"...great reliability, a smooth powerful engine and some styling flash. Almost makes the BMW 3 series look dowdy..."
Good: Sporty, stylish.
Bad: Manual shift controls

 

The Lexus IS 300 is Lexus's answer to the BMW 3-Series. It's true, Lexus already has a mid-sized sedan in that $30,000 price range (the Camry-based ES 300). But the ES 300 is skewed toward luxury rather than sport. The IS 300 goes the other way entirely. It's a stiffer, smaller, sportier, more stylish car. It's supposed to appeal to younger folks, and the folks at Lexus seemed to have hit the mark.

We have a hunch that the Lexus engineers had a brochure of a BMW 330i Sedan tacked to the wall when they designed the IS 300. Or, could it be mere coincidence that both cars are four-door sedans with three-liter, straight-six engines, rear-wheel drive, and sporty handling? Anyway, who cares? Those engineers did a fine job. Even if they did plagarize. The IS 300 has a cars.com target price of just over $27,000.


Driving Experience

The IS300 is a very quick vehicle. The three-liter, 215 horsepower engine is the same one that's in the larger and heavier Lexus GS 300. Ray thought the IS 300 was quite drivable, and didn't feel excessively powerful. Tom, as usual, thought it was overpowered, and ranted that it was unconscionable of Lexus to design such a car. (The IS 300, by the way, has a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 0.66, violating Tommy's proposed ratio of 0.60.) We all agreed, however, that the IS 300 has more than enough power for its 3,255 pounds. You may find it takes some time to get used to how quickly this car accelerates.

The low-aspect tires result in very good cornering and handling, although at the expense of the ride. But, Lexus has taken care of some of those bumps by softening up the suspension. All in all, a stiff ride, but not uncomfortable. We don't suspect Lexus will hear much griping about the ride–especially since buyers who want a cushier vehicle are more likely to look at the similarly priced ES 300.

The IS 300 we drove came with a five-speed automatic, which initially was the only transmission offered in this vehicle. If you miss manual shifting, the automatic has a manual mode that allows you to shift up and down through the gears by pressing buttons on the steering wheel. The button on the front, where your thumb rests, shifts down, while the button on the back, where your index finger rests, shifts up. Beginning in 2002, Lexus will offer a true, five-speed manual transmission.

Two brothers in our reviewing team questioned the wisdom of placing shifting controls on the steering wheel, and wondered how anyone was supposed to find "the consarned buttons," while turning the steering wheel. They thought it was an unnecessary option that made shifting complicated and–should you accidentally hit one of the buttons–potentially unsafe. However, their esteemed producer, Dougie Berman, says he found it wasn't such a big deal, and a driver could get used to it. Although he agreed that it does present a problem for those drivers who typically downshift during a turn.

We liked how solid this vehicle felt, especially after having been in the hands of a bunch of abusive professional auto reviewers for 17,000 miles. Some vehicles we've driven have begun shedding parts hither and yon over Our Fair City well before this point. But not this one. It still felt new–a testament to Lexus build quality.

One important note: With its rear wheel drive design, the IS 300 may be close to undrivable in snow. If you live any place that gets more than a few inches of snow each winter, we'd seriously consider looking at the competing Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, or Volvo S60, all of which are available with all wheel drive.


Interior

Inside, we found the IS 300 to be a bit of a tight fit. It felt pretty narrow, enough so that you really ought to spend a fair amount of time inside one before making a decision to buy. There's about three inches less shoulder room than a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Even though the shoulder room is identical to the BMW 3 Series, the IS 300 still felt narrower. Leg room, front and rear, was just barely adequate. (Note to those with claustrophobic mothers-in-law: The trunk is on the small side, too.)

The interior is in keeping with the car's sporty theme. The seats are terrifically supportive, there's a small, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and the black and gray gauges have a chronometer-like, dial-within-a-dial look. We weren't quite as crazy about the stainless-steel ball on top of the shift lever. In fact, we thought it was downright stupid. Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the creepy Nazi guy reaches into the flames to grab the pendant? That's how the shifter feels on a hot, sunny day.

The IS 300 comes well equipped, with traction control, antilock brakes, side air bags, air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, auto-up windows, fog lights, a CD changer, a tilt wheel, a tool kit, and even a first aid kit. The obligatory cup holders are between the front seats; they're the L size, not XXL.


Ergonomics

Ergonomically speaking, aside from the aforementioned shifter buttons and stick shift ball, everything else on the IS 300 was where it was supposed to be.


Styling

We think the IS 300 looks great. It's slightly wedge-shaped, with little styling cues apparently calculated to raise its cool quotient. Lexus seems to be hitting the mark, by the way, judging by the looks this car got from guys. We got so many looks in this car that, for a while, we suspected someone had taped a Jennifer Lopez poster to the door.

On another styling note: Does it interest you to know that this is the only Lexus available in yellow? No? We didn't think so.


Reliability

Lexus has an enviable reputation for reliability, and the IS 300 feels very well built. Like all Lexi, this car should prove to be exceptionally reliable.


Maintenance

The IS 300 is rear wheel drive, which has some wonderful benefits when it comes to service and maintenance. There's tons of room in the engine compartment, which will make service and maintenance a breeze. We would expect the IS300 to be very easy to service. In fact, we think the IS 300 harkens back to a bygone era, when cars were serviceable by their owners. There's enough room under the hood for you to work on this car yourself, if you want. Changing the oil, spark plugs, and air filter are all easy to do on the IS 300.


Overall comments

Anyone who's in the market for a youth-oriented sports sedan and has $30,000 or so to spend ought to take a look at the IS 300. Its advantages in this class are that it's got great reliability, courtesy of Toyota, plus a smooth, powerful engine, and some styling flash. It almost makes the BMW 3-Series look dowdy. If you've got the bucks, and want a car that not-that-many-other-people have, this IS 300 is a fun car to consider.


[Test Drive Notes Index]