Dull. Yes, that would work, I think. How would you go about describing Lexus cars and SUVs in a word? Sure, there's reliability, safety, and all things that seem to encompass "the relentless pursuit of perfection." But I'm thinking more in terms of how do they drive. Do they stoke your soul every time you turn the ignition key? Can you, as Will Smith might ask if he were so inclined, get jiggy with it?
In my experience, driving a Lexus is about as exciting as drinking tap water from a paper cup. So imagine our staff's surprise (and yes, you will have to imagine it, as you don't know any of us or work in our office) when a 2001 IS 300 arrived at our doorstep. We had heard that this one was going to be different. And it was. It was so different, we suspect many Lexus dealers won't quite know what to do with it.
And what exactly is the IS 300? Allow me to be lazy and quote directly from the Lexus press kit: "Positioned below the GS luxury high-performance models, the IS 300 will compete with such established sport sedans as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. Pricing will be extremely competitive with those cars. Lexus expects the IS 300 to enhance the brand's appeal among buyers in the 25-40 age group."
That's the mission statement. Traditionally, the Lexus ES 300 has been the marine grunt sent off to do battle against the entry-level Germans. The Camry-based front-wheel-drive ES could never match the German's athleticism, however, and that's where the IS 300 comes in.
In Japan, the IS 300 is known as the Toyota Altezza. On sale over there since 1999, the Altezza/IS 300 looks and acts like a GS 300 that has been filed down and given a sharper edge. Its styling is subtle, angular and aggressive. It has a distinct wedge shape, and soft light will reveal a slight "power bulge" on the center of the hood and an upswept styling line running along the flanks of the car. Standard high-intensity headlights are mounted up front, and the whole shape manages to achieve a low 0.28 coefficient of drag. Most of our editorial staff liked the IS 300's exterior styling, though one editor noted her dislike of the art-deco clear taillights, claiming they look unfinished.
Regardless, the taillights are distinctive, and they are one of three key visual identifiers to the car. The other two -- the chrome-plated shift knob and the chronograph-inspired gauge cluster -- are found inside the cabin. We applaud Lexus for thinking creatively, but each has their own particular problems.
The gauge cluster, which reminded us of a TAG Heuer Formula One watch, features the speedometer as the main dial with three smaller gauges inside it. The smaller ones (real-time fuel mileage, battery volts and coolant temperature) look cool but are hard to read due to their size. The chrome shifter ball also adds uniqueness to the car, but it can quickly get covered with fingerprints. It can also get hot to the touch when left in direct sunlight.
The rest of the interior looks thoroughly modern. Racecar-like drilled aluminum pedals and metal skid plates for the doorsills are nice touches. The dash contains oval outboard vents, a textured top, and a climate control system with three large rotary dials. It all looks great until you start getting touchy-feely. With the car's interior, that is.
Even a sub-$15,000 Volkswagen Golf GL has more soft-touch interior materials than the IS 300. Rap the textured top of the dash with your knuckles, and it will respond with a plasticky hollow sound. Much of the switchgear seems like it was pulled directly from a Corolla. Not that this is bad, per se (Toyota's controls are always of high quality and easy to use), it's just that we would expect more when paying over $30,000. Our test car even had the $1,705 leather/ecsaine interior trim upgrade package, but nearly everybody on staff would have preferred more leather and less of the perforated faux-suede. Compared to the attractive plastics and supple leathers found inside a BMW, the IS 300's interior materials seem like they were purchased at Target.
The IS 300 also seems to have been out taking a whiz when God was passing out luxury feature content. There's no auto-dimming rearview mirror or memory seating. The automatic climate control isn't truly automatic, as you have to activate the air conditioning manually. Only the driver's window is one-touch up/down, and it is the only window switch that illuminates at night. There is no center armrest. The flimsy front cupholders refuse to accept anything larger than 12-ounce aluminum cans. The steering wheel tilts manually and doesn't telescope. Interior storage is skimpy. The rear seat is adequate for short, in-town trips, but entry and exit is difficult, and the bigger your feet are, the harder it will be due to the tight foot well and limited legroom. The IS 300 has about 3 inches less rear legroom than Audi's A4, a car that we have maligned in the past for minimal rear legroom.
