ClubLexus First Drive: 2006 IS250 AWD & IS350
08/12/05 Irvine, CA
Prestige, Quality, Reliability, Luxury…these are just a few of the common words that are closely associated to the name "Lexus". Sleek, Powerful, Reinvented, Dual VVT-i, Direct Injection…L-Finesse…these are just some of the few terms that describe Lexus’ newest contender in the BMW 3-Series dominated segment. ClubLexus & our friends at my.IS (formerly IS300.net) got a chance to experience Lexus’ newest development.
For months we’ve been teased by the many spy photos, Southern California freeway sightings, domestic and international press releases of this new Lexus. But now ClubLexus has gotten a first hand sneak preview of the all new upcoming 2006 IS even way before its official release to U.S. dealerships in October. We were invited to preview this car before the general public gets to see it at the local Lexus dealerships. In order to get an understanding and feeling of the car, we were treated to a technical seminar and test drive through various locations and road conditions in and around scenic Orange County. Since this was a collaborative event with our friends at my.IS and since we all happen to be members of both ClubLexus & my.IS organizations, Phil (LexDymndz), Joseph (silveraltezza) represented for my.IS and I (Flipside909) all met up bright and early at the Doubletree in Irvine, CA. As we arrived we were greeted by Brad Nelson of Lexus Motorsports and Event Marketing who was responsible for orchestrating this event for us here on the West Coast. As we arrived to the hotel, we saw no sign of any New IS parked in the lot. Phil, Joseph and I were scratching our heads wondering if we were just going to be shown pictures or video of the new IS or what.
As excited as we were to see the actual vehicle in person, we first were introduced and got a chance to speak and listen to real Lexus experts. Bob Allan and Charles Hubbard who are product specialists and trainers on the New IS briefed us on the New IS’ options, safety features like an all new design in the front airbag system and other technological advancements. We were immersed with familiar terms from the new 2006 GS that were implemented into the new IS like VDIM (Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management), Radar Cruise, PCS (Pre Collision System), Mark Levinson and L-Finesse. New terms that were foreign to all of us in correlation to the IS were like "306 horsepower", "Dual VVT-I with Direct Injection", "GR Series", "ULEV II Compliant", "6 speed sequential-shift" and "F1 Style" steering shifters grabbed everyone’s attention in the room. But was this the same JCE10 IS300 we were familiar with for the last 5 years here in America? At this point, we were still confused to whether we would actually be seeing the car or not. As the presentation ended, Brad smiled to us saying "Gentlemen are you ready?" Phil, Joseph and I looked at each other in confusion and excitement. We got up and followed everyone out of the room and were escorted outside. In the last few months, we were only able to see pictures of the New IS on the internet, but as we exited the hotel lobby, we were about to find out.
The First Impression
We finally make it outside and we walk to the two shiny Lexus’ parked in front. "Gentlemen, here it is, the New 2006 IS250 AWD and IS350, feel free to take a look" says Brad. At this point, Phil, Joseph and I stared in awe and amazement and quickly checked out the cars and opened the door to see the goods. We momentary took photos and parked our 1st generation IS300’s between the new 2nd generation Smoky Graphite GSE25 and Tungsten Pearl GSE21. (GSE21 & GSE25 a.k.a. IS350 & IS250 AWD respectively are new chassis code designations derived from the new GR series engine blocks of Toyota & Lexus series engines). We compared the differences and similarities of the new and old IS and the resemblance of the New GS. Because our IS300’s we drove in were lowered on aftermarket suspensions, our vehicles were dwarfed by the new IS we parked between. The New IS has definitely increased in size as it has grown 3.5" longer, 3" wider and wheelbase as been stretched out another 2.4" from the previous generation. We noticed many of the unique details on the New IS that were explained to us during the technical presentation. For example the slick 0.28 coefficient of drag of the exterior, the strategic placement of the side view mirrors to reduce wind noise and turbulence, the "air kicker" molded into the rear taillight lenses to reduce drag even the weight reduction in usage of an aluminum hood translates into the whole streamline "L-Finesse" design philosophy. Like the New GS, the New IS is all new from the ground up and is a true global Lexus. Unlike the previous generation IS which was a derivation of the original Toyota Altezza in Japan, The New IS will be marketed throughout the world as a Lexus. The New IS was designed by a true Toyota veteran, Chief Engineer, Suguya Fukusato. He has been instrumental with many other Toyota projects like the Corolla, Matrix and Pontiac Vibe, Euro Corolla, Corolla Vaso and Avensis just to name a few.
