2001 Lexus IS 300 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
This is what the meaning of the word.
A new compact-class sedan may carry the elite badge of Lexus, primarily known for its cushy luxury cars, but it looks more like a high-strung rally car and behaves more like a road-hugging German touring sedan.
Called the IS 300, this sporty car with its slick skin and high-tech appointments marks a seventh model in the Lexus fleet, the first compact-size sports sedan from Lexus and the first Lexus targeted toward a younger audience that appreciates precise automotive engineering and likes to drive.
Spend a few miles playing with an IS 300 on a curvy road and it will delight and surprise you due to the agile handling characteristics coupled with best-in-class muscle. Reinforcing the technology beneath its skin is a sophisticated interior environment decorated with machined metallic finishes.
The Lexus IS 300 comes ashore with a window sticker that reflects a competitive pricing strategy; the sole edition is stocked with extensive standard equipment including four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control devices, and the power-oriented paraphernalia of a luxury car. Add in its rear-wheel-drive orientation and the Lexus IS 300 offers a compelling alternative to the benchmark BMW 3 Series sedans.
The Lexus IS 300 debuts at $30,500 in a single trim outfitted with a high content of standard equipment and only a few options. Best-in-class power up to 215 horsepower flows readily from a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that links to a five-speed automatic transmission with auto-manual shifting from toggles on the steering wheel. By the end of the first production year, Lexus will also have a five-speed manual transmission.
Engineers at Lexus started with a new platform featuring short front and rear overhangs, where the wheels are pushed out to the corners. Designers fashioned the taut body of an athlete for the IS 300. Within the context of a wedge-shaped format with low prow and notched fastback roofline, the sedan shows a stubby nose and brief tail with sharp-edged shoulders yet flat flanks between bulging wheelwells and blackened B-pillars that effect the sporty profile of a coupe.
Creased lines etched into the subtle stepped hood flow down from raked A-pillars to a face defined by the familial Lexus trapezoidal grille ringed with chrome and bordered by jewel-like headlamp clusters inscribed with High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps. Individual round halogen foglamps shielded behind trapezoidal composite lenses stand below these HID headlamps in the air dam.
In back, the curt tail treatment reflects unusual shapes for clear-lens corner taillights inset by round red brake lights and offset round running lamps in a pattern similar to the rear of the larger Lexus GS 400 sedan.
The overall shape is slick enough to slice through the air at a world-class aerodynamic rating of just 0.29 Cd (coefficient of drag), which mitigates wind noise and improves fuel efficiency.
As a departure for a brand heretofore known for sedate automotive statements, the IS 300 shows up in paint shades never seen before on Lexus sheetmetal, such as an aggressive citrus yellow.
In place of the placid luxury environment of other Lexus automobiles with their soft leather padding and electroluminescent display of analog instruments, a driver-oriented cockpit for the IS 300 reflects contemporary styling in a theme of graphite-tinged plastics and machined metallic finishes. There are drilled aluminum pedals typically reserved for race cars, a polished metal ball shift lever rising from a notched gate rimmed by chrome, and doorsills covered with stainless steel scuff plates studded with rubber cleats.
Tucked into the hooded instrument panel, a round analog speedometer contains smaller analog gauges arranged to resemble a sports chronograph. The watch face cluster stands between a half-moon tachometer on the left and quarter-circle fuel gauge to the right above a digital display for gear selection and trip odometer.
The dashboard center stack of vents and pods for audio and climate controls swirls down to wrap around the round gear box mounted at the front of a floor console that separates two height-adjustable sport bucket seats. Another bezel on the driver-side door panel corrals rocker toggles that power windows, door locks and both exterior mirrors.
A padded leather three-spoke steering wheel tilts manually and houses left and right sets of finger buttons that enable the driver to shift up or down one gear at a time without removing hands from the wheel. The tabs function like shifters on racers, whereby depressing the front button kicks the transmission down to the next lower gear and a touch to the back one bumps it up to a higher gear.