Hmm. OK, so far we have minimal features, a tightly constructed but nonetheless plastic dash, a cramped rear seat and an over 30-grand price tag. It would seem Lexus is trying to pull a fast one. And that's what we originally thought. But then we actually drove the car, blitzing across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to meet up with our favorite driving roads. Then it struck us. Duh! Forget about the Lexus badge on the nose. This isn't a luxury car at all. It is a raw-edged sport sedan.
The IS 300's suspension is a slightly modified version of the GS's, consisting of a double-wishbone design front and rear, with A-shaped upper arms in the front and L-shaped upper arms and unequal-length lower links in the rear. The front 11.65-inch vented discs and 12.09-inch solid rear discs are also pulled from the larger GS. ABS and electronic brake force distribution (EBD) are standard. Providing cover for the brakes are standard five-spoke 17x7-inch wheels shod with 215/45ZR17 tires.
The body structure is extremely stiff, and Lexus has done an excellent job of tuning the suspension to provide sticky handling without hurting ride quality on the street. The IS 300 would be happy to serve as a daily-driven commuter car. It is quiet at speed with minimal wind noise (the 0.28 coefficient of drag no doubt coming into play), though the low-profile tires can get a bit vocal when driving on concrete highway.
Ah, but if driving around on concrete super slab is all you are going to do all day, go ahead and just buy an ES 300. The IS 300 is a car that needs to be exercised regularly. Well balanced due to its rear-wheel-drive layout, it is an easy car to pilot aggressively, thanks to the responsive steering and braking, nimble size, excellent driving position and 3,270-pound curb weight. The steering isn't quite as precise as a BMW's (what steering rack is?), but it's close. Very close. Our test car zipped through the slalom test at 64.3 mph, a speed nearly equal to what a Porsche Boxster can do. Equally impressive was its skidpad result of 0.85g. Traction control is standard, but stability control isn't available. A limited-slip differential (a drivetrain component that equalizes power between the two rear wheels during hard cornering and acceleration) is optional.
For power, the IS 300 relies on a DOHC 3.0-liter, inline six-cylinder engine. Other than some minor tweaks, this is the same engine that is used in the GS 300. Equipped with variable valve timing and blessed with the government's low-emission vehicle status, the engine spins out 215 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 218 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm.
It is very smooth, as are all Lexus engines. It doesn't quite have the guttural silken growl of a BMW straight six, but it does sound very good. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available. So equipped, our test car went from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. With such a broad torque curve, you rarely need to flog the IS 300 to get more speed. Shifts happen promptly, and the transmission rarely guesses wrong about what gear it should be in. There's no question that the automatic emasculates the engine's potential, but for most situations, the automatic will work out just fine. Lexus says the manual transmission wasn't ready in time for the car's launch, but hopes to have one for the calendar year 2001.
The automatic transmission features a sequential-shift mode. To operate it, pull the shift lever to the left (the lever has a great feel to it; it snaps rather than slides from gate to gate) and press up or down on the four shift buttons mounted on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. It becomes a bit woolly to operate when steering and trying to shift at the same time, and some editors were dismayed to find that the manual mode won't let the driver select first gear at a standstill. Since the tranny works so well in the normal drive mode, we only used the E-shift mode for hardcore twisty-road action.
You might be wondering if the IS 300 is as good as a BMW Three Series. On the quantifiable levels of performance and price, the Lexus is. The only thing it lacks in comparison -- and this is subtle -- is a sense of heritage and evolution. BMW has been shaping and refining the Three Series ever since the car's introduction in 1977. A BMW's steering is more telepathic, its switchgear comes much closer to al dente. Other motorists look at a Three Series and see a BMW. When they look at an IS 300, all they see is an IS 300.
