2002 Lexus IS 300 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
SportCross hauls stuff, too.
When the Lexus IS 300 sedan was introduced as a 2001 model, it became the first real sports sedan in the Lexus fleet. Targeted toward a younger audience, this sporty car with slick skin and high-tech appointments carries the Lexus badge that's normally associated with a luxurious ride, but it behaves like a road-hugging German touring car. With rear-wheel drive, best-in-class horsepower, and five-speed automatic with manual shifting, it offers a compelling alternative to the benchmark BMW 3 Series.
For 2002, the IS 300 SportCross has been added to the line. It's a five-door hatchback, intended for that same young audience but broadening to include jocks in addition to well-heeled geeks and gearheads. Lexus says the SportCross appeals to a 'much younger' crowd, and the company jumps through hoops to avoid the words 'five-door' or 'hatchback' because those words suggest entry level. So the SportCross is officially a 4+1-door. Fortunately, the car isn't as awkward as its tag. In fact, it is anything but awkward.
The IS 300 uses Lexus's sophisticated, 3.0-liter, inline six-cylinder engine, renowned for its smoothness. It produces 215 horsepower on recommended 91-octane fuel. Like the IS 300 sedan, the SportCross uses a five-speed manual automatic transmission with racy shifting via buttons on the steering wheel in the manual mode.
Also new for 2002, is a five-speed manual gearbox for the sedan.
For 2002, the IS 300 sedan with the five-speed E-shift automatic retails for $30,805, with front side-curtain airbags added as standard equipment.
The SportCross starts at $32,305 for that same level of standard equipment, and features slightly wider rear tires on half-inch wider rims, and a sturdy rear window washer/wiper.
Major options for all IS 300 models include black or ivory leather seats with full power in the front ($2145), a leather/Escaine (suede-like) version for $1845, DVD GPS voice navigation system ($2000), power moonroof ($500), heated front seats ($440), Vehicle Skid Control ($350), and a limited slip differential ($390).
The IS 300 sedan with the five-speed is a sports model that includes a sport-tuned suspension, and sells for $29,435 with all the same standard stuff. Drivers, you're in luck: more sport for less money. Driver jocks are not so lucky, however, since the five-speed doesn't come in the SportCross body style. So much for sport, at least for 2002.
Standard equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD), halogen foglamps, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, five-spoke alloy wheels, traction control, a premium eight-speaker (nine in SportCross) audio system with cassette and in-dash six-disc CD, and all the power-oriented paraphernalia of a luxury car: automatic climate system, cruise control, power windows and door locks, auto-dimming rearview and driver's sideview mirrors, heated external mirrors, remote entry, security system and more.
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, a collapsible steering column, frontal and side-impact airbags for the front seats, plus the new front side-curtain airbags.
The platform features short overhangs with the wheels pushed out to the corners. The wedge-shaped format has a conspicuously low prow, and in 2002 the hood has grown a cosmetic bulge down the center to suggest power, which it does, especially from the driver's seat. Creased lines on the hood flow steeply down from raked A-pillars to a familial trapezoidal grille; in 2002 there are three horizontal bars, one less than in 2001. It is ringed with chrome and bordered by jewel-like HID headlamp clusters. Within the air dam, there are round halogen foglamps shielded behind trapezoidal composite lenses.
In the rear, there are subtle changes; the taillight housings are smoked gray on dark-colored cars, and chrome on light colors. There were some eye-catching new Lexus colors introduced on the IS 300 in 2001, and in 2002 there are more, making a total of nine.
The three rear windows on each side of the SportCross are a bit odd, the back two crowded, as if they're an unsolved design problem. Behind the rear door window there's a non-opening triangular window that looks like an old-style vent window, and behind that there's a another one shaped like a triangle/trapezoid, which neither looks in nor out on anything, and is outlined by a thick black band inside the glass where it fits against the car's interior.
Lexus calls the SportCross 'more than a sedan but less than a full wagon' (that's the cross), and adds 'the new silhouette admittedly places unique design ahead of maximum utility.' This priority leaves room for a gaping hole in the concept: there is no standard roofrack, nor even an available one, nor even any rain gutters to attach an aftermarket rack; and the radio antenna, rising from the center rear of the roof, would get in the way anyhow. Lexus says the SportCross will appeal to mountain bikers, and the press kit includes a photo of a SportCross with a bike squeezed in the back to prove it, but we don't think so. The bike has whitewall tires, which suggests how much Lexus knows about mountain bikers. They go everywhere in pairs; their bikes are perpetually caked in mud. They need roof racks.
We were less than impressed by our test model's $1845 Leather/Ecsaine interior trim package with power front seats; earlier we described it as being suede-like, but it could also be considered cloth-like. Another $300 for the full leather seems like a bargain (which is not to say that $2145 for leather and power seats is a bargain).
The cockpit reflects an attempt at driver-oriented and contemporary styling in a theme of graphite-tinged plastics and machined metallic finishes. Drilled aluminum pedals, 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 add an appearance of high technology. A graphite plate on the driver-side door panel surrounds rocker toggles that power the windows, door locks and both exterior mirrors.
The instrument panel includes a round analog speedometer containing three smaller analog gauges: temperature, voltmeter and instant fuel mileage. It's designed to resemble a sports chronograph wristwatch, and in its attempt to be cute, cool, clever, unique, whatever, it fails the no-nonsense test: the instant fuel gauge is too small to be useful, as a tiny needle flips in a tiny semicircle between 0 and 80 mpg. The watch face cluster stands between a half-moon tachometer on the left, whose clarity is compromised by the clutter of the faux chronograph, and quarter-circle fuel gauge to the right, above a digital display for gear selection and trip odometer.
