Lexus IS300 SportCross
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by Greg Wilson

Based on the rear-wheel-drive IS300 sedan, the new-for-2002 Lexus IS300 SportCross has twice as much cargo space as the sedan with the standard 60/40 split rear seats folded down. It offers a refined 215 horsepower inline 3.0 litre six cylinder engine, 5 speed E-shift automatic transmission with manual mode, 17 inch tires and alloy wheels, and automatic climate control. Base price is $49,450.

A performance wagon for the street, not the outback

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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Not quite a station wagon and not quite a hatchback, the new Lexus IS300 SportCross is what Europeans might call a ‘sport wagon’. It doesn’t have the boxy shape and cavernous cargo area of a traditional wagon, but it does have more cargo-carrying capability than the IS300 sedan without looking like Mom’s grocery hauler.

“We wanted to preserve the image of dynamic performance with the IS 300 SportCross,” said Nobuaki Katayama, chief engineer for the SportCross at its introduction. “We felt that a conventional wagon body would detract from that image, and on the other hand we also knew that IS 300 customers were less inclined to require the full utility of a boxy shape.”

Based on the rear-wheel-drive Lexus IS300 sedan, the IS300 SportCross is about the same length and width as the sedan, but about 30 mm (1.2 inches) taller. It offers up to 617 litres (21.8 cu. ft.) of cargo space with the standard 60/40 split rear seats folded down. For comparison, the IS300 sedan has 306 litres (10.1 cu. ft.) of trunkspace and doesn’t offer folding rear seatbacks (although a trunk pass-through is offered).

The SportCross doesn’t have as much cargo space as other compact, luxury wagons like the BMW 325i Touring and Mercedes-Benz C320 Wagon, but it does have enough room to throw in some golf bags, skis, a bike, a stroller, gardening supplies, or other day to day items that might not fit into the trunk of a standard sport sedan.

More sporty than wagony

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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In terms of styling, the SportCross is a very attractive vehicle from just about any angle. It’s not as bulky as a traditional wagon, and it has a low, wide stance more like a sport sedan than a wagon. Its sweeping profile is enhanced by a roof spoiler that extends out from the top of the rear window. The nose, which is the same as the sedan, features headlamps under clear plastic covers and separate foglamps in the bumpers. At the rear, the familiar Lexus taillights, now being copied by myriads of import aftermarket manufacturers, feature round, red taillights set into a chrome background under clear, plastic lenses – there are also two round reflectors in the rear hatch panel. Other sporty styling elements include an extra large exhaust tip, and faux air vents in the rear bumper.

Some minor styling changes were made to all IS300 models for 2002. The front grille now has three horizontal bars instead of four; and the taillights are smoked grey on dark coloured cars (black, graphite, blue and green) and chrome on light coloured cars (silver, white, yellow, red and gold).

Interior like IS300 sedan

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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With the exception of the larger cargo area, the SportCross’s interior is almost exactly the same as the IS300 sedan. Its most dramatic feature is the chronometer-like instrument cluster display where three small round gauges are contained within one large speedometer which itself overlaps the round tachometer. There’s also a useful transmission shift indicator in the instrument cluster. A small hood shades the gauges from the Sun’s glare.

The driver hangs on to a small, grippy, leather-wrapped steering wheel which tilts for height, and a round, chrome transmission shift knob falls easily to the right hand. The accelerator and brake pedals are made of attractive aluminum and there’s a wide dead pedal to rest the left foot.

Behind the steering wheel, the left stalk controls headlights and front fog lights while the right stalk controls wipers and a rear intermittent wiper which is very handy for clearing slush, frost and rain from the rear window at regular intervals. There’s a separate stalk for cruise control functions.

The dashtop features a non-glare surface with horizontal line indentations – a feature that seems to serve no purpose other than styling. The centre dash area features an open storage container on the top of the dash, big metallic round knobs for the automatic climate control system, a bright digital clock, a dash-mounted 6-disc CD changer and cassette player, and one-temperature front seat heaters.

Rear passengers have adequate legroom and headroom, and such comfort features as pull-out cupholders, magazine pockets, and door pockets. The 60/40 folding rear seatbacks are standard, and they simply fold down on top of the rear seat cushions.

Unique collapsible cargo floor

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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The cargo area is accessible by lifting up a lightweight rear hatch door, but unlike some wagons, there is not a separate rear liftglass panel. The opening is wide and spacious, but the cargo area is not very deep with the rear seats up. A sliding privacy cover ensures that the trunk’s contents cannot be seen through the rear windows. The carpeted trunk features a 12 volt powerpoint, trunk light, and rear mounted speakers.

Because of the extreme slope of the rear window/hatch, there is not as much vertical storage space as there is in a traditional wagon. The SportCross has 320 litres (11.3 cu. ft.) of space behind the rear seats and 617 litres (21.8 cu. ft.) with the 60/40 split rear seats folded down. Compare that to a Mercedes-Benz C320 Wagon which has 714 litres (25.2 cu. ft) behind the rear seats, and 1,800 litres (63.6 cu. ft.) with the rear seats folded down.

A unique feature of the SportCross is a hidden cargo compartment underneath the floor which can be collapsed to create another two or three inches of depth to the cargo area. This creates an uneven cargo floor, but allows more vertical height. Underneath that is a full-size spare tire with an alloy wheel. A clever plastic wheelwell enclosure allows more items to be stored inside the wheel.

