SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide
At a too-quick glance, it seems confusing. Lexus has recently introduced a new sedan, the IS300. It already has a sedan called the ES300. Both are priced similarly. Is Lexus now competing with itself?
In a word, no. Emphatically no. Although there is only one letter of difference between their names, the IS300 and ES300 are about as completely different as it is possible for two sedans to be. The ES300 continues as the entry-level luxury Lexus. The IS300 is the entry-level sports Lexus, a new concept for Lexus, and is aimed squarely at the compact German sports sedans. It is very much a smaller sibling to Lexus's impressive GS400, and, in fact, shares its 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with the GS300 sedan and SC300 coupe. Like those cars, the IS300 is a front-engined, rear-wheel drive design. The ES300 uses a 3.0-liter V6, in front- wheel drive configuration.
Lexus has an enviable reputation for making luxury cars, but, despite the abilities of the GS400 and even the LS400, not much of a performance image. In large part this has been due to a lack of presence in the popular sport - luxury compact segment dominated by German makes. The IS300 is similar in size, specification, and performance to its Teutonic competition. The Germans are conservatively-styled; the Lexus most definitely is not. The IS300 attracted plenty of attention during the recent week that I drove it, and not just for the "solar yellow" paint of that particular example. It has the contemporary Japanese styling that plays well with young enthusiasts around the world. The IS300 should do well for Lexus, and bring a new generation to Lexus.
APPEARANCE: Looks are important for sports cars, and the IS300 has all of the current import hot-rod styling cues. Conservatism is for other Lexuses, and for Germans. From its Japanese animation-influenced front face to the clear lenses over the taillights and oversized exhaust tip, the IS300 almost defines the contemporary import-performance genre. Its sports look is enhanced by its angular lines, wedge-shaped profile, bulging hood, and fender flares filled with wide, ultra low-profile 17-inch wheels and tires.
COMFORT: No conservatism inside, either. Especially with the optional leather and escaine (suedelike material) interior trim, it has a high-performance look enhanced by the chronograph-styled instrument cluster, chromed shift knob, and aluminum pedals. The seats are highly-bolstered but easy to get into or out of, and provide very good comfort and support. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is comfortably thick and tilt-adjustable, just be careful of the shift buttons on the spokes - they aren't for the horn! Instruments are easily read, and the controls are well-placed. The center console and its center stack extension are the most Lexuslike parts of the interior, and contain the climate and stereo system controls. An AM/FM/cassette/6-CD in-dash changer are standard, as are the expected power windows and mirrors and retained power. The rear seat is contoured for two, but will hold a center passenger, and is roomier than expected. The trunk should be more than adequate for most owners.
SAFETY: The 2001 Lexus IS300 has a reinforced safety cell around the passenger compartment, with front and rear crumple zones. All five seating positions have three-point safety harnesses. Dual front and front side airbags are standard.
ROADABILITY: Trust Lexus to make a sport suspension with 45- profile tires that is actually comfortable. It's not as sumptuously isolated and quiet as an LS, or even an ES, but that's not its mission. Sports handling is, and at that is succeeds. Steering is responsive and quick, and the IS turns into corners with ease thanks to excellent weight distribution. P215/45 ZR17 tires ensure that it sticks well. The fully-independent A-arm suspension is more compliant than the sports suspensions of its competitors, which is a great deal in the real world. Don't think that the IS300 soft, though - it has a near-perfect combination of responsive handling and comfort.
PERFORMANCE: Surprise! The North American market gets the hot version of this car. In Europe, it's the IS200, with a 2.0-liter, 153-bhp inline six. As the old American saying goes, there's no substitute for cubic inches, and we get a 3.0-liter inline six with 215 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 218 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm. It has a five-speed automatic transmission with "E-shift" manual shifting buttons on the steering wheel like the GS400. This works well enough in most situations that a manual gearbox is not missed, thanks to the engine's good torque characteristics. A manual gearbox will be available next year, and should make the IS300 a cruise missile aimed right at Munich.
CONCLUSIONS: The new IS300 will bring a new group of people to Lexus.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 Lexus IS300 Base Price $ 30,500 Price As Tested $ 34,195 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6-cylinder with VVT-i variable valve timing Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 215 @ 5,800 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 218 @ 3,800 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic with "E-Shift" manual shifting Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 176.6 in. Curb Weight 3,270 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 15.2 Fuel Capacity 17.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium, 92 octane Tires P215/45 ZR17 Goodyear Eagle GS-D Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone / independent double wishbone Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 23 / 19 0 to 60 mph 7.1 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.29 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Leather and Ecsaine interior, Homelink system, 8-way power- adjustable front seats $ 1,705 Power tilt & slide moonroof with sunshade $ 1,000 Limited-slip differential $ 390 Trunk mat $ 66 Wheel locks $ 39