around rear corners to reduce drag. Consider it Lexus’ homage to sculptor Horatio Greenough and architectural giant Louis Sullivan, the father and first major disciple, respectively, of the credo “form follows function”. Upon braking, the new IS is a beautiful combination of large and small LEDs. Also, the “light show” has been brought inside. When the car is turned on, the instrument numbers remain invisible. What you do see is the instrument needles doing a Star Warsesque light saber demonstration before the Optitron lighting comes on, showing the characters on the gauges. The speedometer and tachometer each have a glowing blue circular ring running below the numerals. This “speed indicator” and "tach indicator” can be set to change to a glowing orange warning that “kicks in” between 30-100 mph and between 2000-6500 rpm, respectively. The change from blue to orange looks really cool, and fans of Disney’s Space Mountain roller coaster will find it reminiscent of the illuminated tunnel before the coaster blasts into hyperspace.

My time in the IS250 Manual now done, I find my way to a Matador Red Performance Plus Package-equipped IS350. Unlike the IS250 I drove, this one has Cashmere (beige) perforated/vented seats, power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, sunroof and the Mark Levinson Audio System with Navigation. (As of this writing, Lexus has not firmly decided whether or not the Performance Plus Package will include the perforated/vented seats and the power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel.)

I actually approach the IS350 with a glimmer of disillusionment best summed up by two words: automatic transmission. This feeling was compounded by my first-ever extended drive of an IS300 E-shift automatic just a few days earlier. The inability to manually select first gear, the fact that changing over to the “manual” mode from drive brought up 5th gear and manual shifts (via the steering wheel buttons) that felt both harsh and slightly delayed did not make me a fan of this tranny at all. Still, I hopped in, buckled my seat belt, hit the starter button, lazily moved the gearlever into “D” and stepped on the throttle. YOWZAH! The powerful, kick-in-the-back thrust of the 306 hp engine was such a revelation! As I approached a stoplight, I decided to slide the gearlever over into the “S” gate.

IMG_7609-02.jpg In another interesting twist of IS300/Altezza to IS250/IS350 evolution, I noticed that the Ferrariesque chrome ball shifter knob of the former has given way to curved, elongated “-” and “+” paddle shifters that are dead ringers for those on Ferrari’s “F1” clutchless manual gearbox. I stare at the instruments looking for the gear indicator light. Lo and behold…do I see a 1? Yes! As the light changes to green, I take off in 1st, keeping it there until I decide to shift to 2nd, near the redline. And the shifts are noticeably smoother than those of the IS300 E-shift. Now this is what a manumatic should behave like! On a whim, I vary my driving route from the one I took in the IS250. I hop on an expressway, hoping to achieve higher speeds, but the on-ramp rush is cut short by heavy traffic. I reach over to turn on the Mark Levinson stereo. Appropriately, Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff blasts from the speakers, and even a half-deaf non-audiophile like me can hear the difference between the standard and optional audio systems. Fortunately, the next exit off the freeway includes some twisty bits. The car felt nice, taking the curves with poise and aplomb. The VDIM did not seem intrusive at all, although a drive on a twistier, emptier mountain road such as Tennessee and North Carolina’s legendary “Tail of the Dragon” would surely be a more rigorous test for this all-inclusive electronic system.

In the end, the drive in the IS350 left me speechless (notwithstanding the lengthiness of this article). This car has made me, an avowed manual-transmission lover and automatic-transmission hater, rethink my perceptions. Sure, an IS350 Manual would be even better, but this IS350, automatic and all, is quite awe-inspiring!

Going back to that allegory at the top of our story, how did the post-grad-school reunion with the high school sweetheart go? Amazingly well, it seems. The flame was definitely rekindled. It was an unexpected pleasure to find such raciness under a more demure exterior. We definitely want to spend more time together. And she looks so good wearing Breakwater Blue…

Photographs by Tony Schreiber
 

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My gosh...this is such an awesome article. You sure know how to write, jruhi4!:approve:

So the tilt/telescoping steering wheel column is manual for Performance Luxury Plus Package? It should be powered according to the specs that flipside909 posted. I guess either those specs were preliminary or your test car was a prototype, like you said regarding the ventilated seats.

All in all, your review totally rocks!! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with us. It's making me even more looking forward to test driving one myself. :)
 

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Nice article. Thanks for your impressions.
 

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Joaquin,
Great article, found your true calling?
 

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Deus Vult
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Sweet. I'd probably go for a loaded IS350, but Lexus really needs to offer a manual for it.
 

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Discussion Starter #14
Joaquin you've been reading too much Graham Whyte on New Car Net
I swear I'd never heard of Graham Whyte or New Car Net until now that you're mentioning them! Just read the intro to his Cadillac CTS 3.6 review, however, and I do like his style. Thanks for turning me on to another cool source of automotive info and writing! I.O.U. rep for that one as well.
 
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"The unique jewelry is gone, and the halter tops and jeans have been replaced by Prada and Manolo Blahnik or whoever the designer du jour is."


I still love the halter top and jeans, I like it simple.

Nice article.
 

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I have been patiently waiting on this writeup for over a week...and it is worth every second of the 8 minutes or so I spent reading it.

<P>Very incisive, yet descriptive comments , Joaquin! I could not have said it any better myself ... well, maybe :p !!!!!

<P>The 350 seems like the car to go with, and since I am already in a slushbox, the "upgrade" to paddle shifters that actually start in 1st gear seems a feasible option.

<P>On a slight tangent, given the obvious performance comparos to the M3, how would this car hold up against one? I'm sure simple NA mods could push this puppy upto 325 hp, and that will definitely put it up there with the M3 , considering the E46 M3 is not rated at the new SAE standard.

<P>Other than the Taste Of Luxury events, where and how do we get some track time in the new IS?

<P>Is the 350 even going to be around for abuse, or will we be stuck with an AT 250 at the event?
 

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Awesome article!

Can't wait to test drive them for myself :bigSmile:
 

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wonderful article, joaquin! you had me captivated! *laughing* great job to you and tony both!!
 
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