The firm rear bench will accommodate three in a pinch but has twin indentations and a fold-down armrest that conceals a small pass-through portal to the trunk.
Standard equipment for the IS 300 is an inclusive list of deluxe features like an automatic climate system, cruise control, power windows and door locks, eight-way power movement for front seats, a heat element imbedded in both external mirrors, remote entry and security system plus a Lexus audio package with eight speakers, cassette deck and a single-feed CD changer in the dash that holds six discs.
The sparse slate of optional gear includes leather upholstery and heated front seats, a power moonroof, a limited-slip rear differential, and 17-inch graphite alloy wheels or 16-inch wheels with all-season tires.
Chief design engineer for the IS 300, Nobuaki Katayama, is a passionate fan of motor racing who admits that his personal driving style involves a quick clip and racy maneuvers like charging around corners and letting rear wheels drift under control. To create the new Lexus compact sedan, Katayama and his team devised a rigid structural system and mechanical components that would enable an enthusiastic driver to emulate this aggressive driving style through dynamic and athletic movements.
The classic layout for sports car control, with the engine up front and its power sent to the rear wheels, has been optimized in a balancing act on the IS 300 by setting the inline-6 powerplant toward the rear of the engine compartment and mounting the hefty battery against the rear firewall. As a result, about 54 percent of the IS 300's weight rests on the front turning wheels and 46 percent loads on the rear drive wheels; this provides good chassis balance. When coupled to wheels suspended independently and capped with sticky tires, it produces a neutral stance but uncanny agility.
In effect, the firm ride quality and controlled handling traits of the IS 300 closely mimics a BMW 328i sedan. Yet it also packs sophisticated Lexus safety and comfort systems and delivers a new power standard for compact sports sedans.
The IS 300 is capable of keen acceleration and can charge through corners, as we discovered while driving a prototype of the IS 300 across the Santa Ynez Mountains in California near Santa Barbara. Hugging the potholed blacktop, our car clawed through off-camber curves on the narrow and winding Stagecoach Road, an ancient trace more suited to horse-drawn wagons than slick performance cars.
The suspension maintained a relatively flat stance through hard curves. It uses a double-wishbone design with front upper control arms mounted high to prevent front dive when braking hard while blocking lateral roll in corners. The rack-and-pinion steering, which offers power assistance tied to engine speed, seemed stiff at highway pace but continually fed back the nuances of the road.
Brakes, with big ventilated discs in front and solid discs in back, monitored line pressure to prevent lockup through an electronic brake distribution (EBS) system. Wheel spin was checked by anti-lock brakes and traction control.
The inline 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine in the IS 300 develops 215 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 218 pound-feet of torque at 3800 rpm. It uses the intelligent Lexus continuously variable valve timing system optimizing valve overlap. Lexus says the 3270-pound IS 300 can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 7.1 seconds and past the quarter-mile post in 15.3 seconds.
Active and passive safety measures in the IS 300 include an energy-absorbing structure surrounding the passenger compartment, three-point safety restraints with locking retractors for five seat positions, frontal and side-impact airbags for front seats, a collapsible steering column plus HID headlamps and daytime running lights.
With the IS 300, Lexus has developed a compact-class sports sedan aimed at a youthful audience enamored by German performance machines. This new Lexus rivals the BMW 328i in its tight handling traits but develops best-in-class power and provides a high-tech interior design laced with the Lexus quality of quietness and production craftsmanship that sets all curves. Price points scored below the BMW, while high content of standard equipment tips the scales for this Lexus to the side of value.
IS 300 ($30,500).
Options As Tested
moonroof ($1000); heated front seats ($440); LS leather package ($1705) includes leather trim, dual eight-way power seats, garage door opener; limited-slip differential ($390); graphite polished wheels ($400); destination charge.
IS 300 ($30,500).
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