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2003 Lexus IS300 review

Open any modern dictionary, look up “sport sedan” and you’ll see a picture of the BMW 3-Series. Many car companies have taken their pot-shots at dethroning the undisputed king, but none have ever really gotten the full package on-balance and exactly correct. When the Lexus brand was introduced, they came on full-force, taking attention away from their German competitors with a quickness. They were on a roll, and the Germans were on notice to up their game. One turf that Lexus hadn’t gone into was the small sport sedan category. But in 2001, that changed. Lexus introduced the IS300 to the US – and had a target painted squarely on BMW’s 3.

Since the 3 was the intended competitor, that’s what I’ll use for comparison in this review. The IS is styled more aggressively than its Bavarian rival. It showcases similar tight, hunkered down proportions, with minimal front and rear overhangs, but the look is decidedly more racer-like. Aggressive five spoke rims, and clear taillights round out the more youthful look. Inside shows further differences. BMW is routinely criticized (rightly) for their lacking interiors, and Lexus sure tried hard to differentiate themselves by offering another flavor. In some cases they went too far. Bolstered seats with suede-like inserts were standard (full leather became available later). Look at the dash and you’ll see the most obvious difference. Hint: it’s staring back at you from the gauge pod. Designed to look like a Swiss chronograph timepiece, the driver is greeted to a large speedometer with inset auxiliary gauges, and a half-moon shaped tach to the left. Different it was, but different does not always mean better. The gauges could be hard to read at a glance, especially the speedo with the way its numbers read. While more difficult for humans to read, the needle tracing the speedo would have no such trouble. In other words different, but not ideal.

One thing Lexus definitely got in balance was the tightness of everything. The seats in front and back are tight (maybe not a great thing), while the build quality is tight (definitely a good thing). Unfortunately, that’s not the balance that most sport sedan shoppers look for. The IS is built to the same standards as the rest of the Lexus line, which is to say extremely well. But don’t plan on using this car for everyday family shuttling, unless those who will use the backseat can detach their legs. The trunk, while decent for a car of this size, won’t win any awards for utility either.

With as much fanfare as Lexus made in bringing out the IS, and as good a job as they had done with their other models, you would’ve thought they would have covered all the bases. When the IS was initially released, they only included an automatic transmission. Note to all manufacturers: if you’re going to openly target a 3-Series, you MUST included a manual transmission. In the sport sedan category, or for anything that pretends to be a sport sedan, this transmission option is MANDATORY. Again, in the name of being different, Lexus made the gear selector a solid chrome ball on the center console. While interesting, it also had the rare distinction of providing challenges in both hot and cold climates. Gears could be manually selected via buttons on the steering wheel if you chose. A year later, a 5 speed manual was offered. Both transmissions will be reviewed here.

The engine was a jewel of an engine though. It was the same inline 6 unit used by the NA Supra, the GS300 sedan, and the SC300 coupe. Power was rated at 215hp – down a bit from the 330i. Fire it up and the engine purrs nicely. Go down the road and you'll quickly discover that the accelerator needs a deliberate push to engage the car. The throttle is an electronic drive-by-wire style. It has more of the throttle response you would expect from their LS sedan, something that should be driven in a more stately manner. It certainly didn’t feel tuned to a sport sedan level. It became even more glaring when driving the stick-shift version. Heel-and-toe downshifting called for extra attention and effort due to the lazy response in the initial pedal travel. The shift-it-yourself 5 speed transmission was not a joy to use. It felt clunky, sort of vague, and believe it or not, slightly out of place.

Power was ok. Not fabulous, just adequate. Again, if you’re going to bring a knife to a gunfight…… This was the one large question mark on this car. If a manufacturer could not beat the entire 3 Series package, there is always the “American way” of doing things and tossing an overpowered motor in and selling models based on 0-60 times. Tests showed automatic cars hitting 60 in about 7.5 seconds, and manual trans models in the high six range. Maybe. Quarter mile trap speeds were around 90MPH. Ok, but nothing that will terrorize a lot of other cars on the road. The 330i of the day would consistently do better. In fact the entry level 3, depending on which reviews you believed, could many times equal or better those figures too. Somehow, BMW seems to find ways to do more with less. Lexus, at least with this car, seemed to still be learning that trick. There is an aftermarket to cure this problem, but you can also modify the 3 just as readily. You would have to REALLY like the IS to venture down this road however.

Ride and handling were above average for its class. Steering feel is quite good, and the steering wheel is an appropriate size for a playful car. The ride was taut, but controlled. Handling was good until hitting the upper limits, where it became unsettled. I attacked an on-ramp with full aggressiveness and found the IS loses its composure when trying to make full use of its chassis. At the same time, it never quite invoked the same sense of confidence that a 3 instills in its pilot – that feeling of being able to do no wrong.

All in all, it was a good effort even if it didn’t succeed in claiming the top title from the 3. This is one car that has always perplexed me. I really want to like it – I like the styling more than the BMW, I like that they tried to do something different in the interior (maybe that’s just because I like Swiss watches too), and of course who can argue with the Lexus build quality and reliability? Long-term usage hasn’t revealed any catastrophic problems. Maintain one of these correctly and it should serve you for hundreds of thousands of miles. That’s hard to argue with given what some BMW owners go through as the odo clicks past 100k. By the same token though, it doesn’t reveal a personality comparable to the 3 series - that of wanting to play, wanting to be tossed around, wanting to be DRIVEN. The driving experience (again in comparison to the BMW 3 mind you) is more serene, like most of Lexus’ upper models. It’ll play if you push it, but there’s not much encouragement to do so. If you’re going to buy an aggressive sedan with limited functionality, “driving fun” should be the #1 quality of the car to outshine the deficits. Why else buy a sport sedan?

When it’s all said and done, to me the IS300 feels like more of a sporty Lexus than a true BMW competitor. Mind you that's not a terrible thing; you could certainly blow your money on a lot of other crappy cars that don't live up to the pricetag that is on this one. As a die-hard driving enthusiast, I have a hard time recommending one of these over the BMW. This will actually be one of the rare times that I give a wishy-washy conclusion to a review. It truly isn’t a bad car, and if you’re looking for something to hold onto long-term then I would give this the nod over the 3. The value and reliability equation simply can’t be ignored in this case because it is so strong. As of this writing, you can routinely find an IS with decent miles in the teens. Newer ones don’t much go beyond the low 20’s. You’ll notice the performance differences only at the handling limits, or when demanding full throttle acceleration from the IS. Only you and the remaining points on your license can determine how often you’ll explore those limits. And where it falls short, the aftermarket plus an enthusiastic following can help you upgrade. At least to a point.

So at the end, while the IS doesn’t win the performance test, it does win the real-world test. I suppose this could actually be a complement to Lexus. Aside from ultimate performance they made the rest of the car good enough to make me put a "yeah, but....." in the review - something I swore to avoid at all costs. Guess all I have left to say is….job well done Lexus.

Photos property of Lexus

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