LOS ANGELES - Sisyphus would be proud. Everyone keeps trying to build a 3 series better than BMW, but it may be an impossible task. Still, they keep trying to roll that stone up the hill.
Lexus gave it a shot with its original IS 300 sedan and wagon, but many buyers saw it as little more than a pretender with a funky chronograph gauge cluster. For 2006, Lexus is taking its second shot at the leader of the compact rear-drive sport sedan segment. It will replace the IS 300 with the IS 250 and top-of-the-line IS 350.
The basics: The redesigned IS 250 and IS 350 share platform architecture with their big brother GS sedan lineup. Although many components are different, their underpinnings are similar; the IS wheelbase is 4.7 inches shorter. However, the redesigned IS sedans are longer, wider and taller than their predecessor IS 300.
The previous IS 300 had just one inline six-cylinder engine, but the redesigned models give customers a choice of a 2.5-liter or 3.5-liter V-6. The smaller engine comes with a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission and reaches 60 mph in less than eight seconds. Optional all-wheel drive is available.
The bigger 3.5-liter V-6 comes only with a six-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive. The IS 350 has 306 hp and 277 pounds-feet of torque, which Lexus claims will pull the IS 350 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds.
Toyota also is debuting in North America its direct injection with both engines. Direct injection puts fuel directly into the combustion chamber rather than upstream in the intake port. Although complicated from an engineering perspective, it boasts fuel economy and performance gains over traditional fuel injection.
Notable features: Because the IS sedans share platform architecture with their larger GS sedan sibling, items such as electric power steering and the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management traction control system are available. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard, and 18-inchers are optional. Because of their more sporting nature, the IS sedans get larger shocks than the GS sedans.
With automatic transmission versions, paddle shifters behind the steering wheel give the sedans a sporty flair. Other neat touches include adaptive cruise control, pre-collision sensors, rain-sensing wipers, parking assist, key fobs that unlock the vehicles and allow them to be started while the fob remains in the owner's pocket, and headlamps that turn with the steering wheel direction.
For buyers who want a wood interior, the three center console pieces come from the same cut of wood. The front seats are both heated and ventilated.
On the safety side, the IS sedans offer driver and front passenger knee airbags. The front passenger also gets a twin-chamber airbag, as opposed to the gigantic pillow airbag of past offerings.
Although the previous IS 300 was sold with a Toyota badge in other markets, the new sedans will be sold only as Lexus.
What Lexus says: "The current IS, for as good as it is, never fully delivered a total Lexus experience," said IS chief engineer Suguya Fukusato. "We have created a (redesigned) performance sedan that true enthusiasts were convinced the Lexus brand was incapable of, or uninterested in, building."
Compromises and shortcomings: The new features make the cars heavier than the previous offering. Whereas the previous IS 300 felt nimble, the new sedans are more solid. The cool chronograph instrument cluster has been replaced with a more traditional array. The gearing gap between third and fourth gear in the IS 250 leaves the car gasping for power.
Nuts And Bolts: The IS sedans go on sale in October. Lexus won't announce pricing until closer to the launch. Lexus wants to sell 40,000 units annually. That's a big jump from last year, when Lexus only sold 9,972 units. IS 300 sales peaked in 2001 at 22,486 units.
The skinny: It's still not a 3 series, but it is a much stronger effort. The new IS sedans could very well pull buyers who are not interested in a BMW but want something more sporty than a Mercedes C class. Enthusiast magazines will endlessly compare the IS 350 to the Infiniti G35.