But assuming Lexus stays on the correct path, maturity will come in time, just as it has to the LS 400 and upcoming LS 430. Is the IS 300 the car for you? If you're thinking that this is a luxury car because it has a Lexus badge on it, don't buy this car. It has nothing to do with luxury and, in the long run, you'll be sorely disappointed. If you want something smooth and sedate, the ES 300 is more likely your type of car. But if you want a sport sedan that also has the attributes of reliability, safety and "the relentless pursuit of perfection," the IS 300 will work out quite nicely.
System Score: 7.0
Components. The system consists of a pair of ample 6-by-9 speakers on the back deck. These are complemented by a pair of 6-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors, which in turn are coupled to a wonderfully positioned pair of dome tweeters up above. These tweeters are ensconced in their own housing -- a black plastic enclosure situated between the side mirrors and the dashboard. The tweeters work well and are aimed just right. There are no speakers in the rear doors.
Electronically, the system offers a user-friendly faceplate with wide topography and several great features. For one, the in-dash, six-disc CD changer is a handy little item to have, making for easy loading and retrieval of CDs. (It's a little slow, but a lot faster than having to run to the trunk to swap CD magazines.) The FM presets offer a total of 18, six more than the usual radio. There is also a "traffic" button to check traffic reports (which you won't need, since you'll be "flying" in this car), and an abundance of other features, such as soft-touch preset buttons, a large seek/scan toggle switch, and a large LCD display. As if that weren't enough, the radio includes a "mid" tone control, for added flexibility in contouring the sound to your particular tastes.
Performance. Toyota has struggled a little to be competitive in the stereo wars. This system marks a nice improvement for them. Unfortunately, they failed to hit a home run, but they came close.
OEM stereos tend to fall into two camps: systems that look great but don't sound that good, or setups that knock your socks off but lack for features. This stereo falls into the former camp. While it offers almost every feature under the sun, it doesn't quite get up and dance the way you'd hope. Still, there are a lot of things to admire here, such as the bass response (deep and rich) and the exceptional tweeter arrangement. Acoustic strings are accurate and lush, and overall the system has a nice sound. However, there's a definite "hollowness" in the midrange, producing female vocals that are just slightly muted and subdued. Also, the tweeters get a little grainy at higher volume levels (this is actually the amp, but so be it). On the plus side, the amp plays flat out with not much clipping, and the bass response really comes through on bottom-heavy source material.
Best Feature: Dome tweeters in front doors.
Worst Feature: No speakers in the rear doors.
Conclusion. If you're comparing this car with similarly priced BMWs, and if good audio is important to you, go with the Lexus. The six-disc in-dash CD changer alone makes the decision pretty easy. BMW continues to put mediocre, under-featured sound systems in their 3 Series sedans, and even though this system doesn't rock the world, it represents a good value compared to the Bimmer. Overall, this is a better-than-average sounding system with a ton of features. Scott Memmer
"Bought my IS 300 3 years ago. Looks brand new. Drives like it did on day 1. Zero problems. I made a very good decision to purchase it. Favorite features: Build quality. Exterior styling. Performance car that is as quiet and smooth on the road as most luxury vehicles. Suggested improvements: While I have gotten 28-30 mpg a few times while driving on the highway, I would like to see a regular ability to achieve high-end mpg on highway. (28- 30 as opposed to current rating of 24 on highway.)" 01isowner, Aug. 31, 2003
"The IS 300 gives top value for overall design and assembly quality and the resultant reliability. Engine performance is highly responsive throughout the rpm range, with instant response and smooth delivery. Handling is precise and balanced (neutral with oversteer at the outer edge). Braking is excellent. The car never feels pressured; it delivers a blend of perfectly synchronized responses. Better overall than two 3 Series BMWs that I test-drove which were simply too hard-edged. Favorite features: Superb handling; smooth engine with wide torque band. Perfect blend of performance and refinement. Suggested improvements: First, tune the engine for a bit more horsepower by uncorking the exhaust slightly (the torque is fine). Second, revise the traction control to be less sensitive. Third, improve the stereo sound quality." pd, July 6, 2003