A look inside the new IS we see a very inviting leather interior which is definitely more luxurious and much roomy than the previous generation thanks to the exterior dimension increase. Trunk space has increased to a good 13 cubic feet, up 3 cubic feet from the previous IS. Call the interior a baby version of the New GS’ if you will, the new supportive leather seats clad with perforated leather inserts feature a new ventilated and heated system allowing the driver or front passenger to ride in comfort no matter how hot or cold the outside climate is. The seats are much more comfortable to sit in and has better cushioning and bolstering around the torso and legs the previous IS lacked. The buttons, switches and controls are strategically placed for much easier access. The tasteful silver faced accents and genuine Auburn Bird’s Eye Maple (manufactured by Yamaha) that accents the interior. Rear seating used to be a claustrophobic uncomfortable experience for the average sized folks but the Lexus engineers managed to increase legroom, hip room and headroom to make it a more pleasant experience. It’s obvious the New IS has grown up on the outside and has definitely grown up on the inside. Now for the fun part, Brad hands us the Smart Key fobs (similar to the ones used on the New GS) and directions for our drive invites Phil, Joseph and I to "Get in, depress the brake pedal, press the PUSH START ON button and go!" With huge grins in our faces, Phil jumps in as the driver and Joseph as shotgun in the Tungsten Pearl IS350 with Black interior and I jump in the Smoky Graphite IS250 AWD with Sterling interior. Both IS250 AWD and IS350 that were presented to us were fully loaded models. Both included the Premium Luxury Plus Package, Mark Levinson Audio w/Navigation, Park Assist, Pre Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, the One-Touch Open/Close Moonroof w/Rotary-Dial switch and really cool Aux-In audio input for your iPod or other audio accessories. Brad, Bob and Charles looked at us as if we were kids running loose in a candy store. We didn’t hesitate and hit the PUSH START ON button, watch the all new Optitron gauges’ needles glow as they perform a self check. The new GR series V6 engines of the new IS’ roar as they both come to life. A quick blip on the throttle and we already hear the new GR series engines sing with their distinct exhaust notes coming out of the all new dual exhaust setups. We adjust the vehicle’s settings to our preferences and watch the all new 5th generation GPS Navigation system boot up to plot our location. Then we drive off.
The 2006 IS250 AWD
First impression of the IS250 AWD was definitely surprising. As we pulled away from the hotel parking lot Phil and Joseph in front in the IS350 and I follow along in the IS250 AWD, I immediately find out that the vehicle is super smooth. The engine accelerates nicely and the tranny shifts from the 6 speed sequential-shift are seamless. Compared to the previous generation IS, exterior noise into the passenger cabin is almost non-existent. There are no rattles or loud noise coming from the uneven pavement via the tires and suspension. And surprisingly there is no excessive suspension noise going over railroad tracks, just the sound of the tires connecting with the imperfections with a soft thud. Despite the fact the IS250 AWD riding on 225/45VR17 high performance all-season tires all around, the ride is very comfortable and quiet. The IS250 AWD sits about a 0.25" higher than the regular IS250 and IS350 for extra ground clearance. A tire pressure warning system monitors the wheels for low tire pressure. The regular IS250 rides on a standard staggered wheel setup 225/45VR17 in the front and 245/45VR17 in the rear.
