Ann Arbor - The Lexus IS300 is an extraordinarily entertaining sport sedan--especially so now that it's offered with a manual transmission. Whether it is or is not a true head-on competitor for the BMW 3-series should be beside the point, because the Japanese manufacturers have achieved fame and fortune not by building clones of BMW and Mercedes-Benz but by building cars Detroit should build but doesn't. Japan builds the best American cars money can buy, and the Lexus IS300 certainly fits that description. It is most definitely a car that Detroit should have built. It wears a Lexus badge, and that guarantees that it will be better engineered, better built, and more reliable than most other cars, no matter who builds them.
Having said that, however, BMW is clearly the benchmark in this class, and the comparisons are inevitable. Just read any car magazine that has dealt with the Lexus IS300 during the past year. Or, for that matter, just read the logbook from our test car:
"In terms of luxury, looks, and sport, the Lexus is excellent, beautiful even, but no more so than the BMW. Pricewise, they are direct competitors. So, the Lexus is just an option if you're looking to buy something like a 3-series. Why not just buy a 3-series?"
"It's not as complete a car as a 3-series, but it's edgier and perhaps more interesting."
"My household recently got a new BMW 328Ci five-speed with the sport package, and after just a very short stint behind the wheel of the IS, dare I say it's more fun? One thing is definite: The steering is more direct, accurate, and responsive than our 328. After driving the IS300, the 328 feels almost large. The IS is far more nimble."
"Terrific steering and control. Geared much like a 3-series on the highway--3250 rpm at 80 mph. After four approximately 1000-mile days, I gained a lot of admiration for this car. I'd take one over a 325i any day."
"Owing to the law of unintended consequences, the Lexus folk may have set out to build a BMW 328i, but they wound up with a car that's very special and hugely entertaining in its own right. I would be tempted to buy the Lexus instead of the BMW partly because I enjoyed it so much and partly because it offers the additional benefits of Lexus quality and Lexus service and Lexus reliability."
The IS300 was introduced to the world outside the United States in 1999 as the Lexus IS200/Toyota Altezza and received enthusiastic reviews. Wanting the U.S. Lexus version to be a standout and having one of the world's really good three-liter straight sixes on the shelf, it was a no-brainer for Toyota to combine the well-liked Altezza with a 215-horsepower version of the six-cylinder engine that powers the GS300. The resulting straight-line performance is really worthwhile--0 to 60 in just over seven seconds and a top speed of 144 mph. It's lean and fast, and, before you know it, your sixth-sense speedometer has you looking down into the instrument cluster: You're expecting the dial to read 80 mph, and you see 105.
In our twelve months with the IS300, we found handling and roadholding to be equally impressive up to about nine-tenths of its performance potential, but at that point, the chassis began to lose its calm competence. Car and Driver magazine reported a similar experience. Driving a four-door sedan beyond that level on a public road would be wildly irresponsible, so this shortcoming is largely academic. It should happen only on a racing circuit or a test track, but the point is, it doesn't happen at all in a BMW 330i.
On the other hand, we found the four-wheel disc brakes to be superb, perhaps best in class. These consist of 11.7-inch vented discs in the front and 12.1-inch solid discs in the rear, augmented by ABS and electronic brake-force distribution, which ensures that all four brakes work at maximum effectiveness during an aggressive stop.
Most Japanese sedans are content to go with Mr. MacPherson's struts, but the IS300 is fitted with upper and lower control arms, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar at the front and, at the rear, upper control arms, lower lateral links, toe-control links on either side, coil springs, and an anti-roll bar. A Torsen limited-slip differential is optional. Steering is by rack and pinion. Our test vehicle had the 17 x 7 alloy rims and Goodyear Eagle GS-D tires. When winter came, we called Tire Rack and fitted four of their striking Mille Miglia sixteen-inch wheels, shod with Dunlop SP Winter Sport M2 snow tires. Both left-side wheels were damaged by one of Michigan's prodigious potholes and had to be replaced before spring arrived.
Those tire changes, in fact, incurred our only nonwarranty repair costs. Total warranty costs--paid by the manufacturer--came to about $1500, $1300 of which involved the stereo. This was one good car, and it earned the affectionate admiration of all who drove it. At the same time, our Lexus dealer--Meade Lexus of Southfield, Michigan--provided service as good as the car itself. We wound up loving the Meade Lexus employees, too. Copy editor Matt Phenix feared that one of his favorite CDs was lost when our test car's CD changer ate it. Upon discovering that the disc was wedged in the number two slot in the changer, the service people simply removed the original-equipment CD player, sent it off to Japan for an autopsy, and replaced it with a new one. Imagine Phenix's delight a couple of weeks later when the CD in question was returned to him--from Japan--unharmed.
When we received our IS300, the car was not available with a manual transmission. Pragmatic engineering logic told the development team that a sophisticated five-speed automatic, enhanced by pushbutton manual controls on the steering wheel, would provide the most practical shifting solution for the largest number of IS300 prospects. It became abundantly clear early in the program that the Lexus would not be fully accepted in the enthusiast community without a traditional hand-shifted lever and clutch pedal. This demand is not practical or pragmatic. It has to do with a car enthusiast's ideas of driving fun and self-expression, colored by the important fact that the BMW and Audi competitors are available with manual gearboxes that continue to be quite popular.
If the target market breaks down to 80/20 or 70/30 in favor of automatics in a car of this type, our staff probably breaks down to 60/40 in favor of manual shifting. We were crazy about this car, but several of us complained about the manually shifted automatic as a substitute for the genuine obsolete article. There were also complaints about the complexity of the shifting protocol. After experimenting briefly with the pushbuttons, we tended to ignore them and drive the car purely as an automatic. Now, however, the IS300 is available with a very slick five-speed manual transmission, and grumbling about the gearbox should go away.
The IS300 is both smaller and lighter than the BMW 3-series. Despite this, the front seat is extremely comfortable and accommodates a wide range of human sizes and shapes. One staff member, locally famous for weird arrangements of limbs and torso on automotive journeys, complained bitterly about the seats being uncomfortable on long trips, but nobody took it seriously, and the complaints were drowned out by praise from everybody else. The seats are not easy chairs. They're spare and sporty and rather tautly upholstered. They are covered in leather with ventilated faux-suede inserts, and they're very supportive without feeling orthopedic. The inserts look great, but, more important, they help to hold the driver in place during hard driving. Driver and passenger seats offer the benefits of seat warmers, which seem to work best on cold mornings while you're waiting for the car to warm up. There were some complaints that the seats didn't get warm enough, but, when used properly, they seemed to be quite satisfactory.
Two features stand out in the interior as you open the driver's door. The instrument cluster is a real grabber and does manage to look like an expensive chronograph. There were drivers among us who found the cluster difficult to use, but it seemed to become easier with familiarity. Lexus has been showing the way with instrument clusters since the LS400 was introduced eleven years ago, and this very elegant data presentation undoubtedly will spawn a number of imitators. Then there are the pedals. These feature a brushed-aluminum finish and appear to have been drilled for lightness. Very racy! Only on closer examination do you find that the holes contain black rubber plugs to provide traction for those old leather-soled Lobbs you wear on weekends. The story is that the project engineer's thirteen-year-old son came up with the idea for the pedals; if this is true, that kid should be hired as special assistant to Robert Lutz in his latest role as vice chairman in charge of product development at General Motors.
The audio system is a 240-watt, eight-speaker, AM/FM/cassette stereo with an in-dash, single-feed, six-disc CD changer. Everything about it reflects Lexus quality and Lexus attention to detail, even if ours did devour the copy editor's favorite Dean Martin CD. Another staff member commented that even while cruising at highway speeds in the IS300 with its sporty exhaust note, he was able to distinguish subtle details on some of his live-performance CDs that he hadn't heard on his sound system at home.
The exterior color of our IS300 was sort of a tomato-soup red, which the manufacturer called auburn sky pearl. Oh, dear. Whatever they called it, it was very good-looking. The car's slim shape is both aesthetically pleasing and quite purposeful, faithfully advertising the pleasure and performance on tap inside. It is high in the tail, low in the nose, and very slippery-looking. The drag coefficient is a mere 0.29, which strikes us as being nearly optimal for a small package that delivers full creature comfort and a surprising amount of head- and legroom.
As in the latest LS430, the headlight, parking light, and taillight modules are used as important punctuation in the overall design. The same can be said of the seventeen-inch alloy wheels, which become really important relative to the car's very tight exterior dimensions.
Some experts have suggested that Lexus is so good at being the best that it doesn't really need to resort to niche models such as the SC430 roadster, the GS300/430, and the IS300--that the image dilution caused by the appeal to young, testosterone-rich buyers won't be worth the incremental profit they deliver. We disagree with those experts. Lexus does indeed build awfully nice luxury sedans and sport-utility vehicles, but a little ecumenical outreach is a good thing. They certainly made some new customers happy when they branched out into SUVs, and adding the SC and GS lines was clearly an idea whose time had come. The IS300 served us well through four seasons of enthusiastic driving and a number of lovely, long driving adventures. We're more than pleased to share that pleasure with a few like-minded customers around the country.