Lexus’ entry-level IS 300 receives minor changes for 2005, most notably that a limited-slip differential is only available on automatic-equipped models, not the five-speed manual, and 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/45ZR17 are standard equipment on the sedan. Option packages have been tweaked: the “B” package includes new full-leather heated seats, a rear spoiler and eleven-spoke wheels, while the “Premium” package adds headlamp washers.

The IS 300 comes as a sedan or the SportCross hatchback. Both use a 215 hp inline six-cylinder; the sedan comes base with a five-speed manual, which can be optioned up to the five-speed automatic with wheel-mounted manual-mode shifter controls that’s standard on the SportCross.

The sedan includes automatic climate control, leather-wrapped tilt wheel, CD/cassette with eight speakers, cloth seats, power windows, aluminum sport pedals with rubber inserts, power locks with shifter activation, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, variable intermittent wipers with de-icer, auto-leveling high intensity discharge headlamps, and cruise control.

Optional items include power sunroof, fog lamps, leather interior, power driver’s seat, six-disc CD changer, integrated garage door opener and full-size spare tire.

The SportCross adds six-disc CD player with nine speakers, leather interior, heated seats, power driver and passenger seats with driver position memory, fold-down passenger seat with seat-back table, tonneau cover, cargo area tie-down belt, intermittent rear washer/wiper and fog lamps.

The IS 300 is a viable alternative to cars from the German automakers; its rear-wheel-drive and near 50/50 weight distribution, plus a long wheelbase and superb steering, make this a remarkable road car that’s generally underappreciated in the marketplace. Both transmissions work very well, and the shifter on the five-speed is creamy-smooth. On the down side, the rear seat is tight, and the quirky gauges are hard to read.

The sedan’s styling is very sedate, which could be a reason why it’s frequently overlooked; the SportCross gives it some funky pizzazz and great functionality, along with a wider range of luxury features at the base level. Open the hatch, fold the rear seats and lay the front passenger seat flat, and you can bring home the building supplies. The folding front seat also features a seatback table, for those times that the drive-through is just too convenient.

The IS 300 is built in Kurokawa-gun, Japan.

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