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2011 Lexus IS 350: Sport sedan remains a work in progress

Posted by Bill Griffith  April 8, 2011 06:10 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith/Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

Sometimes, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Other times, the sum of those parts just overwhelms you.

That's the case in talking about today's test car, the 2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD sedan, a vehicle that's loaded with goodies and is an intriguing entry in the near-luxury market.

Let's start with the bullet-proof Lexus reliability. I've driven Toyota-Lexus products for nearly 15 years and more than 100,000 miles and haven't ever let a floor mat get free from its anchoring hooks and bunch up under the gas pedal. Do the scheduled maintenance on a Lexus, take action if something causes an out-of-the-ordinary vibration, and it should give you classy, comfortable, and consistent performance for a decade.

In the performance department, this model is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6, producing 306 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque. Coupled with the 6-speed automatic transmission it will take you from 0-to-60 in less than six seconds.

The all-wheel-drive system sends 70 percent of the thrust to the rear wheels, making the car feel a bit like a rear-wheel-drive sports sedan during normal driving. That split can become 50-50 under worsening conditions. We didn't have a blizzard during its stay — a rare snow-free spell this winter — but the IS 350 did fine in a heavy rainstorm and on a day of slick highways.

In the area of luxury appointments, Lexus rarely disappoints. The styling and build quality (inside and out) were outstanding. Materials (leathers, plastics, metals) were all up to anyone's contemporary standards, and despite having a full array of technological goodies, controls were intuitive, well-positioned, and attractive.

So what's not to like?

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For me, it's the price. This model lists for $41,905 (including destination). Our tester arrived at $46,327 with two major packages and several other goodies. The Luxury Plus Edition ($1,320) added heated, ventilated, and perforated-leather front seats; wood interior trim; HID lights and neat LED running lights (think Audi); illuminated sill plates (impressive at dusk); power tilt/telescoping steering wheel; driver memory seat; power rear sunshade; and rain-sensing wipers that were impressive in operation.

Add another $2,465 for a navigation system with backup camera, satellite radio, and the Lexus Enform/Destination assist. Intuitive parking assist ($500), trunk mat ($73), and a cargo net ($64) rounded out the list of add-ons.

I felt as though I would have been overpaying to buy it when I could get a similarly equipped Subaru Legacy (slightly more interior space) for two thirds the cost.

On the road, the Lexus was a Lexus. Plenty of power. Quiet. Refined suspension. Great sound system. That was great but also kind of a problem, starting with my perception that the IS 350 is supposed to be a sport sedan and doesn't quite fit into that category.

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Neither Mrs. G nor I liked the front seats. They were too short when it came to thigh support. Additionally, the front passengers' personal space felt cramped, even when not wearing bulky winter coats.

The IS 350's handling remains more luxury than sport (though there's an F Sport package version that promises a sport-tuned suspension). Nor does the IS have the overall snarl to compete with the BMW 3-Series or Infiniti G37 in the driver's car category, falling short mostly in the handling department.

Still, the styling and luxury appointments make the Lexus competitive with the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class, especially among that market segment that doesn't appreciate the German engineering approach

Lexus has "de-tuned" the 3.5-liter V-6 in the ES 350 model to run on regular gas. Given the rise in gas prices, a similar approach might have been prescient in the IS 350, which still runs on premium fuel, a product that cost us $3.75 a gallon near the University of Connecticut.

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While I wasn't crazy about the rear seat legroom, my three-year-old grandson, in his car seat, was able to stretch out his still-short legs and push on the back of Mrs. G's seat, a sure sign that full-sized folks would be pretzeled in the back.

Looking ahead, the convertible version should be a great summer cruiser, though for most sedan buyers, the ES 350 might be a slightly less expensive and equally satisfying choice.

Lexus has created a wonderful identity as a reliable, comfortable, luxury marque. If they haven't yet perfected this sports sedan, well, it's good to have an ongoing project in house.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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