Review: Lexus is300-A First Impression

SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide

By Larkin Hill

An "aggressive Lexus?" That's like calling Calvin Klein's designs "edgy."

Just as Calvin Klein has been criticized for being too boring, Lexus has been tagged as the most conservative luxury brand on the market. Lexus luxury cars have always been well thought out, well made, and solid (a.k.a. dull)

Thus far, their line-up includes mostly four door sedans ranging in price from the low 30's to the high 60's, with a sprinkling of two SUV's and a coupe. Slowly their line has been expanding, and with each introduction their sales have soared. And recently, the line has gotten edgier -- the RX300 was radically round and the GS duo were the first to bring real sportiness to the mix.

For the next millenium, Lexus introduced the US market to a small, saucy, four-door; coupe-feeling IS that's already taken Europe by storm. It's angular, zippy, and reliably Lexus.

Now, "Baby Lexus" doesn't have quite the same ring as "Baby Benz" -- and that's a good thing, since the infant term connotes a "bottom-of-the-line-wannabe" image. The IS300 is meant, instead, to appeal to the GenXer's-- the "next generation Lexus owner." (Not just those who have previously been unable to afford the Lexus mark.)

Decked out in sued-ish seats and side panels, chrome accents, and monotone rear taillights, the IS300 has a number of other details that appeal to the edgier audience. Although, it also has the familiar smooth, light, and quiet ride that's distinctively Lexus.

So, I got a bright yellow one for a week.

When they dropped it off, the day was overcast and dreary. The office was in a somber mood and we really didn't like that it was a Monday. So, the delivery of the new IS300 was to be the highlight of our day. But, little did we know that our days would be brightened so literally. No one could miss it -- regardless of how heavy the downpour was.

"Canary"..."Sunshine"..."Tweety "...the nicknames flew out. Of course, the official name says it all: Solar Yellow…and sunny it was!

Drive

The IS300's primary competition is the BMW 330 and Audi S4, but it's notably different than both. Most strikingly, it feels much lighter. Its 3270-lbs base curb weight is peppy and agile. (BMW's 330I is 3197-lbs and Audi's S4 is 3263-lbs).

BMW and Audi are known for their rigid suspension and solid feel -- and that's what many people like about them. The IS300 drives like it's part of the road -- connected, light, and smooth. It's not as tall as its competitors and feels like it's got a very low center of gravity. It turns on a dime and propels out of a stop like a dream (I always have to thank Lexus/Toyota for their VVT-i technology).

However, while the IS300 is a dream on the highway, low-speed street traffic is noisier than in both the BMW and Audi. The potholes are felt and the gravel is heard.

Engine

They used a larger engine for the American version. It's the same powertrain as the GS300 -- a swift 3.0 -liter, DOHC in-line six-cylinder that so gracefully uses VVT-i. With VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) the engine hums at any gear -- eagerly delivering as much power as a person would want at any given time.

Pumping out a healthy 215 ponies and 218lb-ft of torque, the IS300 zips from 0-6 in 7.1 seconds.

While there's a larger engine for the US market, there is no manual transmission option. While I would still like to see one in the future, I really came to appreciate the practicality of the five-speed automatic. Plus, the "E-shift" steering-wheel gear controls were fun. In fact, I really loved them, I felt sporty and casual -- able to keep both hands on the steering wheel and aggressively shift, I found myself continuously "testing" the electronically controlled "Formula One-inspired" system. I much prefer the steering wheel controls to the flip up/down or right/left shifting methods of its competitors. Plus, the reaction time of the five-speed Electronically Controlled Transmission with intelligence (ECT-i) was immediate and one of the best systems I've tested.

Interior

At first I thought the interior looked a bit cheap. It was too bumpy, there was fake aluminum, and the shiny metallic plastic dash didn't impress me at all. And what's that little shelf doing in the middle of the dash? It looked useful, but nothing stayed there, so what's the point?

The overall look was undeniably sporty -- and different than it's competition. So, the styling grew on me. The black suede-like material that covered the seats really felt and looked like suede, but it wasn't real, so it would wear well. I loved the shiny metal shifter and the aluminum that highlighted it. I discovered the best part about it was that the "shifter-ball" twisted off -- thus, making it simple to change on the likely event it became scratched. Although, unlike other metal shifters, the IS300's was made of a durable composite that didn't scratch as my ring hit it.

The interior was spacious enough for four people. And it was comfortable. Ideally, only two people would travel long distances in it, but two couples could easily take a day-trip. The front seats were great for long hauls, were easy to get in and out of, and adjust.

Visibility was the best part, however. The dash sat low, so both the driver and passenger had excellent visibility. The trunk sat high, but it didn't hinder the view. The windows were large, the front (A) and side (B) pillars were small, so there was little interference.

Other findings...

During my test, I was intrigued and surprised to find how many women commented on the IS300 (considering how adamant Lexus was at targeting the highly competitive Male 18-45 demographic.) Not just young women, either -- mothers and grandmothers fell in love with it. They loved the size and the fact that they were "edgy" looking. Of course, the main draw was the Lexus badge -- to them it represented reliability and luxury. They knew that they wouldn't have to fuss with the IS, instead they could just drive and enjoy it without laying out huge car payments and seeming pretentious. Their "kids were out of the house and it was time to have fun," declared one enthusiastic mother.

Overall

Finally, there's an alternative to the overly popular Bimmers and super-understated Audi. The IS300 is sporty, stylish, and reliably Lexus. It's practical, posh, and guaranteed to provide only pleasure to its owners -- with most every visit to the dealership a pleasant one, thanks to the premium service that your parents got to enjoy before.


 

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