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The Lexus IS 300 (2001), A German Lexus

SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide

By Larry Weitzman

When it comes to manufacturing the highest quality cars in the world, Lexus is second to none. The first Lexus LS 400 proved to the world that the Japanese auto industry could produce cars whose quality was surpassed by no one. I know of several LS 400's from the early 1990's with total miles well into the six digits that look and drive like showroom new. Could anyone ever imagine looking at a motor vehicle with 120,000 miles as a low mileage vehicle?

But until Lexus brought to us the GS 300/400 series, their sedans bordered on elegance and luxury with less emphasis on sport. but the GS series were marketed at the midsize sport/performance market. If you wanted a Lexus that was small, very quick and as agile as a quarter horse heading a cow, they have got your number.

The IS 300 is an entry level Lexus that takes direct aim at the BMW 3 series, Audi A4 now the new C Class Mercedes. It may be my favorite Lexus and that's coming from a guy who would have liked to marry the GS 400 just for the engine, never mind one of the best interiors that ever graced a backside.

Although the IS 300 was developed from the home market Altezza, this is no rebadged Toyota. The IS 300 has the same level of fit and finish as you will find in the new LS 430 (wait till you see that one). Shutting a door gives the impression of a bank vault. Solid is an understatement. The overall size is small, only 176.6 inches long by 67.7 inches wide. Height is 55.5 inches. But the wheelbase is a very long 105.1 inches.

The body has a chiseled look, with sharp lines defining the very wedged shape. The front end is very clean with a Lexus styled grille that separates two gorgeous headlight assemblies that are standard high intensity discharge. Powerful driving lights/fogs are set in the lower facia. The hood has a center power bulge and two ridge lines that emanate from the "A" pillars. The front end seamlessly flows into the front fenders and creates some of the best wheel well flares in the business.

Two lines down the side of the car intersect and meld into the body at the tail flare which forms the trunk lid. The tail lights also have clear lenses and are about as trick as they come. The overall feel is hard edged and sharp, making this Lexus the most athletic and best looking yet. If the taut body is trying to tell you something, you will not be disappointed.

Under the hood is a longitudinally mounted inline DOHC six with 24 valves and VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence). This was a parts bin move as this is the same cast iron block and aluminum head unit currently used in the SC 300 and GS 300. In IS form,it cranks out 215 hp at 5,800 rpm and 218 pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm. For the time being, at least for a few months, the only tranny you can get is a 5 speed auto with E-shift.

Buttons located on the steering wheel can manually control shifting. This E-Shift system has two thumb buttons on the horizontal steering wheel spokes that read "down" and two more buttons on the back side of the spokes for upshifting. To activate the system, simply move the floor shifter to the left and a large box below the fuel gauge will tell you what gear you are in.

To down shift, simply press one of the "down" buttons and the tranny will downshift one gear sequentially. Press again and it will down shift again. To upshift, us the buttons on the backside of the wheel. When you come to a stop and the E-Shift is in 3, then the tranny will start in first, shift to second and third and then hold until a button is pushed. There is no first hold, on the E-shift so that would have to be done manually with the floor shifter.

Pressing a button will cause a nearly instantaneous, positive shift up or down. In "D" or fully automatic mode, the tranny shifts imperceptibly. Mashing the go pedal will run the tach right to the redline (6,400 rpm) before shifting so it is very difficult to improve on the fully automatic mode when it comes to performance. The computer in most cases does a better job. Lexus claims a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds, but they must have been going downhill, because my average was 7.61 seconds. Even the best magazine number was 7.4 seconds (Motor Trend) with most numbers in the mid to high sevens. My best run nearly duplicated the MT time with a very quick run of 7.38 seconds. All runs were done with the traction control off.

Passing slow traffic which is simulated by accelerating from 50-70 mph is very quick with only 4.14 seconds being required. Passing from 50-70 up hill will require just 6.09 seconds. These times are extremely quick and makes the IS 300 a very high performance automobile.

With the wonderful combination of a silky smooth engine and a five speed automatic this car is a gas to drive. In line sixes offer perfect primary and secondary balance and are naturally smoother than a V-6. The reason V-6's are so popular with manufacturers is because of their compact size and ease of mounting sideways (transverse) for front wheel drive cars. The IS 300 is set up as a traditional rear driver as are the best European driver's cars. A proper configuration, if you will.

When you combine rear wheel drive with state of the art fully independent suspension, you end up with a motor vehicle that feels so good that it begs to be driven. Both front and rear use a double wishbone set up with gas filled shocks, coil springs and antiroll bars. The curb weight of 3,270 pounds is distribution is 54/46. Lexus doesn't stop there. The engineers then thought to bolt on (with 5 lug nuts, not 4) some very correct, great looking five spoke alloys that measure 7X17 inches. They then selected 215/45ZR Bridgestone Potenzas, All the ingredients for a serious sporting sedan.

But does it work? You have to remember this is a Lexus and the attention to detail is readily apparent. This car feels so natural it seems to know what is needed for any situation. Steering is engine speed sensing power assisted rack and pinion. It feels perfect. It is so benign and responsive that even moderate understeer during hard charging in the twisties just allows for absolutely perfect control and with the traction control off, the ability to get the rear end out and steer with throttle. This Lexus begs to be driven. But there's more.

