Faceoff: Lexus IS350 Vs. BMW 330i

March 16, 2006

2006 Lexus IS 250/IS 350 by TCC Team (7/18/2005)
The meaning of "IS" is...what?


2004 BMW 330i by Marc K. Stengel (12/15/2003)
A new Performance Package endows BMW's 330i sedan with a distinctly sporty personality.

Last year was a bumper year for Lexus, having sold 303,000 vehicles in theU.S. and beating BMW’s 266,200 units into second place in the luxury vehicle charts. But before you go feeling sorry for the BMW, consider this: BMW sold almost as many 3-Series models in Europe last year (229,932 units, despite a March ’05 introduction) as its entire U.S. sales volume and found a total of 644,000 happy European customers in total, excluding MINI. And do you know how many vehicles Lexus sold in Europe in 2005? A grand total of 28,777, or about 4.5 percent of BMW’s sales.


In an attempt to rectify this situation, Lexus has designed the new IS as much with Europe in mind as North America, which is why there’s a manual 2.5-liter V-6, a 2.2-liter turbodiesel (the first ever diesel Lexus, in fact) and paddle shifters on the range-topping version, as well as the promise of sportier handling and better performance than ever before.


To see how successful they’ve been, we got our hands on a brand new Lexus IS350 to put it up against its closest Munich rival: a BMW 330i. And to complete the test, I’ve volunteered my services as the resident “picky European.” I even skipped my morning shower especially for the occasion (like I needed an excuse).

Looking important

The styling of many recent BMWs have caused quite a ruckus in the automotive world and while BMW stands firmly and officially behind its chief designer, Chris Bangle, it has simultaneously diluted his 7-Series design and wheeled out a new 3-Series that’s only got the bare minimum of Bangle influence. I, personally, rather like the sculpted surfacing and the athletic stance of the new 3-Series, and I also find the detailing around the front lights and grille both striking and appealing. The rear end, however, is a disorganized affair, ruined by those big, clunky taillamps and unresolved lines running amok across its busy butt. The 3 is also very sensitive to wheel size and color, looking much better in dark colors with 18-inch rims, which accentuate its bulging metalwork and make it look more sinister. The current 3-Series probably won’t go down as a design milestone (as almost every previous 3-Series has) but that doesn’t stop it being an imposing and impressive machine from most angles, nonetheless.


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Lexus’ designers have eschewed trendy “flame surfacing” in favor of clean, crisp metalwork, thereby dodging the kind of backlash BMW has endured, but that didn’t stop them peeking at the 3-Series for inspiration. The shape of the hood; relationship between grille, lights, and fenders; even the kink in the rear quarter-light all have BMW undertones, though melded inoffensively into the IS’ rather ambiguous overall shape. The IS does have a strong stance and broad shoulders, however, and the standard 17-inch wheels also fill out the wheel wells better than the BMW’s, but compared to the first IS, which still looks good to this day, the new car’s styling isn’t going to have many heads turning for a second glance. Lexus should have modeled the IS after the more imposing GS and worried less about what BMW was up to, I think. Case in point, look at the back of the IS: Free from BMW influence, the rear end is taught, aggressive, and so perky you want to wrap it in spandex and make it do lunges. More originality from Lexus’s stylists, please, because when left to their own devices they clearly possess the skills.

Internal conflict

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