Introduced in July as a 2001 model, the IS300 is Lexus’ answer to the popular BMW 3-Series. The new rear-wheel-drive IS300 features a longitudinally-mounted inline 3.0 litre six cylinder engine, standard 5-speed automatic transmission with E-Shift manual mode, four wheel independent suspension, and standard 6-disc in-dash CD player. Prices range from $40,830 to $47,025.
A new competitor for the BMW 3-Series
Lexus now has two entry-level luxury cars in its lineup: the front-wheel-drive ES300 sedan and the new rear-wheel-drive IS300 sedan. Why Lexus needs another entry-level model can probably be summed up in three letters: B-M-W. The IS300 is aimed squarely at the popular BMW 3-Series sedan, currently the best-selling small import luxury car.
Like the BMW 330i, the new IS300 has rear-wheel-drive, a 3.0 litre inline six cylinder engine mounted longitudinally (the ES300 has a transversely-mounted V6 engine), a 5-speed automatic transmission, and a fully independent suspension. And like the BMW, the IS300 is designed to be a well-equipped luxury sedan that is also fun to drive.
But while the BMW 3-Series is available with three bodystyles (sedan, coupe and convertible), three different engine choices, and a standard 5-speed manual transmission, the IS300 comes only as a four-door sedan with a 3.0 litre engine and 5-speed automatic with E-Shift (push-button manual shift mode). I suspect that Lexus will add coupe and convertible bodystyles at a later date, assuming the sedan is successful.
The IS300’s wedge-shaped profile, long hood, short rear deck, and short front and rear overhangs provide similar proportions to a BMW 3-Series sedan – however, the IS300 has sharper, more aggressive body lines which give it a more angular look. Particularly distinctive are the IS300’s headlights and taillights. The High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps and red taillights are covered under clear composite (plastic) covers, and at the rear, the IS300’s round taillights are surrounded by bright chromed trim – a very eye-catching design. Two additional round taillights are built into the trunklid.
Though the IS300’s styling is not as rounded as a BMW 3-Series sedan, the IS300 nevertheless has a very low coefficient of drag of 0.29.
Engine borrowed from GS300
The IS300’s engine was borrowed from the mid-size Lexus GS300. With 215 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 218 ft-lb. of torque at 3,800 rpm, the IS300’s 3.0 litre inline DOHC 24 valve six cylinder engine is comparable to BMW’s new 3.0 litre inline 6 cylinder engine which has 225 horsepower and 214 ft-lb. of torque at 3500 rpm.
The IS300’s powerplant employs Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) which provides both improved low-end torque and high rpm horsepower. This system is comparable to BMW’s double VANOS system.
The 3.0 litre engine is mated to a standard electronically-controlled 5-speed automatic transmission with ‘E-Shift’ steering-wheel gear-selection controls. BMW offers their Steptronic electronic shift in the 3-Series as an option, as well as a manual transmission.
In addition to a front engine/rear-wheel-drive layout which provides a balanced front to rear weight ratio, the IS300’s engine centre is 55 mm (2.2 in.) behind the front wheel centre, the battery is behind the front suspension tower and the fuel tank is under the rear seat. All this was done to improve weight distribution, vehicle dynamics, ride and handling.
A four-wheel independent suspension features a double-wishbone layout at the front and rear, similar to the GS sedans. Four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear) with ABS and full-range traction control are standard, and a limited slip rear differential is optional. Lexus’ Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), an anti-skid system, is not offered.
16 inch alloy wheels and 205/55R-16 all-season performance tires are standard equipment while 17 inch alloy wheels with 215/45R-17 performance tires are optional.
Unique ‘Chronograph’ instruments
The IS 300’s unique instrument cluster has chronograph-style gauges that resemble a large Rolex watch, but with a speedometer instead of a timepiece. Eight instruments are packaged in the compact, overlapping design which is dominated by a large speedometer, a smaller tachometer on the left, and an instant fuel economy gauge (just like the 3-Series). Instruments are shaded from the Sun’s glare by a tall hood which sits fairly upright on the dash (reminds me of the old BMW 6-Series).
A small open tray is found on the top of the dash, but it’s not practical for storing anything while driving. The short dashtop has unusual horizontal indented lines which look rather superfluous.
The IS300’s interior design is a mixture of high-tech and traditional styling elements. It has drilled aluminum accelerator and brake pedals, stainless steel doorsill scuff plates, and large, cog-like dials on the centre console with a pewter metallic finish which looks rather industrial. The doors have a small amount of traditional wood trim, and the shift lever is surrounded by an elegant, oval chromed ring.
