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Lexus continues to change gears, moving away from single-minded relentless pursuits of perfection to chase performance. The new IS 300, complete with rear-wheel drive and a 215-horse inline six, chases the BMW 3 Series in the entry luxury sport marketplace, and will continue to do so until a proper manual transmission is available.
Lexus, traditional purveyor of highly refined but generally characterless luxury automobiles, is looking to change its staid, reliable, upstanding citizen image. In 1998, the upscale Toyota division lobbed the GS 400 over the net, scoring with consumers who wanted to blend the sporting V8-powered personality of a BMW 5 Series with daring styling and Japanese reliability. But that serve into opposing territory fell somewhat short of the mark in terms of initial quality and outright performance, and a lack of a manual gearbox represented a glaring omission in a vehicle targeting the vaunted 540i.
Has Lexus learned a lesson? The new IS 300, targeting the BMW 3 Series, benefits from the installation of a smooth, 3.0-liter inline six that makes 215 horsepower and 218 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm. As with the GS 300, whose engine the IS shares, rear-wheel drive is the method of motivation, but for now, we Americans are stuck with a five-speed automatic transmission equipped with E-Shift steering wheel gear-selection buttons, just like in a Formula One car. A manual is on the way, purists, if you can wait a year.
So perhaps the lesson hasn't gone unheeded. We get plenty of power, and a row-'em-yourself transmission is just around the corner. But buyers of these kinds of sedans want performance and style. The IS 300 is mostly successful in this arena, with taut, balanced exterior dimensions stretched over large, available 17-inch wheels optionally finished in smoked chrome. We aren't fans of the circular decklid-mounted taillights, and the clear rear lens covers look too much like the ones you see on the neighbor kid's lowered '94 Accord, but the overall shape is well balanced and attractive.
Inside is where Lexus gets a gold star for imagination, with a chronograph gauge cluster the centerpiece of a highly styled interior. Drilled aluminum pedals announce the IS 300's intentions loud and clear, while fashionable metallic accents litter the cabin.
Double wishbone suspension components front and rear, fine-tuned at Germany's Nurburgring racetrack, keep the standard 16-inch all-season performance tires glued to the ground, while standard four-wheel disc antilock brakes and full-range traction control keep them from sliding and spinning. A limited-slip differential is optional, while standard high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights provide superb nighttime road illumination.
Safety is also addressed, with three-point seatbelts for each of the five seating positions and front seat-mounted side airbags standard. Pre-tensioning and force limiting front harnesses maximize protection in a crash, while an interior trunk lid release handle helps prevent entrapment in the trunk.
With a base price in the low 30s, the IS 300 isn't the bargain the LS 400 was when Lexus debuted a decade ago. With both Audi and BMW offering all-wheel drive technology in their elegant and smooth-riding compact sedans, not to mention superlative interior materials and manual transmissions, Lexus may have its work cut out for it as it learns what it takes to tackle Germany's finest.