As we approach the stoplight, I roll down the window and look over at the guys in the IS350. We smile with amazement, and then I think to myself "Wow this is really it, this is the NEW IS!" As I look over to my right, you can see Phil and Joseph smile and giggle with excitement. We were at a loss of words. I look down below the PUSH START button, and find a familiar button, the ECT PWR PWR/SNOW. I engage the ECT (Electronically Controlled Transmission) switch to the more (aggressive shift pattern) mode and the indicator light engages on the dash. I also decided to give the new Multi-Mode Sport Shift a try. I shift the lever to the "S" side of the shift gate. For those who are familiar with the M-Mode a.k.a. "E-Shift" on the 1st Gen IS automatic, the lowest gear you can select is 2nd. I watch the shift indicator readout on the dash start at 6, instead of using the console shifter, I use the paddle shifter on the wheel and pull back on the left (-) paddle to downshift. To my surprise, you can start the car in 1st gear! Wonderful, now I’m set to go. As the light turns green, I mash the pedal so the guys can take an action shot of me taking off. As expected, you can hear the power build of the new 2.5L 4GR-FSE V6. I am reminded to shift via the tachometer indicator light or a shift light that is common amongst high powered race cars. A nice blue ring accents the Optitron gauge’s tachometer. Shifts are quick and effortless seamless via the shift paddles. The shifts are not as quick as a true sequential transmission but it’s pretty close.
By default, as you near redline, the blue ring on the tach turns orange, but as you hit limiter, the once blue ring turns red. This new tach indicator light is adjustable by the driver (via the Multi-Mode Satellite Switch) and can also be set on the speedometer side of the Optitron display. This cool little feature can actually save you from overrunning your engine or remind you that you’re going too fast down the freeway. Nice touch! The IS250 AWD pulls strong as you hear the IS250’s dual exhaust sing as the needle on the tach approaches redline. Not even a few seconds later, I can see the guys in my rearview mirror, the IS350 take off, you can hear the 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6 pulling hard and effortlessly passes me up reeling me in the IS250 AWD like if I was standing still. I think to myself WOW, I can’t wait to jump in that IS. As they are passing, you can definitely hear the very distinct dual exhaust note of the more aggressive 306 hp 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6. You can tell Lexus engineers gave the IS350 a little more attitude and personality with that distinct exhaust note. It sure was a different sound, but a very good sound, especially coming from a stock dual exhaust system. Power in the IS250 AWD is very linear and adequate for the vehicle despite its AWD drivetrain. The acceleration of the 204 hp IS250 AWD feels about on par with my current IS300 E-Shift but much more smoother. The 4GR-FSE has not been rated by the EPA for fuel economy but like the 3GR-FSE 3.0L V6 found in the new GS300, fuel economy is expected to be much greater in the city and highway compared to the retiring 2JZ-GE 3.0L VVT-i inline 6 thanks to the new Dual VVT-i valve train and D-4 Direct Injection technology.
Our drive took us from the center of Irvine to the outer edges of town. We traveled a few miles on a few scenic 6 lane parkways in the foothills and ended up on a quick trip on the 261 toll road. If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to hit 80 mph on the open streets in normal acceleration. The absence of any loud wind noise and road boom can cause you to keep on dipping into the accelerator and inattentively go above the posted speed limit. Especially when youï¿½re following a couple guys driving with 306 hp under the throttle pedal. Since the guys in the IS350 are in front, they approach the toll plaza, throw their $0.75 in the basket for our "Governator". As the gate opens and the light turns green, the IS350’s newly installed Dunlops chirp and they’re off! They briskly accelerate, and quickly made it to the regular travel lanes of the toll road as I was throwing in my $0.75 in the basket. I decide to do something different and leave the shifter in regular D mode. The gate opens, light turns green and I’m off! Full throttle of the 4GR-FSE 2.5L V6 comes into full song and the New IS reaches highway cruising speeds without effort. I eventually catch up to the IS350 and we make our exit to Santiago Canyon Road where we enter the back roads of Orange County.
