2002 Lexus IS300
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by Haney Louka

Since the Lexus IS 300 first came to market with a five-speed automatic transmission with ‘E-shift’ buttons, enthusiasts have been clamouring for a true, honest-to-goodness, heel-and-toe, shift-it-yourself manual transmission. Lexus addressed this oversight for 2002 with a new five-speed manual transmission that contributor Haney Louka says has, “..a crisp-almost notchy-shift action,” and “smooth and linear clutch take-up.”

It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Take Lexus’ IS 300, for example.

It’s a tidily dimensioned, aggressively styled four-door sedan. Purring beneath its hood is a 3.0 litre inline-six engine that powers the rear wheels. Only one other car in its class fits that description: BMW’s venerable 3-Series sedans.

The Bavarian automaker has subscribed to that basic architecture for years, and has earned itself quite a reputation for producing some of the best sports sedans in the world.

Lexus, Toyota’s upmarket division, built quite a reputation of its own back in 1990 with the LS 400, only it wasn’t for producing pulse-quickening sports sedans. Lexus earned its reputation in its early years by building high quality, reliable luxury cars.

That’s about to change.

2002 Lexus IS300
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Lexus introduced its IS 300 to the North American market for the 2001 model year. It was – and still is – a radical departure from the rest of the Lexus model line with aggressive styling, compact dimensions, and a decidedly sporty ride/handling balance.

And Lexus has made no bones about who was in the crosshairs when the IS was developed. But one major thing was missing: the new entry that was going head-to-head against BMW was only available with a five-speed automatic transmission. As good as that automatic transmission is-with “E-shift” manual mode and shift buttons on the steering wheel-it’s not an honest-to-goodness, heel-and-toe, shift-it-yourself manual. And to truly challenge BMW at what it does best, that’s exactly what the IS 300 needed.

For 2002, that issue’s been addressed, as the IS 300 is now available with a five-speed manual. The icing on the cake? The new base price is $39,470; down from $40,830 for last year’s automatic.

Manoeuvring the chrome knob through the gears reveals a crisp-almost notchy-shift action. While that’s preferable any day over a rubbery, imprecise unit, it’s not as slick in its motions as the one found in a 3-Series BMW. Lexus betters its German rival with its smooth and linear clutch take-up, though, making the Beemer’s feel springy in comparison.

Nuts & Bolts

2002 Lexus IS300
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The power being controlled via the new stick shift comes courtesy of Lexus’ turbine-smooth 3.0L inline-six that generates 215 hp at 5,800 rpm and 218 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm. While I found it to be louder than the BMW’s motor of the same displacement, it sings that sonorous melody to which only an inline six has the score, and isn’t the least bit intrusive.

Suspended on a fully independent system and shod with low-profile 45-series tires, the IS 300 made me forget that there were two additional doors and a fully usable back seat behind me. The progressively boosted steering felt firm at low speeds and even more so as the speedo needle climbed. Unlike too many variable-boost systems out there, the one in the Lexus never feels artificially light and disconnected, even at a parking lot crawl.

Four-wheel discs (vented in front) team up with a firm brake pedal feel to provide confident stopping power. Anti-lock control, electronic brake force distribution, and Brake Assist are on board to provide all of the active safety features that a true performance car in this class should have.


2002 Lexus IS300
Click image to enlarge

When I asked others what they thought about the IS 300’s styling, it drew mixed reviews. Some say that it doesn’t look the Lexus part. In that, they’re right. Lexus differs from its European competition in that there isn’t a great deal of family resemblance between its model lines. Rather, the stylists at Lexus seem to go straight to their target market with their products. While it means that every new model is a styling risk for them, customers surely benefit because it keeps the showroom scenery interesting.

In my opinion, the IS 300 has a youthful, edgy look, which is exactly what Lexus wanted. It’s just not for everyone. The BMW 330i, in taking the safer ‘family resemblance’ route to exterior styling, definitely appeals to more people than does this Lexus.

More of the same can be said for the IS 300’s interior: it’s different. The suede-insert seats, chrome and real aluminum accents, and the chronograph-style instrument panel are all radical departures from what is expected in any production car, let alone a Lexus. Again, kudos are due to Lexus for having the cojones to put this styling into mass production.

2002 Lexus IS300
Click image to enlarge

To Sum It Up

All of this non-conformance with the status quo of the entry-luxury set is combined with what does tie the IS 300 to its Lexus roots: this is one solid, refined piece of work. The fact that it’s as fun to drive as it is just means that Lexus can find a target, take aim, and hit a bull’s eye every time.

Shopping Around

In addition to BMW’s 3-Series, the IS 300 must do battle against a competitive field of entry-luxury sedans from around the world: Acura TL, Audi A4, Cadillac CTS, Jaguar X-Type, Mercedes-Benz C240 Sport, Saab 9-3, and Volvo S60.

Technical Data:

2002 Lexus IS 300
Base price $39,470
Price as tested $42,110
Type 4-door, 5-passenger sports sedan
Layout front-mounted inline-6, rear wheel drive
Engine 3.0 litre inline 6 cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves, Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i)
Horsepower 215 @ 5800 rpm
Torque 218 lb-ft. @ 3800 rpm
Fuel Premium
Transmission 5-speed manual
Curb weight 1485 kg (3274 lb.)
Wheelbase 2670 mm (105.1 in.)
Length 4485 mm (176.6 in.)
Height 1415 mm (55.7 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.1 L/100 km
  Hwy: 8.6 L/100 km
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 6 yrs/110,000 km

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