Lexus IS300 v. BMW 335i and 535i

My current car (a 2002 Lexus IS300, known is some foreign markets as the Toyota Altezza)  is now 7 years old and nearing 50K miles, and after reading some very positive reviews of BMWs with the company’s new twin-turbo 300hp engines, I thought I’d give a couple of them a test drive.

In summary, I did not much like either of them. First, the interiors of the new beamers were not as nice as the older Lexus. The leather seemed cheap and reminded me of the vinyl seating at a diner. The steering wheels were too small and lacked the comfortable meaty feel of the IS’s large leather wheel. The dashboard layout was fine, but I didn’t like the way the turn signal worked, I kept having to manually turn it off and the ticking sound it made was overly loud. The paddle shifters on the 535 awkwardly stuck out of the steering wheel, in contrast to the well-placed buttons which are flush with the steering wheel on the IS300. The 335’s interior especially felt very “basic” for such an expensive vehicle.

The 300hp I6 engine in both vehicles was silky and powerful and makes great sounds when revved, but driving on the highway with light traffic I still found the extra power over my 215hp IS to be of little value. I grinned when I punched the engine on the freeway, looked down a few seconds later, and saw I was at 115. That was fun, but the tiny difference in pick-up speed when flooring the gas pedal is pretty insignificant compared to having to live with the inferior interior on a daily basis.

In the standard trade-off between a smooth ride and better handling, both BMWs, especially the 335, had somewhat more composed handing on turns and somewhat more jittery rides, but the difference on both counts was surprisingly small, and the larger size of the 535 made it more awkward to park in a tight space. Even the 335 and its run-flats was pretty smooth on a highway of average condition, though I imagine if I drove it on some decaying surface streets around Los Angeles I’d wish I were back in the Lexus.

Another minor hit on BMWs is the paint, which looked a bit cheap for such expensive cars. They lacked the deep lustrous appearance most new cars in this price range have. Maybe they just needed to be waxed, but in this price range I’d expect this to be done before I bought it.

One area where the BMWs really have the Lexus beat is fuel economy. Despite being heavier and having stronger engines, both have much better fuel efficiency ratings.

I left the dealership quite pleased. While my car was about $37,000 new, and is now worth perhaps $17,000, I liked it more than two very popular $45,000-$60,000 vehicles. The BMW salesman was knowledgeable, helpful, and low-pressure, which I would have appreciated if I had decided to buy. Instead I think I’ll keep the old Lexus for a few more years.

From an economic perspective, Japanese and American cars are much better values than European vehicles because even with recent declines in the Euro, that currency remains richly valued against the dollar and yen. On the issue of reliability, the IS300 was assembled in Japan of almost entirely Japanese parts. The 335 is only 70% German parts and assembled in South Africa. All that needless shipping of parts from Germany to Africa, and then shipping the completed vehicle back accross another ocean and past Equator to the US undoubtedly added to the cost of the 335 without adding to its value. I also question the impact on reliability that these very long supply chains may have on the 335.


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