Most car brands have pinnacles of success through their history. Lexus, it seems, makes a pinnacle out of every new model it produces and one such is its revised IS 350 just launched in South Africa.It's the third version of the luxury sport sedan - the facelifted version reached South Africa only 18 months earlier - and comes in three guises priced from R449 900 for the "entry level" model through R499 900 for the EX, to the F Sport version at R553 900 though all with the same engine and gearbox.The increased price follows a growing list of features on the EX and F Sport - the latter also acquiring some sexier bodywork even though the basic model is good-looking enough and instantly identifiable on the road thanks to its startlingly large "spindle" grille - an evolution of the original (see image above).View image galleryThe less conservative body styling has also taken the model's drag coefficient down to 0.25 - 16% better than its predecessor.'SPIRITUAL LEADER'Lexus sees the cars' main competition as BMW's 3 Series, Mercedes' C-Class and Audi's A4 and with this the third-generation IS sedan, Lexus says it “has thrown down the gauntlet: build the most fun-to-drive sport sedan in the world”. Then it answers its own question of “does the newest gladiator in the auto arena pull off a victory?” with “absolutely, unquestionably, assuredly, undoubtedly… but don’t just take our word for it”.The media release goes on to quote stuff from US auto mag Car & Driver which “anointed the all-new (er, except for the engine – Ed) Lexus IS 350 F Sport as the spiritual leader of the sports sedan pack”. Hallelujah!Calvyn Hamman, Lexus’ senior VP for sales and marketing endorsed (not surprisingly) the C&D testimonial thus: “Lexus has covered all the bases and engineered the new IS to deliver the very pinnacle of dynamic performance and driver engagement while retaining the brand’s legendary superlative standards of comfort and kit.“If you’re in the market for a sporting rear-wheel sedan you cannot afford to overlook the new benchmark.”FLASH LOOKS ADDEDI don’t like the bulk of really big cars – at only 4665mm overall, the neat IS 350 is 80mm longer and 10mm wider than its predecessor (how much space does the average ou/ouess’s backside take up, for Heaven’s sake?) - and sports cars, while fun on a track, are a pain in traffic. Hot hatches, too, can be hard work, though each to his/her own.So, if you want fast, comfortable, sporty, upmarket, there are four "popular" brands: BMW, Mercedes, Audi... and Lexus. And check which of the four keeps getting great marks for customer satisfaction... Now comes the latest version of Lexus’ IS 350, carried-over 228kW/375Nm engine included, some high-tech stuff and flash looks added.The IS 350’s 3456cc V6 petrol engine has direct and port injection and "intelligent" variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust camshafts, "significantly enhancing engine performance and reducing fuel consumption". It can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 5.9sec and on to a maximum 225km/h. Lexus claims a fuel consumption figure of 9.7 litres/100km; the average on the 350km launch drive in KZN from the F Sport I was in was a comfortable 9.2/100km according to the comprehensive trip data computer.The engine is more powerful than its German competitors and comes on stream like the Vaal dam overflowing: it also sounds great, starting with a turbine-like whine that deepens into a serious growl as the revs rise.Power goes to the rear wheels - as does that of Mercedes and BMW, of course - through an eight-speed auto/manual sequential gearbox from the Lexus IS F which comes with steering-wheel paddle shifters. A new 'Mode Select' system offers as many as five driver-selected driving modes: Eco, Snow, Normal, Sport/Sport S and SPORT S+ (the last two added to the F Sport with its automatically variable suspension).The AVS is standard with the F Sport package.NEW BRAKE SYSTEMIn Sport mode the gearbox automatically selects the optimum ratio and downshift pattern in response to G-force input from yaw sensors and there are no disconcerting auto downshifts through curves to unbalance the car. Lexus adds that the transmission is capable of complete lock-up for quick-response shifting from second through to eighth gear.The IS 350 also has a completely new brake system with 334x30mm ventilated front discs and 310x18mm ventilated rear discs with light aluminum alloy rear brake callipers derived from the current GS.Variable-ratio steering comes for the first time on the IS range with the F Sport package. At low and medium speeds it decreases the steering