It’s no surprise really, BMW’s 3 Series rear-drive sport sedan has for decades been the holy of holies for auto enthusiasts and many magazines that cater to their Bimmer fetish. Lexus got the idea to fight the 3 Series about 10 years back, launching the IS series in 2005 as it looked to induct younger buyers into the Lexus family.
The tested “atomic silver” 2015 model was a driving delight with all the edgy styling that BMW eschews. The big grille exudes a racy arrogance and the crisp styling creases along the body make the IS look quick even as it lazes at the end of the driveway.
But make no mistake, the IS and 3 Series are nearly clones from a dimensional standpoint. The Lexus rides on a 110.2-inch wheelbase, just 0.4 inches shorter than the BMW. The Lexus is 183.7 inches long, just 1.2 inches longer than the BMW.
Ironically, the Bimmer is 48 pounds lighter at 3,545 lbs., funny in that German cars have traditionally been heavyweights in the car arena.
Power is roughly the same, about 300 horses, but here is where there’s a decided difference.
The Lexus at 306 horses gets its smooth linear power from a 3.5-liter V6 with direct and port injection along with variable valve timing. The result is a torque rating of 277. Press the accelerator and the 8-speed automatic, which includes paddle shifters on the steering wheel, slickly moves the sedan to highway speeds.
The BMW puts a turbo on a 3.0-liter V6 to create its 300 horses, but with more of a burst, thanks to that turbo. So its torque rating is a more oomph-ful 300. It too has an 8-speed automatic, but the BMW will feel quicker due to its turbo power.
The turbo’s other advantage is in gas mileage. The Lexus is rated 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. I got 25.5 mpg in about 70% highway driving. The BMW is rated at 22 mpg city and 32 highway. Both drink premium unleaded.
I didn’t have the 3 Series at the same time for back-to-back testing, so I can’t compare their driving dynamics directly. But I can tell you the Lexus IS350 leans more to the luxurious side while the BMW is all-in for sportiness.
In fact, Lexus gives you three power modes, from Eco to save gas, to Sport that boosts your revs and emphasizes power. Normal is, well, you get it. All are adjusted by a dial on the console between the front seats. There’s also a Snow button to give you better starting ability when roads are slippery.
Lexus uses a double wishbone front suspension and rear multi-link to deliver a sporty but well-controlled ride that never felt too stiff. Yet it is stiffer than most luxury sedans, so you’ll want to test drive one to make sure it fits your derriere’s requirements.
Braking is impressive with big discs and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, anti-locks, brake assist and stability and traction control. So starting and stopping in the Lexus are handled effectively.
Handling too is responsive, but not overly sensitive. Steering effort is moderate, not too heavy. You can throw the IS into a corner and it’ll hug the road with no body roll, allowing you to press it as hard as you want, it’ll stay planted. The 18-inch summer-rated tires deliver excellent grip too.
Those are part of a $3,740 F Sport package that dolls up the exterior and interior. Along with the tires are F Sport split 5-spoke wheels, plus a Sport front bumper and spindle grille and LED headlights. Inside the package adds fancy projected instrument cluster, heated and ventilated F Sport seats, black headliner, aluminum pedals and perforated heated and cooled leather front seats.
The interior is sharp, sporty and comfortable, in look and function. That starts with aggressive F Sport performance seats that include tight-fitting back and hip bolsters. I say tight, but they don’t squeeze you too hard, just keep you in place. The gray leather seats offer multiple power adjustments with the driver getting an adjustable lumbar support. While a modest sized sedan, note too that four adults fit comfortably, proven by our car filled with four guys heading to Chicago for a work trip. Legroom is somewhat modest in back, but if no one up front is too tall, that’s not a problem.
The test car’s dash was black leather with fake carbon fiber trim on the passenger’s side and the armrest tops. Other trim is matte silver, such as around the air vents and the steering wheel is a power tilt/telescope model ($400 extra). That helps, but for short drivers it’s a tight squeeze getting in and out if you don’t set the steering wheel at a high angle. The IS screams for a flat-bottomed steering wheel to allow more leg clearance entering and exiting. Otherwise it’s not in the way.
Main instruments are easy to see and use, plus a button on the steering wheel hub allows you to reconfigure the dash gauges into a second mode with the main speedometer moved more to the right side. I prefer the standard mid-cluster speedo, but hey, choices are good, until they malfunction.
Most dash buttons are small with moderate sized radio knobs, but the biggest bugaboo for me is the mouse that controls the radio/navigation screen functions. This, as with other makes, sits on the console near the shifter and is awkward to use as you drive. Imagine playing with a mouse to click on the proper radio station, or worse yet, trying to magnify or zoom out on the navigation screen. Frustrating!
Also mildly frustrating were the overhead sun visors. Thick and large, they still did not slide, nor include an extension, often needed when you flip the visor to the side to block low fall-angled sun rays. Yet the IS350 has a standard power sunroof with shade.
Better yet, the test car came with a backup camera with cross-traffic monitoring and a blind-spot monitoring system, a $600 add-on.
Other electronic goodies included the navigation system with Mark Levinson premium audio upgrade including surround sound, 15 speakers, 835 watts of power, voice command and more. The package lists at $2,995.
Trunk size is good, but smaller than the Bimmer’s at 13.8 cubic feet. It easily holds a variety of suitcases, and golf clubs would fit with ease.
The good news, the IS starts at $40,065, plus a $925 delivery fee. This gussied up model hit $48,830. But consider that the BMW 335i starts at $44,350, including delivery. So depending on how much extra equipment you need, the IS might require you to exercise fewer stock options.
Consider too that there are lesser models of both the Lexus and BMW. The IS250, for instance, starts at $37,475 and features a 204-horse 2.5-liter V6, which nets you an EPA rating of 21 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. An all-wheel-drive IS250 lists at $40,010, including delivery.
The choice comes down to nameplate envy, styling preferences and if you want your sports sedan to coddle you more, or pull your performance trigger. There are no bad choices!
FAST Stats: 2015 Lexus IS350
Hits: Peppy acceleration (3 power modes), responsive handling, sporty but well-controlled ride, good braking. Interior looks good with aggressively-contoured seats, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, backup camera, blind-spot warning system and heated/cooled front seats.
Misses: Tight squeeze getting in/out – needs flat-bottomed steering wheel, fairly stiff ride, irritating mouse control for radio/nav screen on console and visors don’t slide or extend.
Made in: Japan
Engine: 3.5-liter VVT-I V6, 306 hp
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 3,593 lbs.
Wheelbase: 110.2 in.
Length: 183.7 in.
Cargo: 13.8 cu.ft.
MPG: 19/28 (EPA)
MPG: 25.5 (tested)
Base Price: $40,065
Dealer’s Price: $38,186 (includes delivery)
Blind spot monitor w/rear cross traffic alert, $600
F Sport package (exterior: F Sport front bumper & spindle grille, LED headlights, 18-inch F Sport split 5-spoke wheels, R18 summer tires – interior: TFT instrument cluster, heated/ventilated front F Sport seats, perforated leather steering wheel & shift knob, black headliner, aluminum pedals), $3,740
Variable Gear Ratio Steering (VGRS) w/power tilt/telescope steering column, $400
Nav system/Mark Levinson premium audio 5.1 surround system, 15 speakers, 835 watts, nav/backup camera, remote touch interface, Lexus Enform Destinations, voice command, Lexus insider, $2,995
Trunk mat, $100
Test vehicle: $48,830
Sources: Lexus, http://www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage