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.