Driving Impressions

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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The SportCross’ 215 horsepower 3.0 litre inline six cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and continuously variable valve timing is very smooth and refined – minimal noise and vibration reaches the cabin even under hard acceleration. Acceleration is very quick – Lexus claims a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.4 seconds, just 0.1 seconds more than the IS300 sedan with an automatic transmission, and 0.6 seconds more than an IS300 with the new 5-speed manual transmission.

The SportCross is quicker than a Mercedes-Benz C320 Wagon which takes 8.5 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h according to independent tests by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

Lexus says the SportCross will do the 1/4 mile in 15.6 seconds and has a top speed of 230 km/h. On the freeway at a constant 100 km/h, I noted a comfortable engine speed of 2,600 rpm in fifth gear, and at 120 km/h, 3,000 rpm at 120 km/h. At these speeds, the car is quiet and comfortable with good straight-line tracking.

Fuel consumption is about average for this class in city driving: 12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg), but highway mileage 9.3 l/100 km (30 mpg) is not quite as good as say, a BMW 330i which offers 7.7 l/100 km (37 mpg) with a five-speed automatic transmission.

The SportCross’ five-speed automatic E-shift transmission features a floor shifter with a chrome knob that looks sporty and is easy to grip, but can get too hot or cold depending on the interior temperature of the car when it is unoccupied.

In automatic mode, the 5-speed E-shift transmission shifts crisply and surprisingly quickly. The driver can select Power or Normal shift modes which automatically adjusts the timing of shifts for increased performance or better fuel economy. There’s also a Snow mode which starts out in a higher gear to prevent wheel slip.

In manual mode, the gear shift lever is put into a special gate for manual shifting. To change gears, the driver presses buttons on the front and back of the steering wheel spokes – either of the two buttons on the front of the steering wheel spokes are used to change down gears, while the two buttons on the back of the spokes are used to change up gears. There is no clutch pedal to depress.

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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Manual shifting is easy, although I found it difficult to grip the steering wheel properly while depressing the buttons. In some respects, the E-shift transmission is different to other manual/automatic transmissions, such as Porsche’s Tiptronic. In manual mode, it starts out in second gear, not first. If you change manually into third and fourth gears, and then slow down and forget to change down gears, the transmission will automatically shift down from fourth to third to second for you. When you speed up again, it will automatically shift from second to third to fourth, but won’t shift into fifth gear until you do it manually.

And unlike Porsche’s Tiptronic, the E-shift won’t shift automatically once the engine reaches the redline. However, a rev limiter prevents the engine speed going any higher than the redline.

On the freeway, the SportCross has a very comfortable ride, and although I may be imagining it, I thought its ride was better than the IS300 sedan. I found handling to be really excellent for a, well, wagon. Much of this prowess can be attributed to the SportCross’ fairly balanced front to rear weight distribution (53/47), longitudinal drivetrain, rear-wheel-drive layout, and fully independent double wishbone suspension. In quick switchback turns, the SportCross has confidence-inspiring stability, minimal lean, and great balance. Interestingly, the SportCross has wider rear tires than front tires: in front are low profile Bridgestone Potenza 215/45ZR-17 inch radials, and at the rear are 225/45ZR-17 inch tires.

Its engine speed-sensing power-assisted rack and pinion steering provides the right amount of steering feel at the right speeds, and is very quick – but I’d still give the edge in steering to BMW. With a 10.2 metre (33.4 ft.) turning circle, U-turns are a snap.

The SportCross’ disc brakes are powerful and responsive with minimal effort producing very quick stops. Four wheel disc brakes with ABS, Electronic Brake Distribution, and new Brake Assist are standard. Brake Assist provides increased braking power in an emergency stop to shorten stopping distances.

Lexus IS300 SportCross
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Overall, the SportCross handles much more like a sedan than a wagon, allowing the owner to enjoy its performance while getting more luggage space than a typical sedan could provide.

Competitors for the SportCross could include the above-mentioned BMW and Mercedes wagons as well as the Volvo V40, Saab 9-5 Wagon, and Volkswagen Passat GLX V6.

At the moment, the IS300 occupies a special niche in the marketplace that no one else occupies. Lexus wasn’t the first though. Does anyone remember the 1973 Volvo 1800ES sport wagon?

Pricing and standard features

The IS300 SportCross come fully-equipped for $49,450 plus $370 in freight charges. Standard features include all of the above-mentioned features plus traction control, power windows, heated mirrors, outside temperature gauge, keyless entry, front and side curtain airbags, and Vehicle Skid Control.

Technical Data:

2002 Lexus IS300 SportCross
Base price $49,450
Freight $370
Type 4-door, 5 passenger sport wagon
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 3.0 litre inline 6 cylinder, DOHC, 24 valves, continuously variable valve timing with intelligence
Horsepower 215 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque 218 lb-ft @ 3,800 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic transmission with intelligence (ECTi) and E-Shift
Tires 215/45ZR-17 front; 225/45ZR-17 rear
Curb weight 1547 kg (3,410 lb.)
Wheelbase 2670 mm (105.1 in.)
Length 4496 mm (177.0 in.)
Width 1725 mm (67.9 in.)
Height 1440 mm (56.7 in.)
Cargo capacity rear seats up: 320 litres (11.3 cu. ft.)
  rear seats down: 617 litres (21.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.3 l/100 km (30 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 6 yrs/110,000 km

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