As we enter the scenic mild twisty road, I found it quite surprising the handling characteristics of the IS250 AWD were very compliant, especially for a stock suspension setup. There was a slight amount of body roll as you progressively pushed the car into the turns. The body roll was definitely predictable and easy to control thanks to the aide of a suspension system derived from the New IS’ bigger brother the New GS. The front suspension of the new IS features shock pistons that are 45mm in diameter vs. the New GS’ 40mm. Dampening is much more stiffer than previous models, but forgiving enough to tackle any type of daily driving duty. Not bad for a vehicle that has a 54/46 weight distribution. Steering feel was very positive thanks to the new Electric Power Steering system which is similar to what is found on the New RX400h and New GS. This steering system is so advanced, unlike conventional power steering systems, no load is put on the engine when the vehicle is traveling straight. Some may feel the steering is still over assisted compared to BMW standards, but this system is a definite improvement over the previous IS300’s already great steering feel. It’s not disappointing at all. With the AWD drive train, it was actually difficult to get the tires to squeal during spirited runs through some hairpins and switchbacks as I chased after my buddies in the IS350. I wish we had time to actually test the AWD drive train extensively on different types of conditions and pavement, but for the most part, the AWD system didn’t seem to hamper the performance of the IS250 on dry asphalt. Torque split in the IS250 AWD is 30% front & 70% rear during normal conditions, but when there is wheel slippage or the vehicle is at wide open throttle (WOT), the control system can shift the torque split progressively, up to 50/50 between front and rear wheels. Braking power on the New IS is also new. Every stop inspired confidence, braking was fade free throughout the brisk run through the twisties and through regular stop and go traffic. 4-wheel ABS is standard throughout all the IS models. The IS250 rides on a 2 piston floating front caliper with 11.65" ventilated front disc and a single piston rear caliper with 11.45" solid rear disc. Stopping power in the new IS250 AWD is effortless as EBD assists in distributing brake force during sudden stops. Underpowered is what some might say about the 204 hp IS250, but in all reality, the vehicle accelerates just as fast as it’s IS300 predecessor and it’s improved ride quality and awesome handling makes it a vast improvement over the latter. As we approach our halfway point of our test drive we stop to stretch. Phil and Joseph jump into the IS250 AWD and I finally get my turn in the powerhouse IS350. I decided to take the IS250 AWD during the first half of our drive and save the best for last. Overall impression of the IS250 AWD, it’s outstanding!
The 2006 IS350
Okay so I finally get my turn. I’m thinking to myself, that IS250 AWD was a great feeling car, how much better is this IS350? I was soon to find out that the IS350 was just more than a badge indicating the model designation and the larger staggered wheel setup. Phil & Joseph had left the ventilated seats to the max cool position, so it was actually nice to sit in the driver’s seat and not having to worry about the seat feeling too hot to sit on. I jump into the Tungsten Pearl IS350 with Black perforated leather interior. Since it was overcast out in the first part of the morning, the thin morning marine layer was giving way to the summer sun and heat. I reached down to the control that operated the rear power sunshade to block out the sun. The moonroof controls are much easier to operate and are much more intuitive than the previous IS300. I found myself pressing the wrong button to either "tilt up" or "slide open" the moonroof while I drive. Now, opening or tilting the Moonroof is a simple as turning the dial to the desired opening position, or you can simply press on the knob and the moonroof will automatically open to the full slide position. Now that’s awesome. I was enamored with the feeling the luxuriousness of the New IS350’s interior, I had the urge to listen to some smooth jazz on the 300 watt 14 speaker Mark Levinson Audio. I turn the system on and set the radio dial to 94.7 FM. The tunes are jamming as you can hear the nice clear tight bass kicking and the clarity of the jazz guitar through the mid and high range. We were told that the New IS Mark Levinson Audio is more advanced than what is found in the New GS. The Mark Levinson Audio in the New IS has a sound sweet spot not just optimized for the front passengers, but optimized for the rear seat passengers as well. The ability to play, MP3 and WMA formats as well as the standard DVD Video/Audio as well as reading in Dolby Digital & DTS formats set this audio system apart from the rest. Now we’re set. At this point, I’m telling myself "Okay, these are the same features I had in the IS250 AWD I just got out of, what gives?" The car was already on so I put the gear selector in "S" mode, downshifted to 1st gear via the steering wheel paddle shifter. It seems as everything in the IS350’s interior looked and felt the same like the IS250 AWD for the most part. But I was soon about to find out the big difference a little more than that. There is an extra 102 hp under the hood of the IS350 and much more aggressive optional wheel/tire combination, summer Dunlop 225/40YR18’s in the front and 255/40YR18’s tires for the rear. Front wheel size is 18×8" in the front w/a +45 offset and 18×8.5" w/a +50 offset in the rear. VDIM is available on this particular model and I was kind of hesitant to drive the car in fear that the system would override my driving style. Well let’s find out. Ready? Set! GO!!!