gear ratio for fast responses during tight cornering and parking manoeuvres. At high speed the gear ratio is increased to provide a more gentle response and maximum vehicle stability.The centre console has another Lexus first - electrostatic fingertip aircon controls - and the standard package is equipped with a new Lexus display audio system while EX and F Sport models have ‘remote touch-controlled electro multi-vision navigation multimedia systems incorporating satnav’. You will be tested...There’s also a new steering-wheel, the first on a Lexus, its maker says, to co-ordinate multimedia control with instrument nacelle and centre-console displays.The new interior design is available in a choice of three smooth leather colour schemes: black, cream and dark rose (mulberry), an F Sport exclusive.Two types of multimedia work with a high-res 16.5cm colour display and the EMVN (told you you' be tested!) on the EX and F Sport. Lexus says EMVN as developed "to provide excellent connectivity and enhanced HMI features" - human-machine interface. The new steering-wheel is the first on a Lexus to co-ordinate multimedia system control with both the centre console and instrument displays.There are two USB ports in the 'tween-seats console.The driver can view audio data, mobile phone reception and incoming call information, as well as satnav directions, while also using the switch on the steering-wheel to select music tracks and place outgoing phone calls. The satnav CPU (EX and F SPORT), Lexus says, has four times the processing power of the previous system with 3-D city and landmark graphics, accurate replication of motorway signs and speed limit info.PRICING AND SPECIFICATIONLexus says the IS 350 has more features - “more car for your money” - than any similarly sized and performance-capable rival. That would take computer analysis to digest but if that’s the claim, then so be it. The extra length of the car has translated to excellent rear legroom, even with a tall driver. The boot is also bigger: up from 396 to 480 litres.First up is the IS 350 at R449 900. Frankly, unless you get off on flash and bling, it’s the one to go for. Same engine, much the same ride, and nobody will tell the difference at a glance from the F Sport and EX.They are all driver’s cars; make the most of your ability...This "entry model" has 17” alloys, daylight running lights, a choice of drive modes (Normal, Eco, Sport), puddle lights, cruise control, fuel-consumption display, smart entry and remote locking/unlocking, multi-info display, audio control and gear-shifters on the steering-wheel, dual-zone aircon, power/heatable external mirrors, high-intensity discharge headlights (auto if selected) with cleaners and 10 air bags.The model also has leather seats with eight-way adjustment, heating and ventilation on the front seats, 60/40 split luggage-friendly rear seats, tyre-pressure monitoring, eight-speaker Lexus audio with audio input, iPod compatibility, Bluetooth phone connection, traction and stability control and anti-lock brakes.But wait, as they say, there’s more on the Lexus IS 350 EX at R499 900. This model adds a self-dimming rear-view mirror, two-zone multimedia system, remote controller, satnav with auto zoom and 3-D, parking radar and auto screen wipers.And then there’s the F Sport at R553 900, a tad more than R100 000 on top of the basic helluva car already IS 350.That extra hundred grand gets you (apart from envious glances at the golf club and maybe a sideways look from your bank manager) 18” 10-spoked alloys, F Sport mesh grille, memory and folding function for the already power/heatable door mirrors, adaptive suspension to handle the Sport S+ setting on the drive mode selector (one's no good without the other), variable steering (more turns when parking) LFA-style instruments and naked aluminium F Sport pedals.The model also benifits from F Sport leather trim on the steering wheel and gear-shifter as well as F Sport seats.Personally, I’d bank the extra hundred g’s; the basic IS 350 is one of the best cars you’ll ever have. Honest.MORE FROM LEXUSIs there more to come in the IS line? Yes, says Lexus; other models are being considered for SA but "nothing is planned" and the future of the cars, I was told, could follow the trend of other brands which have moved to smaller engines boosted by turbocharging "but not until they are proved better than the current V6 and not at a cost to refinement and smoothness".All Lexus IS units are sold with a four-year or 100 000km warranty and various service/maintenance plans – ask the salesman. To find your nearest dealer go to Lexus South Africa.