2002 Lexus IS 300 L-tuned
2002 Lexus IS 300 L-tuned, Click image to enlarge

The Lexus IS 300 arrived in Canada as an all-new 2001 model and arguably the first serious response from a Japanese automaker to the astonishingly successful BMW 3-series.

Serious as this effort was and remains, the IS 300 has not really made a dent in sales of the 3-series. This Lexus is a wonderful car in terms of quality (not a single recall and no serious technical service bulletins), but in terms of styling and performance and handling, it somehow hasn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the compact sports luxury sedan.

One issue in its first year as a 2001 model was the lack of a manual transmission. Lexus launched the IS 300 with only a five-speed manumatic transmission. By 2002 a manual had been added to the lineup, not to mention a station wagon-like version called the IS 300 Sport Cross.

As for prices, Lexus’ quality reputation has had a major impact on his model’s value. A three-year-old sedan will likely cost you about 70 per cent of its original sticker, which represents an above average residual value. So bargains will be hard to find.

So to a little history. By the time the IS 300 arrived here and in the U.S., it had been on sale in Japan since 1998 under the name Altezza. The Europeans got that same car in 1999 under the name IS200.

The Japanese and European versions are powered by a 2.0-litre straight six engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Here in Canada we got an IS with the same 3.0-litre inline six driving the bigger, more expensive Lexus GS300. And that motor, with roots to the old Toyota Supra, churned up a very healthy 215 horsepower and 218 ft.-lbs of torque in 2001. Engine performance hasn’t changed significantly since this model was launched.

The five-speed automatic transmission – the one capable of operating in semi-manual mode via Formula One-like pushbuttons on the steering wheel – is fun to play with, but shift responses could be quicker.

Lexus officials have never made a secret of the fact the IS 300 was from the start aimed squarely at the BMW 328i. Not surprisingly, the IS 300’s hard numbers are almost a mirror image of the Bimmer’s.

The proportions are nearly identical, though the BMW’s rear seating is roomier because the Lexus has a shorter wheelbase. Both have a rear-drive layout and 0-100 km/h times fall in a tad more than seven seconds. The performance of four-wheel disc brakes the size of Frisbees (with anti-lock) is a wash.

I would, however, give the German car an edge in aggressive driving and overall road feel. Why? More understeer in the Lexus as in the car tends to plow to a greater extent in hard cornering.

The exterior styling of the IS 300 is tight, with short overhangs. Inside, the cockpit boasts an overlapping instrument cluster (ammeter, coolant, and trip meters blended into the middle of the speedo) and there are aluminum covers on the pedals. The trim has a graphite look, the bucket seats are snug-fitting and the three-spoke steering wheel is easy to grip.

This is a very good sports sedan, one that is well built, easy to drive and pleasant to live with. If you find a good deal and you like this car, chances are you’re onto something worth owning.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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