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2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD

This Lexus is a pussycat Add to ...

It was only two years ago when the Lexus IS-F performance sedan - self-nicknamed 'The Beast' - shocked the Canadian automobile establishment by winning the AJAC Best New Sports Car award, beating out pricier performance icons like the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, Cadillac CTS-V and even the mighty Nissan GT-R.

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Gasps rang out when voters, blown away by the higher performance of its rivals, heard the news that the The Beast had won. Organizers of the Automobile Journalists of Canada TestFest worried that some glitch in their continually refined scoring formulas had produced such an unexpected result.

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Yet when you look at the categories that cars are judge on, it's less surprising, because there are many more aspects to evaluating a car than just tire-punishing performance, even in sports cars. Styling, interior livability, quality, noise/vibration/harshness control, ride comfort and fuel economy are judged as well, by consumers and auto reviewers, and the Lexus did well in all these areas versus its harder-edged rivals. Outside of The Beast's 416-hp V-8, the related engineering genes in the rest of the IS lineup imbue it with a similarly refined personality, and sport sedan fun that's turned down in volume, not off.

Come November, the IS-F is going to become the only IS sedan that's rear-wheel-drive only for 2011. Its little brother, the 306-hp IS 350, will be available with the same all-wheel-drive system that has been available on the base IS 250, a performance-oriented system that sends 70 per cent of its power to the rear, and a maximum of 50 per cent to the front tires. This will make the IS 350 an option for folks who like the smooth but silky oomph offered by many entry-luxury sport sedans in this class, but also want the confidence to be able to drive it up to the cottage all year round.

Because this generation of the IS debuted in 2005, it's not surprising that its age shows up in a few areas. The first is its design, which while attractive, is starting to seem a touch dated, although it has been updated this year with standard high-intensity headlamps highlighted by sharp LED lamps that accentuates the arrow-head design of the front end. New rims that mimic the 400-grand Lexus LF-A exotic car are also part of this year's freshening. And unlike the 3-Series and C-Class, you won't see your car on every street corner, to Lexus Canada's dismay, so while the shape may seem familiar to enthusiasts, it'll still provide a modicum of exclusivity within the class.

Inside the 2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD

The IS 350's interior is luxurious, though not quite artfully so, with a dearth of colours that goes for minimalist modernity. It has all the required trappings of a good 50-grand sport sedan: leather, navi, push-button ignition that prevents fumbling with the key to unlock the doors or get it started, and a kicking sound system. But it also has a large hump that juts out into the driver's foot-well, the all-wheel-drive's transaxle making itself known to the driver's shins.

The back seat is much larger than the first-gen IS that came out in 2000, but unfortunately there's no talk of a revival of the SportCross version that added a zoomy hatchback - which suffered dismal sales in the U.S. - even though Audi, BMW and Cadillac offer wagon/hatch versions of their entry sedans.

This IS also loses practicality points for not offering a fold-down rear seatback, providing only a pass-through for skis or longer items. This is not the car for those who regularly pack their minivan or compact SUV to the roof with weekend gear for the cottage.

However, it does provide some good fun for those who are familiar with the most twisty roads to get there.

The six-speed transmission may be a smoothness-focused slushbox instead of the more modern and responsive dual-clutch units, but the IS 350 provides shift paddles that react pleasingly quick when you don't want to take your hands off the wheel to tip its shifter back and forth through its sequential mode. The lack of a six-speed manual option hurts its enthusiast appeal, as does the lack of a torque-vectoring component to the AWD system, which would have divided up the power not only front to back, but also left and right, to help handling as well as security.

Despite a few engineering grey hairs, there are some good sport sedan ingredients with this IS 350 AWD, especially for security-minded buyers.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD.

2011 Lexus IS 350 AWD

Type: Compact luxury sport sedan

Base price: (estimated) $50,000

Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 306 hp/277 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.4 city/7.8 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: BMW 335i xDrive, Cadillac CTS AWD, Infiniti G37 AWD, Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC

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