With a host of performance-themed enhancements, Lexus sweetens its little peach.
You have to admit that the Lexus IS300 hasn't exactly set the world on fire. For all the talk of this car as a head-to-head rival for the BMW 3-series when it was introduced in 2000, it doesn't have much credibility on the street as a Beemer-fighter.
Lexus has worked hard to get this car back on track. First, the five-door SportCross was introduced for the 2002 model year. At the same time, a five-speed manual transmission appeared as standard equipment for the sedan. Finally, an L-Tuned option package with high-performance equipment sourced from California-based TRD (Toyota Racing Development) was made available in the western states of the U.S. Despite these efforts, IS300 sales declined 9.7 percent to 20,306 cars in 2002, even as BMW sold 115,428 3-series cars.
Now a SportDesign option package is meant to reinvigorate the IS300. Like a similar package introduced for the GS300 last year, the SportDesign option group comes from Japan as a mix of luxury details with a performance theme. The paint selections for the bodywork signify seriousness, a choice of metallic gray, pearlescent gray, or gloss black. There's a special SportDesign grille plus pearlescent black trim around the headlights and taillights. The interior is finished in gray leather and a sunroof is standard. The only performance items are special 17-inch cast-alloy wheels with 45-series tires and a different exhaust tip. It all adds up to a $1355 increase over the IS300 sedan's base price of $30,010.
And yet we'd argue that it's foolish to compare this car to the BMW 3-series in any case. To begin with, the IS300 is a smaller package, offering 89.2 cubic feet of passenger volume. It's more like the previous generation 3-series than the current BMW, and this is particularly noticeable in the rear seat, which offers barely as much leg room as the notoriously cramped BMW 3-series coupe. More important, the IS300 is a car done in the Lexus style, and it has a refinement in its engine performance, ride quality, and steering that the BMW cannot match.
Underneath the skin, the 3255-pound IS300 sedan resembles the larger Lexus GS, and it has the same silky composure when it goes down the road. This is the kind of thing that makes for a great car when you're driving long distances. Meanwhile, the IS's 215-hp, 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder is one of Toyota's classic engines, the very same that makes the old twin-turbo Supra such a popular choice among the Fast-and-Furious street racers. And the five-speed manual transmission is a reminder that Toyota once was noted for the quality of its manual transmissions for rear-wheel-drive cars. An IS300 sedan with five-speed gets to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and will reach 144 mph.
All this adds up to a great package to drive on the open road. Yet as a pure performance car, the IS isn't quite a BMW 3-series, as we discovered at California Speedway, where we drove the infield road circuit on which the Team Lexus IS300 SportCross had successfully competed in the Grand-Am Cup the day before. Even when it's overlaid with current options like vehicle skid control, which comes with a Torsen limit-slip differential and is available only for the manual transmission version, the IS300 is a road car, not a track car. It's fast, but the tail wags a bit, and the steering doesn't have the same crispness nor the chassis the same quick response of the BMW that will keep it under control and produce the lap times you'd expect.
We'd argue that the whole BMW comparison for this car has been wrong-headed from the start. In the beginning, Lexus portrayed the IS300 as a radical piece, gave it a bunch of overheated styling licks and bright colors to match, and let it loose. Frankly, it looked too wild for its $30,000 price point, and the performance didn't match the promise of the styling. A couple years later, Lexus has toned down the styling with the SportDesign option group to deliver a more Germanic look, while improving the car's performance credentials with hardware and electronics.
The IS300 is a genuine performance car, yet it goes about its business in a way that's uniquely Lexus, blending speed with refinement. This is a compelling mix, and the IS300 deserves more credit for its merits. As long as Lexus continues to put its cars on the track with Team Lexus, it will continue to slowly acquire credibility with performance enthusiasts. But it would be a mistake for Lexus to think of this car as a baby BMW. The IS300's combination of performance and refinement continues to be unique, and it underscores the potential that the Lexus character has for future development. After all, why shouldn't small cars offer luxury as well as performance?