Ryan Bubear dusts off his suit and steps into the Lexus IS 350 EX.
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Luxury sedans. South Africans love 'em. Particularly those of the German variety (the sedans, not the South Africans).
So, what makes Lexus — Toyota's luxury arm — think that it can muscle in on the substantial market share held by the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz, with its latest IS 350? Why would your average man-in-a-suit (or indeed woman-in-equivalent-business-attire) choose an IS 350 over the corresponding 3-Series or C-Class variant?
Well, the Lexus IS 350 has two distinct strengths. The first is specification. Whereas the Germans offer you a smashing base car, but force you to take out a second mortgage to spec it to a suitably luxurious level ("A steering wheel, sir? Heavens no, that's an optional extra..."), Lexus offers you a great deal as standard, even on the lower trim level.
The second is pure grunt. Thanks to a 3.5-litre V6, the IS 350 is the most powerful in its class. The Toyota 2GR-FSE powerplant — which has admittedly been around for a few years now — is good for 233kW and 378Nm. Yes, a big, naturally aspirated engine is not the most popular choice in these days of rising petrol prices, but this one sees the IS (with a kerb weight of just over 1500kg) hit 100km/h from standstill in a staggering 5.6 seconds. There's no arguing with that. Nor is there any arguing with the accompanying V6 soundtrack. It's absolutely superb.
Auto or nothing...
Somewhat predictably, the IS 350 is available only with an automatic transmission. The six-speed auto does a smooth enough job in normal operation that you needn't bother messing about with the tiptronic-type gear lever and the paddle shifts. Rather let the auto 'box do all the work. If you feel the need to beef up the sportiness, there's a little rocker switch marked "ECT" (electronically controlled transmission) on the dash that allows you to choose between "PWR" (power) and "SNOW" (well, funnily enough, snow...) modes.
Power mode provides faster gear-changes and sees the 'box shift up later, and down sooner, keeping the big V6 in a higher rev range for longer. The difference is definitely noticeable, but at lower speeds in power mode the gearbox feels somewhat uncertain of itself. Of course, there'd be little point in using such a mode in heavy traffic. But put your foot down and all of that goes out of the window anyway... The acceleration is that impressive.
From the outside, the 4.5m-long IS 350 is understated. Other than the twin-exit exhausts and badge on the boot, there are no clues that a heavy-breathing V6 lies under the bonnet. Clean lines, LED daytime running lights and trademark Lexus facial features quietly convey a look of class and luxury.
Inside, this theme continues. Nothing over-the-top, nothing too flashy; just a general feeling of refinement and comfort. We tested the IS 350 in "base" EX trim, which gets as standard full leather, eight-way electrically adjustable seats, smart entry and start, a decent sound system (CD/MP3/USB/iPod/Aux), dual auto climate control, Bluetooth, cruise control, built-in satnav (with seven-inch colour display and voice command), auto HID headlamps, and park distance control (as well as reversing camera).
In range-topping SE trim — for an extra R50k, of course — you get all that plus a driver seat memory function, a steering column memory function, heating and ventilation for the front seats, a sunroof, wood trim (the EX gets piano black), electro-chromatic rear-view mirror and side mirrors, electric sunshade for the rear window, illuminated entry, and rain-sensing wipers. A set of 18-inch alloys are also standard issue, as opposed to the 17s doing duty on the EX.
See, I told you it was a generous list. Oh, and a four-year or 100 000km warranty plus a four-year or 100 000km service plan simply adds to the value. Who would have thought the word "value" would be mentioned in a review of a luxury sedan?
Out on the road, the suspension is somewhat stiff, which thankfully means there's not much body-roll around corners, but somehow the ride has remained really quite comfortable. Plenty of work went into the development of the IS's chassis and suspension set-up, and a mixture of sportiness and refinement is the outcome. Pretty much what you'd want from a luxury sedan with sporting credentials, then.
So, what counts against the IS 350?
Well, not much. When most large, naturally aspirated six-cylinders are driven hard, fuel consumption is a problem. The IS 350 is no exception, and alternating bouts of spirited driving and heart-attack-inducing traffic saw the 65-litre tank quickly drained during our test period. Lexus claims a combined fuel consumption figure of around 9.4 litres per 100km, but if you can keep the figure below ten you probably haven't found the accelerator pedal yet — the V6 growl and alluring acceleration are that addictive.
Space up front is, of course, plentiful, but room on the rear bench is only just about acceptable for the archetypal long-legged six-footer. Boot capacity sits at respectable 398 litres, but the rear bench cannot fold flat, making loading larger cargo items rather difficult.
Other than that, there's not much not to like.
At the moment, Lexus SA simply cannot compete with the Germans in terms of sales figures. The IS range may be the Japanese luxury marque's most popular line on our shores, but the numbers currently being racked up by the likes of BMW and Mercedes are simply mammoth in comparison.
Also, in general, South Africans are dreadfully predictable car-buyers. It's not easy to lure them away from the big brands, whether we're talking about entry-level hatches or high-end luxury saloons. But as good as the alternatives are, the generously specced Lexus IS 350 is actually a remarkably strong competitor in its class, especially in terms of value.
But the question is: will fiercely brand-loyal South Africans give it a chance to prove this?
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See page 2 for specs and pricing.