Automatic climate control and an AM/FM/cassette stereo with an in-dash 6 CD player/changer are standard equipment. The sound system includes front door-mounted full-range speakers, titanium tweeters in the A-pillar trim and 6″ x 9″ woofer and 2.5″ mid-range coaxial units in the rear shelf.
The front sport seats in my test car had leather side and thigh bolsters and perforated suede inserts, a good combination for comfort and appearance. They were very comfortable, multi-adjustable, and offered excellent support through twisty sections. The seat heaters however, have only one temperature setting which I found too hot after ten minutes of driving.
Like most Japanese cars, controls for headlights and foglights are on the left stalk, not the dash. Cruise control has a separate stalk on the right underneath the wiper stalk. The power window buttons are on the door armrests, not the centre console like BMW’s. Twin cupholders in front have a removeable insert to accomodate larger cups, and at the rear, there are twin cupholders which slide out of the centre console.
A small covered storage bin in the centre console provides limited storage, but it is not high enough to use an armrest by the driver.
The rear passenger area is quite roomy, in part because the raised front seats have lots of footroom. There’s lots of headroom but the rear bench is better suited for two rather than three passengers.
The rear seat includes a pass-through to the trunk, but a folding rear seatback is not offered. The 10.1 cu. ft. trunk seems rather small for a car this size, and has a raised hump in the floor.
Standard safety features include five three-point seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters, five adjustable head restraints, dual front airbags, and front seat-mounted side airbags. I liked the fact that the centre rear head restraint lowers so as not to restrict rearward visibility. Despite this, the IS300’s trunklid is very high, limiting rear visibility.
Standard IS300 luxury features include cruise control, tilt steering column, power windows with one-touch up/down for the driver, illuminated entry, heated outside mirrors, alarm, and engine immobilizer. A remote keyless entry system includes a trunk opener.
Having driven a BMW 3-Series a couple of weeks before I drove the IS300, I had a chance to compare the two directly. The IS300, like other Lexuses, has a very smooth powertrain, hardly audible even while accelerating, and very smooth and quiet at highway speeds (2500 rpm at 100 km/h in fifth). I would say the IS300 is quieter than the 3-Series.
The IS300’s body feels tighter than the new 3-Series, in part because the driveline feels tighter. But when it comes to steering and handling, the IS300 is not quite as responsive and balanced. Though the IS300’s steering is responsive and handling limits are very high, there is less driver/car interface in the Lexus. In a BMW 3-Series, you feel like part of the car, whereas in an IS300 you are a guest in the car.
The standard 5-speed automatic transmission is excellent, but the manual shift modes are not intrinsically comfortable. The driver can change down gears by pressing on either button on the front of the steering wheel spokes – changing up a gear is accomplished by pressing buttons on the back of the spokes. I found it difficult to grip the steering wheel and move my thumb to the front buttons – it requires you to release your grip with one hand. If you do accomplish it, the gear changes are quick. Manual mode is best used for sporty driving when you want more control of engine speed – but around town, it’s best to leave it in automatic.
Despite the low-profile 215/45ZR-17 tires on my test car, the ride was very comfortable, and outward visibility was good except to the rear where the high trunklid and third brake light made backing up a nervous guessing game. The IS300 has a very tight turning circle which adds to its maneouverability in parking lots and in city driving.
Overall, I thought the IS300 placed a strong second to the BMW 3-Series, but it’s still got a way to go before becoming the ultimate driving machine.
Price range: $40,830 – $47,025
With most of the features mentioned above including fabric-covered seats, 6 CD in-dash player, traction control, and 16 inch tires and alloy wheels, the IS300 goes for $40,830. This compares to $45,900 for the base BMW 330i with an optional five-speed automatic transmission.
With 17 inch wheels, sunroof, limited slip differential, and heated seats, the IS300 is $43,800. Add leather/suede seats and power front seats, and the price is $46,035. With premium leather, wood trim, and headlamp washers, the price is $46,510. Finally, with graphite-polished 17 inch alloy wheels, the IS300 is priced at $47,025.
The IS300’s value is further enhanced by its excellent warranty: a complete 4 year/80,000 km warranty, and a 6 year/110,000 km powertrain warranty.
Price-wise, the IS300 has got the BMW beat.
|2001 Lexus IS300|
|Price as tested||$47,025|
|Type||4-door, compact sedan|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.0 litre inline 6 cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves, VVTi|
|Horsepower||215 @ 5800 rpm|
|Torque||218 ft-lb. @ 3800 rpm|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic w/E-Shift|
|Wheelbase||2670 mm (105.1 in.)|
|Length||4486 mm (176.6 in.)|
|Width||1720 mm (67.7 in.)|
|Height||1420 mm (55.9 in.)|
|Trunk space||286 litres (10.1 cu. ft.)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||6 yrs/110,000 km|