As I accelerate back onto the main road, I dip into the throttle as if I were in the IS250 AWD. Boy was that a mistake. I ended up causing the Dunlop tires to squeal a little, I got pressed into my seat and quickly realized I was still in 1st gear accidentally bouncing off rev limiter. I upshift into 2nd gear and realized this 306hp 2GR-FSE Dual VVT-i with D-4S Direct & Port Fuel Injection 3.5L V6 was no joke! You can hear the dual exhausts of the 3.5L V6 race towards the redline with a throaty roar. I quickly glanced into the rearview mirror to find out that the guys in the IS250 AWD were almost too far out of sight. I upshift into 3rd, glance at the speedometer and realize that I quickly accelerated 30mph over the posted speed limit of 35. At this point I’m trying to figure out what the heck just happened and slowed down and stopped to let the Phil & Joseph catch up to me. They finally catch up and decide to try it again. This time I put the gear selector in "D" and put the ECT switch to "PWR" mode. I mashed the pedal and I was thrown back into my seat holding on. I watch the speedometer needle climb past 60, 70, 80 and then let off. Wow…what a rush. I can’t help but grin with a smile that’s literally ear to ear. I never expected to feel such an explosion of power with just a difference of 1.0L and 102 extra horsepower under the hood. Was this really the new IS? Not even 12 years ago, the legendary JZA80 Toyota Supra Turbo featured a 2JZ-GTE 3.0L I-6 Twin Turbo with 320 HP. This New IS350’s acceleration felt as brisk as the auto version of the legendary Supra Turbo of the past. And the 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6 has no aid of any forced induction of any sort. All 306 hp is all naturally aspirated. Amazing! The 6 speed sequential-shift transmission on the IS350 (A760E, which is shared with the New GS430) has an identical gear ratio with the (A760H) IS250 AWD. The (A960E) IS250 RWD 6 speed sequential-shift’s gear ratio is just a tad different. A (RA62) 6 speed manual transmission is available only on the IS250 RWD. Power for the 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6 is transferred to the rear wheels via the "Pre-Torque" semi-LSD found exclusively on the IS350. There is plenty of power in this vehicle to satisfy everyone. Even the hardcore enthusiast driver would enjoy driving this vehicle despite the absence of a true 6 speed manual transmission. I can honestly say that I do enjoy it regardless.
Handling was very similar on the IS350 as it was with the IS250 AWD. The ride is very compliant on various road surfaces despite the larger profile summer tire and wheel combination. Navigating the IS350 through the twisties was effortless. The chassis asked you to push the car harder into the corners. There was a slight amount of predictable body roll going through the long corners and switch backs. This particular IS350 had the Premium Luxury Plus package with standard suspension. Despite the fact our IS350 tester lacked the Sport Suspension (which includes a 0.5" overall drop, stiffer dampening and the 18" wheel package) the car handled surprisingly well for the stock setup. I can only imagine the handling would be comparable if not better than the aftermarket coilover suspension setup on my IS300. The New IS suspension is definitely was a huge improvement over the stock suspension of the 1st generation IS300. If you think the 1st gen IS300 suspension was stellar out of the box, wait until you drive the New IS. Naturally with more horsepower, you need better stopping power. Braking duty is given to the New IS350 with huge 13.15" Ventilated Turbine Disc and aluminum 4-piston calipers in the front and 12.2" ventilated rear discs with single piston floating calipers in the rear. The standard ABS and EBD allows for quick, confident stopping action in any type of situation.