The vents and pods for audio and climate controls drop down from the center of the dash to the console, with a new armrest for 2002. The power bucket seats felt a bit hard and wide, compared to the fantastic optional sport seats in the BMW Z3 Coupe we had just climbed out of, but they felt better as that memory faded. When we drove the SportCross hard through the curves, there was adequate lateral support, and the suede-like cloth-like Escaine surface was good and grippy.
A very attractive stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel (spokes at 3, 9 and 6 o'clock) tilts manually and contains left and right sets of finger buttons that enable the driver to shift up or down one gear at a time without removing his or her hands from the wheel. The front button downshifts with the thumb and the back button upshifts with the middle finger.
The sedan's firm rear bench will accommodate three in a pinch, and has a fold-down armrest that conceals a small pass-through portal to the trunk.
The SportCross model's five-door configuration, with the 60/40 rear seatbacks dropped, produces 21.8 cubic feet of cargo space, more than twice as much as the trunk of the sedan. The wheel wells protrude quite a bit into the cargo area, making the space hourglass-shaped, which reduces cargo capacity.
Chief engineer for the IS 300, Nobuaki Katayama, is a passionate racing fan who admits that his personal driving style is dynamic; he likes to pitch his car. So he designed the chassis and suspension of the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 to accommodate such a style. He did a great job. Last year we were impressed by the agility of the sedan, and the 2002 SportCross corners even better than the sedan, given its slightly better weight distribution (53/47 versus 54/46) and wider rear tires. But the five-speed, with its stiffer sport suspension, should corner best of all.
Katayama started by mounting the engine (and battery) as far back as possible. The double-wishbone independent suspension was specifically designed to resist lateral roll in corners and front-end dive under hard braking, and it thoroughly succeeds. Meanwhile, the speed-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides precise cornering with excellent feedback.
But it was the car's balance that was downright dazzling. We drove it very aggressively (Katayama-san would have approved) through our favorite remote twisty section IN THE WET, and we kept trying and trying to get the tail to hang out, but the car would not oversteer. Our SportCross was not equipped with the optional Vehicle Skid Control, but it did not seem to need it, and that's saying a whole lot. Still, for $350, the VSC option remains a steal. Think fail-safe. Think ice.
The SportCross handled better in the wet than the front-wheel-drive Acura TL-S, for one, did in the dry. Of all the cars we tested in the last year, only the all Subaru WRX was more fun in corners; and that list includes such excellent sports cars as the BMW Z3, Audi TT, Honda S2000, Toyota MR2, Mazda Miata, even the BMW M3.
It probably wasn't Katayama-san who programmed the IS 300 transmission. We loved the operation by buttons on the steering wheel, but the mapping of the five-speed manual automatic gearbox is problematic. Manual is a misnomer. Even in the manual mode, it's often automatic, which is both frustrating and confusing when you're driving hard. It overrides you, especially downshifting, and when it does, the digital readout on the dash often doesn't change, so it's actually inaccurate; the readout indicates the last gear you selected (the gear you want to be in), not the gear the car actually is in. Drive into a corner hard, begin clicking the button on the steering wheel to downshift, and often it won't respond. It's a mechanism to prevent abuse to the transmission and/or over-revving, but it's set way too conservatively; one time it wouldn't even downshift for us at a modest 3800 rpm. Sometimes, accelerating away from curves, it even leaves you below the powerband, which is reasonably broad. Also, it won't do short-shifts when you want heavy throttle at lower rpm.
Bottom line: If you really want to control shifting with the IS 300, you should get the manual transmission.
Turning to the ride and brakes, the IS 300 gets great again. The ride presented remarkable equanimity, which is to say it felt the same over every kind of surface. High-speed ripples, firm and steady; low-speed bumps, firm and never harsh. Out on the freeway, it delivered a nap-inducing smoothness.
And the brakes, with big ventilated discs in front and solid discs in back, were always there. The anti-dive suspension design works. We abused the brakes during our longest cornering session and they never faded; we drove into rain-slicked second-gear turns too fast and too late, relying on the anti-lock system to save us, and it did, with rock-steadiness and without protest.
The engine, using Lexus's continuously variable valve timing system, offers keen acceleration, but the three models are not equal. The five-speed is quickest, the sedan next, and SportCross the slowest because it's the heaviest. According to Lexus, 0 to 60 times are 6.8, 7.3, and 7.4 seconds respectively, and quarter-mile times are 15.1, 15.3, and 15.6.
Finally, we were bo.
The IS 300 sedan offers a viable alternative to the BMW 3 Series, equaling or bettering the German benchmark vehicle in ride, handling, power, brakes, comfort and price. That's a strong statement.
The IS 300 SportCross is an excellent (if not original) concept with tremendous promise. If it had an available roofrack and either a manual gearbox or sportier programming of the manual automatic transmission, it would fulfill that promise.
IS 300 ($30,805); IS 300 SportCross ($32,305); IS 300 5-speed ($29,435).
Options As Tested
moonroof ($500); heated front seats ($440); Leather/Ecsaine Package ($1845) includes leather/ecsaine trim, dual eight-way power seats, garage door opener; limited-slip differential ($390); Navigation system ($2000); cargo mat ($58).
IS 300 SportCross ($32,305).
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