When Lexus arrived on America's shores over a decade ago, the company promised to offer its customers world-class luxury at real world prices. Lexus initially challenged established luxury car brands like Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar with its LS400 sedan (Lexus also offered a gussied up version of the Camry, called the ES250). In the years to follow, Lexus would expand its line with sportier models like the SC coupe and GS sedan. The company even jumped on the SUV bandwagon when it introduced the LX450 sport ute back in 1996. While each of these models worked to broaden the company's image, they all shared the same "Lexus philosophy" of providing uncompromising luxury and a serene environment.
The new 2001 IS300 sedan does not expand upon Lexus' established image but, instead, chews it up and spits it out. In fact, we at Edmunds.com have decided that the IS in IS300 does not stand for "intermediate sedan" or some other such corporate-approved drivel. No, the IS clearly stands for "Image Shattering" because that's exactly what this car is going to do for that big "L" located on its grille.
What makes the IS300 such a departure from previous Lexus models? An easier question to answer would be "What doesn't make it a radically different car for this normally reserved luxury maker?" To illustrate how far outside the lines this car has strayed, let's take a quick look at some Lexus firsts for the IS300. It's the first Lexus model to:
a. Cost less than $35,000 while utilizing rear-wheel drive
b. Cost less than $35,000, yet offer a manual transmission (not available until 2002)
c. Come equipped with 45-series tires as standard equipment
d. Feature drilled aluminum pedals
e. Come with a standard sport gear bag
f. Be offered in Solar (bright!) Yellow
The logic behind creating such a car comes from the absence of young people currently entering Lexus dealerships. Last year, Lexus sold just 3,500 cars less than Mercedes, with neither company offering a model targeted at customers under 40 years old. Lexus feels that with the IS300 slated to sell 25,000 units a year, Toyota's luxury division may finally be poised to punt Mercedes into the weeds in terms of total unit sales. This plan, however, depends on one crucial element: Can Lexus successfully build and market a blatant BMW 3 Series/Audi A4 ripoff? That's the question we tried to answer with a recent trip to the hill country outside of Austin, Texas.
Our initial feelings after seeing the IS300 were that, despite being an "old man's car company," Lexus has done an exceptional job of capturing the clean, sharp look that defines the modern sport sedan. Much of this success can be attributed to the IS300's head engineer, Mr. Katayama, who is himself a dedicated motorsports fan in Japan. Katayama drives a modified six-speed Altezza, (the Japanese version of the IS300 and a car that recently won Japan's "Car of the Year" award). The IS300's sharp styling features a bodyline just below the door handles that begins at the front wheel well and slides beneath a very Mercedes-esque C-pillar before curving up to the deck lid. The overall appearance is subtle compared to, say, Ford's Focus or Toyota's own Celica, but the crease does add a distinct edginess that you don't normally associate with Lexus. Combined with its standard 17-inch alloy wheels (16-inch wheels are a no-cost option for those living in rutted regions of the country), High Intensity Discharge headlights (standard on all IS300s) and clear taillight lenses, the IS300 sport sedan appears ready to stir things up in the entry-level luxury market.
This cutting-edge design continues inside, where the IS300 looks more like the product of today's performance car youth market than something a top-rated luxury brand would create. Items like drilled aluminum pedals and a chronograph instrument pod (featuring oil pressure, coolant temperature and a voltage gauge within the tachometer) have aftermarket written all over them. Stainless steel doorsill scuff plates, a metal shift knob and metallic accents throughout the stereo and climate control areas are obvious Audi TT-inspired cues. Even the optional leather seats feature suede inserts and a level of side bolstering that would do Recaro proud. More than once we found ourselves checking the grille or trunk-lid to confirm that we were, indeed, driving a Lexus.
Styling themes aside, the IS300 offers an impressive combination of performance and luxury accommodations. The optional leather seats not only offer front passengers exceptional lateral support when cornering, but eight-way power adjustments and articulating headrests as well. Legroom is plentiful, but taller drivers who like to sit upright may find their heads uncomfortably close to the roof. Items like automatic climate control, heated outside mirrors, and a single-feed, six-disc in-dash CD player come standard on every IS300. Options like heated seats, a power moonroof, a leather trim package, a limited slip differential, graphite polished wheels, wheel locks, and, of course, the venerable Lexus gold package, allow buyers to custom design an IS300 for their specific wants and needs.
