2004 Lexus IS 300
Photos: Lexus. Click image to enlarge


by Haney Louka

I wonder if Lexus designers saw this coming.

The IS 300 from Toyota’s luxury division appeared on our shores for 2001 after a successful couple of years in overseas markets. It sported what would then have been the cutting edge in Asian automotive style: big 17-inch rims, a fist-sized exhaust pipe, and clear taillight lenses.

These cues were intended as not-so-subtle hints that this wasn’t your typical Lexus: forget about a cloud-like ride and passenger-oriented interior. This is a sport sedan designed for the driver.

But there was one problem: the IS 300 was introduced just as the sport compact craze was taking off – some may recall that 2001 was the year of the fluffy flick “The Fast and the Furious.” At the same time, slammed Honda Civics with those very same exterior styling statements were populating our streets. And then came Mazda with the Protege5, a car that managed to capture (in appearance, at least) the same kind of aggressive sportiness found in the Lexus but demanding roughly half the price. Ouch.

It’s a shame, really, because under the now cliched styling of this little Lexus is one of the finest sport sedans you can buy.

The IS 300 carries over into 2004 essentially unchanged, save for a few minor detail changes plus a new “SportDesign II” trim package.

Prices start at $37,775 for a manual-equipped base model and reach $47,270 for the Premium Package with automatic.

Performance

Like most premium vehicles, the IS 300’s alphanumeric name gives information about what’s under the hood. In this case, it’s the same 3.0 litre inline six that’s been powering the IS since its introduction. The drivetrain layout – a longitudinally mounted inline-six powering the rear wheels – is the same basic format as that found in BMW’s 3-Series, which just happens to be the IS’s primary competitor.

2004 Lexus IS 300
Click image to enlarge

This mill produces 215 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 218 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm, putting it roughly between BMW’s 325i and 330i in terms of power output. Thanks to today’s horsepower wars, that doesn’t seem like much. But considering how well executed the motor, and in fact the entire car, is, the IS shouldn’t be dismissed as underpowered. Because it’s not.

Transferring power to the rear wheels is a five-speed manual, or a five-speed automatic as in my test vehicle. Again, six forward gears are becoming the norm in this class, as can be found in the Acura TSX, BMW 3-Series, Infiniti G35, Audi A4, and others. So it’s fair to say that the IS is due for an update, if only to please those who need to have the latest in automotive trends.

Those who can look past the modest spec numbers will be rewarded with a polished powertrain that pleases its driver at all times, whether loafing around in traffic or dancing through a twisty section of blacktop. It just feels good being behind the wheel of an IS 300.


Inside and Out

I’m giving Lexus a hard time about the styling of the IS 300, but only because the presence of other less expensive cars wearing similar duds is hard to ignore. In reality, though, none of those wannabes quite match the athletic proportions of the IS. Its rear-drive mechanicals allow a short front overhang and the sheetmetal is seemingly stretched over the front wheels like plastic wrap over yesterday’s meatloaf. It also doesn’t hurt that the wheels so nicely fill their wells.

2004 Lexus IS 300
Click image to enlarge

Inside can be described as anything but me-too. It’s certainly unlike anything else wearing the Lexus badge – sporty and functional are words that come to mind rather than luxurious and comfortable.

It possesses a good dose of style, too, thanks to its signature chronograph-like instrument cluster and centre stack that’s dominated by large rotary dials for audio and climate controls. The fuel economy gauge, not unlike what you’d find in the 3-Series, is fun to look at but not much use. And the amber lighting on the instrument panel makes for a dated overall feel inside.

The driver’s seat is well shaped for both comfort and mildly spirited driving. And that leather is nicer than your average entry luxury hide. Passenger space suffers though: despite providing decent comfort for two in back, legroom measures a minuscule 768 mm, or about 85 mm less what’s found in the back seat of Infiniti’s G35.

Cargo versatility isn’t a strong suit here: there’s a small trunk pass-through into the passenger space for long skinny items, but the rear seatbacks don’t fold. Trunk volume measures 290 litres (you need to subtract for the cargo-crushing hinges too), compared with closer to 400 for competitive models.


The Driving Experience

While I found it relatively easy to complain about things in areas of practicality and convenience features, there’s no such nitpicking to be made about the way the IS drives.

2004 Lexus IS 300

2004 Lexus IS 300
Click image to enlarge

The inline six/rear drive configuration is a time-proven tradition thanks to BMW, and it works equally well in this vehicle despite the lack of a blue-and-white propeller on its hood. The three-litre six releases a distant muted growl under hard acceleration, and coupled with the close ratios of its five-speed auto, makes its way through the gears in a most enthusiastic way. Power delivery is smooth, refined, and more eager than one would expect from 215 horses.

Nudge the shifter into manual mode and, while there’s no discernable performance benefit, there is a certain satisfaction to making the shifts happen exactly when you like. To be fair, though, this is still an automatic, so those looking for a sportier experience are better off just sticking with the stick. One annoyance with the manual mode: the lowest driver-selectable gear is Second so the one-two shift is managed (prematurely, I might add) by the car’s brain. It probably has something to do with Lexus designers wanting to keep gear changes at low speeds as smooth as possible, but it takes away from the increased involvement expected in manual-mode automatics.

I lamented the presence of snow tires on my tester because the white stuff was mostly gone from our streets during my test. All I was left with was squishy steering response from a car that normally turns in with surgical precision. Fortunately I’ve driven a bunch of IS 300s before and I’m able to say with confidence that the tires from the factory would permit much better response.


To Sum It Up

In many respects, the IS 300 is the anti-Lexus: tight, both in terms of handling and room, and very much connected with the road. Those traits can’t be found in anything else in the Lexus range, from the ES 330 up to the LS 430.

But it doesn’t completely betray its lineage: it’s smooth, quiet, and built like a vault. This is the real deal, pared down to the enthusiast’s definition of a great sports sedan.


Shopping Around

The IS 300 is a part of the rear-drive revival and competes against some worthy rivals with varied drivetrain layouts:

  • Acura TSX (4-cyl/front drive)

  • Audi A4 (4- or 6-cyl/front or all wheel drive)
  • BMW 3-Series (6-cyl/rear or all wheel drive)
  • Cadillac CTS (6-cyl/rear drive)
  • Infiniti G35 (6-cyl/rear or all wheel drive)
  • Jaguar X-Type (6-cyl/all wheel drive)
  • Mercedes-Benz C-Class (4- or 6-cyl/rear or all wheel drive)
  • Saab 9-3 (4-cyl/front drive)
  • Volvo S40 (5-cyl/front drive)


Technical Data: 2004 Lexus IS 300

Base price $37,775
Price as tested $47,270
Type 4-door, 5-passenger sports sedan
Layout longitudinal 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
Transmission 5-speed automatic with manual shift mode
Tires 205/55R-16 inch
Curb weight 1490 kg (3285 lb.)
Wheelbase 2670 mm (105.1 in.)
Length 4485 mm (176.6 in.)
Width 1720 mm (67.7 in.)
Height 415 mm (55.7 in.)
Trunk space 290 litres (10.1 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.1 L/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.9 L/100 km (32 mpg)
Recommended fuel Premium
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 6 yrs/110,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca