2004 Lexus IS 300

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2001 Lexus IS 300

This 2001 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

A worthy BMW fighter, right out of the box.
Pros:
  • Stylish
  • Fast
  • Smooth
  • Athletic moves
  • Illustrious nameplate
Cons:
  • Crowded gauge layout
  • Average room
  • Poor economy
  • No manual gearbox

Lexus has introduced its brash new IS 300 sedan because it wants the young, affluent buyers who are snapping up small foreign sports sedans, such as the Audi A4 and—particularly—the BMW 328i, which is the established leader in that market.

Lexus has done an excellent job with the 2001 IS 300, which is its sportiest-ever model. It's edgier than the more refined 328i and even fun to drive at 30 mph to the 7-11. That's partly because it has a low polar moment of inertia for athletic moves, with an engine set far back in the chassis. Usually, only sports cars such as the Mazda Miata provide that type of driving fun.

Genuine Sports Sedan
Throw in a responsive engine, quick, linear steering, an all-independent race-style double-wishbone suspension, wide performance tires, and powerful brakes, and you've got a genuine sports sedan.

The 328i will feel better if pushed hard on a race track, but how many IS 300 buyers will care about that? And the IS 300 generally offers safer handling than the 328i if driven too hard through a curve by average drivers.

Significantly, the $30,500 IS 300 has the golden Lexus nameplate going for it. And, despite excessive use of hard-looking plastic in the dashboard area, this rigidly built car has the same smooth, top-quality feel that characterizes all Lexus models.

Like the 328i, the IS 300 has an inline 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive. It's also nearly the same size as that BMW, but its 105.1-inch wheelbase is 2.2 inches shorter. It has a supple ride and thrives on quick moves.

Lexus is generally conservative, so the front of the IS 300 looks only moderately racy. However, the overall look is sporty enough—thanks to such unique items as transparent taillight covers. My test car's bright Solar Yellow paint really made it stand out and isn't the type of color expected for a car with the Lexus nameplate.

Good Track Record
Afraid of brand-new models? Well, the IS 300 has been successfully sold for a few years in Japan with a smaller 2.0-liter engine and manual transmission.

The U.S. version has a docile, 215-horsepower version of the engine from the larger Lexus GS 300 sedan, which has been sold here for several years. It features dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing for good response at all speeds.

The 0-60 mph run takes only 7.1 seconds, and top speed is an electronically limited 144 mph.

Marginal Fuel Economy
However, fuel economy of the 3,270-pound car is mediocre—only an estimated 18 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway. Moreover, it calls for pricey premium gasoline. At 70 mph, the car's gearing puts the engine at a busy 3000 rpm.

Unusual Instrument Cluster
Lexus is doing something BMW would never do by using a chronograph-style combination instrument cluster that puts gauges too close together. The cluster looks trendy, but a more conventional gauge layout would be easier to live with.

Also, the instant fuel readout gauge with its continuously swinging needle is as useless as the equally silly one long—and inexplicably—used by BMW. The grooved upper dashboard material looks odd, and the racy looking aluminum padding on foot pedals looks racy but gets slippery when wet.

The small steering wheel makes you feel as if you're at the controls of a genuinely sporting car. But the steering wheel is so small that the wheel-mounted manual-shift buttons are useless if the wheel is quickly being turned.

No Manual Transmission
Only a 5-speed automatic transmission with that manual shift feature is offered, although it's a smooth, responsive unit that even has a "snow" mode for getting started better on slippery roads. A genuine manual arrives next year—if only because the BMW 328i has such a gearbox.

Rather Tight Interior
There's decent room up front for 6-footers. But this is a small, narrow car, and there generally isn't much room to spare. Legroom for an adult gets tight if he's behind a tall driver who shoves his seat back. The rear-seat area has nice pullout cupholders but narrow lower door openings.

The comfortable front bucket seats contain side airbags and firmly hold occupants without pinching. Forward visibility is excellent, and the windshield washer has six squirt nozzles to help keep the glass clear. But the center console is too shallow for decent storage and too low for an armrest.

Fairly Large Trunk
The trunk is fairly large and has a low, wide opening. But why the cargo-crushing manual lid hinges on a $30,000-plus car? The manual hood prop is almost impossible to find at first unless you know where it is (on the underside of the hood).

The 17-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires help give the IS 300 a purposeful look, although the available 16-inch wheels with all-season tires are a no-cost option that are far more practical during driving in snow-belt areas. Handling sharpness suffers a bit with the smaller tires, but they improve the ride a little.

This is a powerful rear-drive car, so the optional $390 limited-slip differential is a good item for better grip on slippery pavement. A traction control system and anti-lock brakes are standard.

Well Equipped
The well-equipped IS 300 has standard items such as air conditioning, killer sound system, cruise control, power windows and remote keyless entry. Outside mirrors even are heated. However, the "one-touch" power driver's window is hard to stop once you've got it zipping down or up.

The few options include a $1,000 power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade and $440 heated front seats. The $1,805 Luxury Leather package with leather trim and power front seats should appeal to buyers who expect such things from a Lexus.

The IS 300 opens new horizons for Lexus, and should make it even more of a desirable nameplate.

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BB04 - 7/25/2014 6:05:52 PM