Rear seat amenities include a center shoulder strap, a fold-out armrest, two cupholders, and a trunk pass-through (the rear seat backs do not fold down in this car). The rear seat bottom is firm and high enough to offer adequate leg support, but rear seat legroom is down by approximately four inches compared to the German competition. Neither the 3 Series nor the A4 are known for their commodious back seats, so cutting space here might come back to haunt Lexus when its customers try to use the IS for serious people-hauling duty.
All passengers, front and rear, will notice that this vehicle does not ride like any previous Lexus. The most obvious difference relates to sound which, in most Lexus vehicles, is non-existent. Wind, tire and engine noise become mere theories in vehicles like the LS400, SC400 or ES300. Even the LX470 is whisper quiet by SUV standards. The IS, however, makes its sport sedan leanings apparent the first time the speedo swings past 50 mph and those 45-series tires rumble over broken pavement. Tire roar is about what you'd find in any modern performance car, and the IS300's slippery 0.29 Cd means little, if any, wind noise at speed. But if you've just hopped out of another Lexus sedan, the IS will seem thunderous.
The trade-off for diminished rear seat room, grumbling tires and the occasional suspension jolt is realized in the IS300's highly capable and entertaining driving experience. From its tread pattern up, this car has a performance pedigree that is reflected in items like the engine location (just aft of the front axle) and a fuel tank that is located under the rear seat. This design works to centralize the sedan's mass for greater stability during rapid directional changes (i.e. canyon carving). A four-wheel independent suspension, with double wishbones front and rear, further contributes to road feel and driver confidence. Pure sensory feedback through the steering wheel is not quite up to BMW standards, and we felt the suspension get a little hyperactive when encountering multiple bumps at higher speeds. Yet the car's balance of comfort and performance is nearly ideal and it will likely please a wide spectrum of sport sedan buyers.
Of course, what really pulls a performance car out of poseur status and into true enthusiast appreciation is, literally, the drivetrain. For these purposes, Lexus tapped their very own GS300/SC300 and made only minor changes that included a retuned intake plenum for throatier sounds and a single (as opposed to dual) exhaust system. That last change cost the engine five horsepower compared to its output in those larger sedans, but the LEV-certified 3.0-liter inline six still manages 215 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 218 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm. These figures surpass both the 328i and A4 2.8 in terms of peak horsepower and torque, a fact that is reflected in the IS300's slightly quicker zero-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds if the BMW and Audi models are equipped with automatics. No manual transmission is available for the IS300 until 2002, so early buyers will have to entertain themselves with the automanual buttons located on the steering wheel and hope they don't meet any manual transmission-equipped competitors at stoplights. We found the automatic responsive when left in drive and quick to upshift or downshift when commands were sent via the steering wheel buttons. If you must drive a slushbox sport sedan, this system is about as good as it gets.
In addition to performance and luxury, most new-car buyers demand a certain degree of security when shopping for their next vehicle, and Lexus knows this. That's why the company hasn't scrimped on including the latest safety technology as standard equipment for the IS300. ABS and traction control are expected on today's high-end sedans, but what about Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), seat-mounted side airbags, child restraint seat-top tethers and daytime running lights? They're all standard on the IS300, as is a glow-in-the-dark emergency release trunk handle and an engine immobilizer/anti-theft system.
So, are we ready to recall all of our BMW/Audi accolades and redirect them to Lexus' latest sport sedan? Not quite. The company still has to produce a credible manual transmission, and some tweaks in steering feel and suspension tuning wouldn't hurt. Also, while we question whether or not the rear seat will prove useful for full-sized adults, we're certain that 10.1 cubic feet of trunk volume is on the low side for this class of vehicle. The IS300 does offer an undeniably attractive combination of style, luxury and performance. And at just over $30,000, it's a worthy alternative to competing BMW and Audi models.