During hard driving brakes give the driver the extra edge to go in a little deeper and come out a little faster. This Lexus has the best brakes of any sedan I have ever encountered. Of course, they are four wheel front ventilated discs with twin piston calipers, but the fronts are nearly twelve inches (11.65) and the rears are over 12 inches. ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution are standard. Does this thing stop or what. Nailing the brakes at 40 mph will haul the Lexus to a stop in less than 40 feet. The pedal feel was linear with perfect modulation. By now you are getting the impression that I really like this car. You are right and it's not even a V-8.

I almost forget the Ponderosa washboard test. The ride is on the firm side. Ponderosa was well controlled and the tight body allowed the "on the firm side" suspension to do its best work making Ponderosa reasonably comfortable. Of course, the body felt like a piece of granite. In the two 90 degree bumpy corners, the Lexus was at the top of the class, able to handle more then I was willing to try. It does the corners like light does a fiber optic cable.

You drive looking for something to do other than the super slab. Being in El Dorado County gives one the chance to explore roads you have never seen before. This car begs for the twisties. Green Valley, Highway 49 or Latrobe were about a fun as it gets. Not that you have to go fast, it just makes the speed limit feel safe and secure, knowing all the while if the unexpected happens, you have the ability to safely avoid just about any eventuality.

On the highway, the ride is firm and well controlled. There is some slight road noise, but on asphalt it's very quiet. On the rough pavement of Highway 80, some noise got through the Lexus noise barrier, but I liked the well controlled ride. Minor imperfections were absorbed. No harshness allowed. The engine spins 3,000 rpm at 70, but to the lucky passengers in the cabin, it's absolutely impervious.

On the inside is one of the most unique gauge clusters to be found in any car. The driver's binnacle contains a large speedo calibrated to a very optimistic 160 mph plus. It won't go that fast. But inside the large speedo are three ancillary gauges arranged like a Swiss chronograph. There is an instant fuel mileage indicator which looks to work more like a vacuum gauge. The middle gauge is a voltmeter and the lower gauge is for coolant temperature.

To the left is an 8,000 rpm tach (too bad the computer won't let it get close) and a fuel gauge is in the upper right with an information window below, telling the driver is the car in drive or some other gear selected by the floor shifter, or if in manual a window giving the numerical gear of the tranny. Even the AC vents flanking the binnacle have a crisp hard edged look and are done in brushed aluminum as is the whole dash.

The vertical stack contain easy to use large knobbed AC controls that are electronic. However, the AC or ventilation system always defaulted to recirculation. It should remember its last setting. The radio is 240 watts and eight speakers of superb sound. A six disc in dash CD changer and cassette is standard.

On the horizontal is the gated shifter with a chrome ball handle and a high tech chrome surround. The center storage console could be bigger and the cup holders won't hold a big gulp.

The seats are firm, but shaped to make long distance travel a treat. During a two hour road trip, the support couldn't have been better. They are impeccably shaped and are designed for sport. The materials are optional leather with escaine inserts (escaine wasn't in my dictionary) that look like suede. Very nice.

The rear seats are reasonable for two adults (this IS is only about three inches longer than a Corolla), but I wouldn't want to be the third guy in the middle. The trunk which has a pass-through is only 10 cubic feet. but who wants to ride in the trunk, anyway? But it is nicely finished with a thick carpeted floor mat ($66).

So what's missing. First is the tranny. For a true European sporting sedan, there must be a manual transmission option. Lexus thought of that and it will be offered next year, but there is no word whether it will be a five or six speed. Pray for six. Second, well there is no second. With Lexus, their goal is only to be first.

Fuel economy is rated at 18/23 mpg city/highway. I averaged about 20 mpg on my first tank which was mostly back road blasting, but once on the super slab in a three hundred mile road trip. The IS averaged 25 mpg going over the Sierras and back. A six speed manual with a tall sixth gear would help highway mileage.

Pricing is as aggressive as the handling. Base on this Lexus is $30,500 plus $495 for shipping. There are only a few options, which my test vehicle contained, the leather package which includes leather trim and escaine material, a homelink transmitter and 8 way power for the driver's and passenger seat ($1705) and the power moon roof ($1,000). The trunk carpet was $66 bringing the total Monroney to $33,805.

Specifications

Price                           $30,995 to about $34,000

Engine
3.0L DOHC 24 valve inline six   215 hp @ 5,800 rpm
                                218 lbs-ft torque @ 3,800 rpm
Redline                         6,400 rpm

Transmission
Five speed electronically 
controlled automatic with
E-Shift

Configuration
Longitudinally mounted  front
engine, rear wheel drive

Dimensions

Wheelbase 105.1 inches Length 176.6 inches Width 67.7 inches Height 55.5 inches Weight 3,270 pounds Track (f/r) 58.9/58.5 inches Trunk Capacity 10.1 cubic feet Fuel Capacity 17.5 gallons Wheels 7X17 inch alloys Tires 245/45ZRX17 performance Turning Circle 34.1 feet Coefficient of Drag 0.29 Performance 0-60 7.61 seconds 50-70 4.14 seconds 50-70 up hill 6.09 seconds Top Speed It won't do 160 mph unless its push out the back of a C-130 from 20,000 feet, so don't even try. But top speed as listed by the manufacturer is 144 mph and I believe them. Fuel Economy EPA rated 18/23 mpg city/highway. Expect about 20-21 mpg in El Dorado County driving and 23-26 mpg on the highway.

 

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