Bob our technical trainer did explain to us that the IS350’s VDIM’s settings are much more lenient than what’s found on the New GS430 and better suited for this vehicle’s handling characteristics. He did say if you push the new IS350 hard enough, you can kick the rear out a little bit just before the system reacts. Bob wasn’t kidding. As we drove through a few miles of small towns and short twisty sections, we approach this sharp downhill hairpin turn and remembering in the back of my mind of what was mentioned with the VDIM system. I purposely entered the turn at about 40mph and entered the hairpin downshifting into 3rd gear of the sequential-shift and quickly hit the throttle upon the apex into the exit of the turn. The rear slipped just a little bit out towards the left and a "beep beep beep" sound of the VSC (vehicle skid control) alerted me of the vehicle slipping out of its intended path. VDIM controls the ABS, EBD, BA, TRC, VSC, and EPS systems, and instead of the IS350 spinning out of control, the IS350’s VDIM allowed the engine to retard power to the engine, apply the brakes and adjust the power steering effort to encourage you to steer in the correct direction simultaneously within fractions of a second. VDIM not only makes good drivers better, but it does make better drivers excellent. To my surprise, VDIM did not intrude through my duration of driving this IS through our route other in that hairpin instance. I expected VDIM to basically take the joy out of spirited driving. The smart techs and engineers and Lexus did a great job of fine tuning the VDIM system to the new IS350. To be honest, the system doesnï¿½t need a switch to defeat the system at all. Thereï¿½s just enough help that the VDIM can save your life and keep you from running off the road.
I open my window and waive the guys forward so the guys behind me in the IS250 AWD can pass me up. Since we were hitting longer and faster stretches of highway, I decided to try out the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control system. You enable the Cruise Control system conventionally through the cruise control stalk on the right side of the steering wheel. Like normal, you set your desired speed and you can let your foot off the gas. With the Dynamic Radar system, you can set a preferred interval to avoid traffic ahead of you by either selecting 1.5, 2.5 or 3.5 seconds via the Multi Mode Satellite Switch which controls various functions and settings through a multi-info display in the top middle of the New IS’ gauge cluster. The guys in the IS250 AWD were doing the speed limit of 45, I decide to intentionally set the Dynamic Radar Cruise via the multi-info display and set it at a preset of 55 mph. As I got closer to the IS250, the flashing indicator on the dash display started to increase the number of bars of intensity; as I got too close, the system slowed down the car by actuating the brakes without canceling the desired set cruise speed. Talk about high tech! Perhaps someday the IS350 will have an automated self drive? Who knows, sky is the limit! As we rounded up the latter portion of our driving route, we stop to take more photos of the IS250 AWD & IS350. We had a lot of people take double takes as we drove in and around Orange County. We even happened to drive right by a large BMW dealership in Irvine on our route back to the hotel. You should have seen the look on the people’s faces looking at the new 3-Series as we drove right past them. One couple even went to the trouble of fumbling for their camera phone to take a snapshot of the IS250 AWD and IS350 we were driving. It was definitely a funny but memorable scenario.
Phil, Joseph and I all agree the New IS250 and IS350 are to be experienced in person. Just looking at photos doesn’t do this car justice. As you can see there are many features the New IS that I haven’t even covered, but I did want to share with you some of the features that stood out most in our test drive. There are many features of this car that I haven’t even covered yet, but you should be able to get the idea of how excited we all are about this new car. It was nearing 1PM, the end of our time with the New IS 250 AWD & 350, we drove back into the Doubletree parking lot as Brad, Bob and Charles greeted us upon our arrival. As we excited the New IS, they all asked us "So, what do you think?" Phil, Joseph and I smiled at each other, looked at them and said "WOW!" That is just one word to sum up our whole experience. We hand the Smart Keys to the New IS back to Brad, and we were escorted inside to have lunch. During lunch, we were able to chat with the guys and express our feelings about the New IS, talked about a lot of Lexus’ direction in the future and also Lexus Motorsports. We even found time to chat about Team Lexus and their next upcoming season in an all New IS race car. After lunch Bob and Charles jump in the special pre-production IS250 AWD & IS350 back to Lexus Headquarters, up the 405 in Torrance and we said our goodbye to Brad. Now that we fully experienced the New IS in person, do I now feel confident that this is really the New IS? Absolutely!
On behalf of ClubLexus, I would like to personally thank Brad Nelson of Lexus Motorsports and Marketing for making this whole event possible & Bob Allan and Charles Hubbard of Lexus College for sharing their knowledge and expertise on all the goodies of the new IS. To Ethan Kay for doing the legwork to get this event initiated. Last but not least to Chief Engineer Suguya Fukusato and Lexus for their ability to regenerate the excitement we have as Lexus owners & enthusiasts in their "Passionate Pursuit of Perfection". We are excited for the future as we are anxiously awaiting for what Lexus will present to us next. So far our expectations have been exceeded!
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Article & Photos by: Flipside909
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