2006 Lexus IS 250 4-door Sport Sedan Auto Angular Front Exterior View
The drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco may be well known to many Californians, but as a recent transplant, this would be my first time undertaking the journey. At just under 400 miles, it is comprised of a long desolate stretch of four-lane highway with two culturally and geographically distinct metropolitan areas at either end. The multifaceted drive provides an interesting backdrop to explore the capabilities of the baby Lexus.
The first generation IS was a punchy contender for the hearts and minds of young sport sedan drivers everywhere. With rear wheel drive and a straight six underhood, its intentions were clear. The larger second generation arrived in 2006 and included a host of engine and driveline options. The quality of materials have been upgraded and although weight has increased and engine has transitioned from an I- to V-configuration, it is a comprehensively better vehicle. My particular steed for this drive an entry level rear-drive IS250 with an automatic 6-speed transmission.
I pull out of LAX at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon with the tank half full and the GPS set to home. Driving out of the airport, the Lexus looks the part in the vicious City of Angels. The slanted and scowling headlights, the short and stout rear overhang and the beautifully substantial wheels create a silhouette that is vaguely feline. It is overall a more inspired design than the majority of the Lexus stable, and certainly more so than the pedestrian versions of its most direct target, the BMW 3-series (more on the Teutonic elephant in the room later). And, of course, the Lexus badge is always comfortable in the city where you are what you drive.
I pull onto the 405 highway and punch it. The electronics consider this for a moment, then six-speed automatic drops two gears and we are away. Power is adequate. The engine is pulling and it is vocalizing its task, but there is nothing inspiring happening. Soon enough, however, the Lexus has brought us up to cruising speed and I catch myself thinking that if I really felt the need to give the traction control a hard time I should have requested the 417-bhp IS-F variant.
The massive 405 narrows a little as we merge onto the 5. Soon we are climbing, curving and descending through the hills north of San Fernando. Here, the little IS feels very competent. It dutifully holds a lower gear as we ascend and it holds the line in 70mph sweepers with confidence. With rear wheel drive and no big engine to tame, the chassis feels remarkably well balanced. It is a pleasant reminder that Toyota is indeed capable of sublime vehicle calibration when the design brief calls for it. There is no opportunity here to see what the handling is like above 7/10ths; it could go both ways. It is clearly not a track tool, but I honestly do not know if this car would work with you or against you on a twisty back road.
I am now out of the hills and the sun has set. The next few hours are a dark blast through the flatlands on a highway that has contracted into just two lanes in each direction. I settle into the rhythm of the traffic, and then I focus on my surroundings.
The interior is of course the meat and potatoes of the Lexus experience. A Lexus is supposed to isolate its occupants from the harsh realities of the world by cocooning them in upscale materials and utter silence. What is interesting in the IS is that it is also supposed to be a reasonably communicative sport sedan, a claim that we have already established as somewhat credible. The Lexus walks the line respectably. The interior is a civilized place to be even if the seats and dash do get a little more intimate with you than in an ES or LS. The audio and HVAC are intuitive and effective. The biggest flaws are those big, beautiful wheels and tires which make a lot of noise as they lumber down the road. These are not Lexus levels of quiet and the tires will let you know when a pothole is there. Such are the sacrifices in the world of the sport sedans, but the engineers likely could have taken the tire package down a tick and still satisfied everyone.