New Car/Review

Lexus

Lexus IS 300 (2001)

SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig

SPECIFICATIONS

MODEL: 2001 Lexus IS 300
ENGINE:  3.0-liter DOHC inline six
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 215 hp @ 5,800 rpm/208 lb-ft @ 3,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION:  Five-speed automatic with E-shift
WHEELBASE: 105.1 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 176.6 x 67.7 x 55.5 in.
BASE PRICE: $30,500

More than ten years ago, Lexus burst upon the automotive scene with the LS400, a top-of-the-line luxury sedan from the get-go. The company has continued to offer high-end luxury (even in its entry-lever vehicles) since then. And while the large sport utility is a Toyota Land Cruiser on steroids and leather, the RX300 is an excellent vehicle in it sown right.

Lexus has proven to be a substantial challenge for the established luxury brands of Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Lincoln. Now the carmaker is going after BMW and Audi with the IS 300 sport sedan. Here is a vehicle that has all the performance of a 3-Series Bimmer or Audi A4 with the quality and quietness of a Lexus.

For example, the 3.0-liter inline six in the Lexus is rated at 215 horsepower, 22 more than the 2.8-liter inline six in the BMW 328I and 25 more than the 2.8-liter V-6 in the Audi A4. Zero-to-60 mph times are also lower by about the same ratio. In the Lexus, the engine is connected to a five-speed automatic transmission with E-shift, the Lexus version of the Automatic Stick Shift. On our introduction test drive, we had the opportunity to leave it in drive or fiddle with the gears, on both winding and straight roads. This is a comfortable transmission to work with.

Like the bigger GS 400, the "auto stick shift" changers are located on the steering wheel. You upshift by pushing a button on the back of the steering wheel spoke; downshift by pushing a button on the front. This is convenient, but it always seemed as if it required extra effort to downshift, although it only requires moving your thumb. I had become accustomed to using the sound system controls on a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and was looking for something more like a simple up or down button on the back of the spoke.

Dimensionally, the Lexus is shorter, narrower and taller than its competitors on the outside, but offers more headroom and front legroom than the others. Somehow, Lexus has also reduced the drag coefficient below the magical 0.30 figure to 0.29. Styling, however, reminded everyone who attended the introduction of a larger Toyota Echo, and this probably isn't what Lexus intended.

On the road, the IS 300 has all the feel of the cars it is intended to compete with, except there is essentially no noise or harshness. With the Bimmer or the Audi you can gain some measure of personal satisfaction with an occasional "braap" from the exhaust, but the IS 300 is a true Lexus, where none of that nonsense is tolerated. It's like driving a Viper with an electric motor.

Handling of the IS 300 is excellent. Lexus/Toyota has installed independent double wishbone suspensions front and rear that allow for spirited driving around curves. In this category, at least, the Lexus is the measure of its competition. One prerequisite for a sport sedan is good handling. You can get away with a less powerful engine as long as the handling is up to the task. BMW for years used four-cylinder engines in the 3-Series cars and they were popular because they still handled like a BMW. The same with the IS 300, except that in this case there's a relatively powerful engine driving the rear wheels.

Styling is typically clean Lexus, although there is that family resemblance to the Echo. Lexus executives informed us that the IS 300 is built on its own platform. No other Lexus or Toyota cars share the platform, although the engine is the same as in the GS 300 and SC 300 sport sedan and coupe. In Japan, the chief engineer on the product drives this car with a six-speed manual, which may be offered in a couple of years.

When the LS 400 first was introduced, people commented on how quiet it was and how effortlessly it drove down the highway. You'll hear the same kind of comments about the IS 300. The problem is, in our minds, that a sport sedan should make some noise. It doesn't have to be obnoxious, but too much silence takes away from the character of the vehicle.

 

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