Joy Ride

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2006

It's hard to believe anyone needs more than the 2006 Lexus IS250 provides. This sporty sedan is far from the top of the Lexus lineup, but with proper options, it matches just about any luxury car on the market. For my needs, it was a perfect commuter vehicle.

Begin with the price. The IS250 (there's a more powerful 350 model) starts at $31,160. That's the current cost of entry into what is known as the "near-luxury" segment.

Our tester had 18-inch alloy wheels with special summer tires, costing $720, and a wonderful GPS navigation system with voice activation, a rear camera and Bluetooth capabilities. All of that totaled $2,550.

The first thing most would-be buyers will fall for are the "looks" of the IS250. It's one of the best-looking cars on the market, along with its main competitor, the sporty Infiniti G35.

Those looks are entirely functional, providing four doors, a spacious trunk and plentiful back-seat room. Under the hood is a 2.5-liter V6 engine with 204 horsepower that propels the car from zero to 60 in under eight seconds. That's fine for most of today's crowded roads. Fuel mileage is an excellent 24 city and 32 highway.

The new six-speed automatic transmission that came with the tester was a joy. Shifts were almost undetectable under most circumstances. On the steering wheel are paddle shifters like those found in Formula One racing cars. Push or pull a paddle to move a gear up or down manually (faster, most likely, than you could with a stick shift).

The suspension has been redesigned for this year's IS250 and provides a firm ride, always in contact with the road. And the brakes have been reworked, as well. They were as good as it gets before this year. Now they're even better.

Our tester was rear-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is available as an option. That's not really needed in a climate like Florida's, so save some money.

Get behind the steering wheel of a Lexus IS250 and look for the ignition key slot. Hmm-there is none. The remote key fob contains coding so the car knows you belong in the driver's seat. There's an ignition button on the dashboard. Press it and Lexus leaps to life.

Safety features are first rate. There are air bags seemingly everywhere: in front of driver and front-seat passenger, to their sides, next to their heads, and in front of their knees. Rear-seat passengers are protected by the head-curtain bags that run the length of the car.

Few automakers devote as much attention to auto-interior acoustics as Lexus. Mark Levinson worked with Lexus, and the system on our tester had 13 speakers that could play from an eight-disc in-dash CD player that will accept MP3 discs.

All windows in the Lexus were one-touch down and up. No disappointment. And all windows went all the way down-as all windows should but often don't. When the windows are closed, the Lexus IS250 becomes one of the quietest experiences in motoring today.

When you reach this level of vehicle-just north of $30,000-the smallest misstep can and should send a would-be buyer to another car. All of the advanced features that can be put in luxury cars should be available. That's true of this Lexus. Everything about the car must be perfect: No distorted windshield or incorrect door-handle design, no tiny trunk or cramped rear seat, no reflections from lighted instruments-none of that is present in the Lexus IS250.

I must confess that when I drove Infiniti's new competitor, the G35, I was greatly impressed, too. It was better than similar BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz models I'd tested. On a par with the Lexus, I thought then. So what would tilt a buyer from one to the other?

Reliability. Look at the J.D. Power ratings or Consumer Reports' annual rankings and see which brand promises to be the most dependable, reliable value. For what seems now like forever, that brand remains Lexus.

The Lexus motto used to be "the relentless pursuit of perfection." With the 2006 IS250, perfection of a sort has been achieved. It's hard to understand why anyone with the means would not buy this car.

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