Lexus IS350 vs BMW 330i: My Driving Impressions @ Taste of Lexus

2006 Lexus IS350 @ Taste of Lexus
2006 Lexus IS350 @ Taste of Lexus

This past weekend, I attended the Taste of Lexus event at the El Toro Marine Base. For those or you who are unfamiliar with this event, basically, Lexus spends a boatload of money in an effort to fortify their brand image. What was different about this event, however, was that it was labeled as the “Performance Edition.” Lexus set up a series of short courses that gave attendees an opportunity to test each cars capabilities through an autocross-style course. Upon arriving at the venue, we saw that Lexus had basically erected a building for the event. There were plasma TVs blaring Lexus commercials and images. Everywhere you looked was the Lexus name accompanied by the various Lexus models. Once we confirmed our registration, we sat in a waiting area to be briefed on the day’s activities. The furniture was all very nice, something you would expect to see in a Lexus showroom. After the briefing, we were led into the main area where there were food stations set up around the room, serving hor devours. There was a drink station serving gourmet coffees and teas as well as a Fiji waterfall where you could go grab a bottle of Fiji water. ESPN golf pros were even on hand to give video swing analyses to anyone who wanted one. There was even an area that offered spa/massage treatments. There was no doubt that Lexus was trying to cater to their upper-class target market. Stepping outside to the track area is where that all changed.

I’ll save you from my impressions of driving the GS430, GX470, LX470 and RX400h since you probably came here to read about the 2006 Lexus IS350 and how it fared against the 2006 BMW 330i.. so here it goes:

Heading over to the IS250, IS350, BMW 330i track, I could see there was were the fun was, as evidenced by the long lines. We decided to drive the 330i first, since the 330i is the yardstick in which the IS350 is always measured against. After waiting about 20 minutes, I got behind the wheel of a black 2006 BMW 330i. I put it in manumatic mode and took off when the light turned green. About 50 feet from the start, they set up a “tire avoidance” test where a cardboard tire looks like its about to roll onto the track. Here you had to negotiate a chicane (a quick, short left followed by a quick, short right). After the chicane was your only opportunity to test the straight line performance. I punched it and got hard on the brake into the wide sweeping left turn (like a u-turn). After that was a series of short sweeping turns before you came up on the “Slow” sign and back into the “pits.” In all, the course probably took about 30 seconds to finish. Not the best track to really test out a car’s abilities, but a noble effort on Lexus’s part. My impressions of the 2006 BMW 330i after getting out of the car were good. I thought the 330i had decent power and was fairly responsive. In the corners, the car felt really flat and solid with very little noticeable body roll. I tried to take notice of the BMW’s steering, since that’s supposedly one of the strongest points of the 330i. Although it felt good, I’m guessing such a short track at relatively low speeds wasn’t enough to show off the BMW’s steering. All in all, I thought the BMW 330i was a pretty good car. One complaint I had was with the electronic display on the dash. I had it in manumatic mode, but it wasn’t immediately apparent where the display was. Maybe I was used to my G35, I don’t know. It just wasn’t very prominent, I guess. Also, I don’t think the response on the BMW’s manumatic was very good. There was one point where I downshifted and by the time the car found the gear I wanted to be in, the opportunity for that gear had passed.

After driving the BMW 330i, we jumped in line for the Lexus IS350. After a patient wait, I got to jump into a brand new 2006 Lexus IS350. I don’t even remember the color. The interior was awesome. If you showed pictures of the old interior and the new interior side by side, you wouldn’t even think they were from the same class of vehicle, much less the same model. I played around with some of the features of the interior. One thing I noticed was I didn’t like the ashtray. You slide it open and the lid recedes into the center console. To get it to close again, you have to push “in” on the lid (not down on the lid, you have to push forward, like towards the front of the car). That seemed a little odd to me. The dash display was nice and the gear display was something I was more used to seeing, big numbers, prominently displayed in the center towards the top. One thing I didn’t like about the manumatic was that upon putting the trannie in the manual mode, it defaulted to 5th gear. So if you were at a light and wanted to launch in 1st, you’d have to paddle your way down to 1st gear. Gone are the old push button manumatic controls on the steering wheel. The new 2006 IS350 has true paddle shifters, which I thought was nice (I liked the old IS300’s buttons, but it wore off about 5 minutes after actually using them). When the light turned green, I floored it. There was a little bit of scrubbing off the line, but I’m sure the traction control was playing its part. Lexus advertises that its traction control (VDIM) is much less intrusive and I’d have to agree. In my G35, when the traction control comes on, you know it has come on. Once I floored it though, that was where I knew any comparison between the BMW 330i and the IS350 ended. The IS350 was very fast and very powerful. Through the chicane, the IS350 felt stable and surefooted and I tried to keep my foot in it all the way through. Once I hit the straight portion, I was actually a little freaked with how fast it was. I wasn’t ready for it I guess. Through the short turns, I did notice that the IS350 rolled a bit more than the 330i, but it wasn’t a lot of body roll either, if that makes sense. For example, I think my G35 rolls more, although Car and Driver said the G35 rolled less. I think the VDIM did kick in once in a turn because I did notice the car did correct itself a bit. I felt a little bit of braking in the rear and I thought the car corrected itself a bit by ever so slightly going wider in the turn. Its hard to explain if you’ve never felt something like that, but to me, it wasn’t very intrusive. In fact, I doubt most people would notice. I mean, I’ve seen people drive on flat tires on the freeway. As a comparison, I think the traction control in my G35 is much more noticeable and intrusive, cutting the power severely. I never left 2nd gear with the IS350’s manumatic mode. In 2nd gear, the engine was always responsive and had plenty of power on tap to push me through the corners. One cool feature is the IS350’s tachometer. Once you approach redline, a red circle around the center of the tach lights up red, like a factory shift light. After I got out of the IS350, I was pretty “amped”.. like the feeling I used to get after blasting down a quarter mile of city street.

If some Lexus marketing person ran up to me after driving the new IS350, I think my one word to describe it would be “invigorating”. If a BMW marketing person ran out to greet me after my quick romp in the BMW 330i, I’d probably say “nice”. And that pretty much sums it up. Sure, the BMW camp will say that the 330i is a driving machine and an extension of the driver. My argument to that would be, “well, if the car has relatively average power, then yeah, its going to feel like a well-behaved driving machine that I’m not going to get into a lot of trouble with.”. The IS350, based on my perception of its raw power and torque, is definitely a car I could get into a lot of trouble with. But the suspension, chassis, and electronics all help to keep that power going in a direction that you choose. Maybe the track wasn’t long enough to really have fun in the BMW, I’ll concede to that. But based on the track at this event, I’d have to say the Lexus IS350 will smoke the BMW 330i in the “fun to drive” category. After I got home I re-read the Car and Driver test and my only question to them is, “what the hell are you guys smoking?” 🙄

Anyone want to buy a 2005 Infiniti G35 5AT sedan with an HKS sport muffler and Tanabe y-pipe and 9,000 miles on it? I would need about $40k so I could get into a 2006 Lexus IS350 with around the same payments. Anyone? 😐

3 thoughts on “Lexus IS350 vs BMW 330i: My Driving Impressions @ Taste of Lexus

  1. i enjoy reading your reviews and thoughts about the cars. you are reasonable and you don’t bash or anything. and yes your review is helpful knowing it will be an honest opinion. i bought an is250 while considering the g35 as well, but your review helped, knowing that i’m not the only one who thinks the lexus is’ are keeping its good name.

  2. That is350 came out a few months after I bought my 330. It would have been a hard decision to make if the Lexus was out when I was in buying mode.

    The Lexus has a little more kick (as does the G35) but I still feel like more connected with the road in the 330. I like the look of each car about the same, I like the options on my 330 better (but I didn’t see the nav in the lex), but I like the kick on the is350. I still like the 330 a little more, but it costs a little more too.

  3. I agree with your assessment. I ordered a 330i with sport without driving the car. I am coming out of a 745i sport so I figured I new the car. I then went to Lexus after reading many reviews on the is350 for a test drive. I loved everything about this car. I then went back to bmw and drove the 330i sport. I love the road conection you get in bimmers and if you drive one, you’ve driven them all. I thought the 330i steering was very heavily weighted making me think about turning the wheel in close quarters. The sport suspension is extremely harse and I felt the engine is underpowered. The seats were uncomfortable as well. I cancelled the order. I went on and bought a new is350 sport (tungsten pearl) loaded.
    I have had the car for approx 3,000 miles. This car is amazing – 80 mph comes unbelievably quick for a car in this class. I use the paddle shifters every day. The car literally spoils you with the options it has. As far as the looks, I feel like every time I look at it, it’s for the first time. There are some incredible lines on this car and looks great from every angle.
    To sum it up, if your daily drive is on a small road course with cones to slalom, maybe the 330i is your choice. If you want excitement, handling, power, acceleration, and be spoiled all the way to work, then there is no contest, the LEXUS prevails.

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