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The Lexus IS 300 is the rogue of the family, a compact four-door sedan combining sassy looks and snappy performance with the superior quality control associated with the Lexus name. Inside and out, it looks like nothing else in the Lexus lineup.
The Lexus IS 300 is comparably priced with the more conservative Lexus ES 330, but is targeted toward a younger audience. While the ES 330 uses a V6 and front-wheel drive, the IS 300 uses an inline-6 and rear-wheel drive. The ES is smooth and sophisticated; the IS is hip and aggressive. With rear-wheel drive, a responsive six-cylinder engine, and the road-hugging handling of a German touring car, the IS 300 offers a compelling alternative to the benchmark BMW 3 Series and Infiniti G35.
The IS 300's high-tech 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful, producing 215 horsepower. It's available with either a manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic that shifts automatically or manually via buttons on the steering wheel. It's also available as a sport wagon called the SportCross.
Model year 2004 brings some minor revisions to the front and rear styling, mist-type wiper nozzles, and some minor interior tweaks. Otherwise the IS 300 remains unchanged from last year.
All come standard with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD), side-curtain air bags, halogen foglamps, high-intensity discharge headlights, five-spoke alloy wheels, traction control, a premium eight-speaker (nine in SportCross) audio system with cassette and in-dash six-disc CD player, plus all the power-oriented paraphernalia of a luxury car: automatic climate control, cruise control, power windows and door locks, auto-dimming rearview and driver's sideview mirrors, heated external mirrors, remote entry, security system and more. SportCross also gets a sturdy rear window washer/wiper.
The sedan with the manual gearbox comes with a sport-tuned suspension. All models come standard with five-spoke 17-inch wheels and 215/45ZR17 tires. Eleven-spoke wheels are optional. The SportCross features slightly wider rear tires (225/45R17) on half-inch wider rims. All-season tires are available as a no-cost option (17 inches on sedans; 16 inches on SportCross, good for adding slightly taller snow tires). Graphite-polished wheels are optional ($400).
A Leather Package ($2,465 for the sedan, $2,505 for the SportCross) includes leather trim, eight-way driver and passenger power seats, driver's-seat memory, and a programmable garage door opener. A similar package is available trimmed in leather and alcantara ($2,065 and $2,105). Heated front seats ($440) can be added to either package. We recommend the optional limited-slip differential ($390) to driving enthusiasts for improved traction when accelerating out of corners. We also recommend Vehicle Skid Control ($350) for models with automatics. A navigation system ($2,000) is also available.
The Lexus IS 300 looks like a sports sedan with short front and rear overhangs. Its wheels are pushed out toward the corners of the car. Smoked gray surrounds for the headlamps, fog lights, and tail lights distinguish 2004 models.
The IS 300's wedge-shaped form features a low prow with a bulge down the center of the hood that suggests power, especially from the driver's seat. Creased lines on the hood flow down steeply from raked A-pillars to a familial trapezoidal grille, ringed with chrome and bordered by jewel-like HID headlamp clusters. Round halogen foglights are shielded within the air dam behind trapezoidal composite lenses. In the rear, round red taillights peer out of contoured bezels behind aerodynamic clear covers.
The SportCross looks like a sporty wagon. When creating it, Lexus emphasized sporty design over maximum utility. It's more practical than a sedan but less practical than a full wagon. There is no roof rack available nor any rain gutters to attach an aftermarket rack. The three rear windows on each side of the SportCross look a bit odd, the back two crowded. Behind the rear door window there's a non-opening triangular pane that looks like an old-style vent window, and behind that there's another one shaped like a triangle/trapezoid outlined by a thick black band inside the glass where it fits against the car's interior.
The Lexus IS 300 interior is oriented around the driver and is designed to suggest a cockpit. Graphite-tinged plastics and machined metallic finishes set the theme. Drilled aluminum pedals, a polished metal shift ball, a notched shift gate rimmed by chrome, and doorsills covered with stainless steel scuff plates studded with rubber cleats add a racy, high-tech image. A graphite plate on the driver-side door panel surrounds rocker toggles that power the windows, door locks and both exterior mirrors.
The instrument panel includes a round analog speedometer inset with three smaller gauges for temperature, volts and instant fuel mileage. The whole cluster is designed to resemble a sports chronograph wristwatch, and in its attempt to be cute, cool, clever, unique, whatever, it barely passes the no-nonsense test: The instant fuel gauge is too small to be useful, as a tiny needle flips in a tiny semicircle between 0 and 80 mpg. The watch-face cluster stands between a half-moon tachometer on the left, whose clarity is compromised by the clutter of the faux chronograph, and quarter-circle fuel gauge to the right, above a digital display for gear selection and trip odometer. Bright silver accents replace last year's dark silver accents.
The power bucket seats felt a bit hard and wide at first, but we found adequate lateral support when we drove a SportCross hard through the curves. Two-position seat memory for the driver's seat is included with the optional power seats. We were less than impressed by last year's optional Alcantara interior trim (it felt too much like cloth), but some of that has been replaced with synthetic leather for 2004. In any case, the full leather package seems like a better choice for the additional $400 it costs.
A very attractive, stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel (spokes at 3, 9 and 6 o'clock) tilts manually. Pairs of buttons on both the left and right spokes enable the driver to shift up or down one gear at a time without removing his or her hands from the wheel (on automatic models). The front button downshifts with the thumb and the back button upshifts with the middle finger. The steering wheel trim has been changed for 2004.
The vents and pods for audio and climate controls drop down from the center of the dash to the console. Some of the trim has been revised for 2004: Bright silver replaces last year's dark silver trim around the climate and audio controls. Black replaces dark silver on the audio plate surround and the transmission housing plate surround.
Minor revisions make the IS 300's interior more convenient for 2004. The center dash now has a storage compartment with a lid. Also, the doors lock automatically when underway.
The sedan's firm rear bench will accommodate three in a pinch, and has a fold-down armrest that conceals a small pass-through portal to the trunk.
With its 60/40 split rear seat backs folded, the SportCross offers 21.8 cubic feet of cargo space, more than twice as much as the trunk of the sedan. The wheel wells intrude quite a bit into the SportCross cargo area, making the space hourglass-shaped, which reduces its practical carrying capacity. Lexus has indicated the SportCross will appeal to mountain bikers, but fitting one into the back isn't easy and there's no available roof rack to mount a bike on top.
The Lexus IS 300 is an agile car. Lexus designed the IS 300 chassis to be tossable. We were impressed by the agility of the E-shift sedan, and the SportCross corners even better, thanks to its slightly more balanced weight distribution (53/47 versus 54/46) and wider rear tires. But the five-speed sedan, with its stiffer sport suspension, should corner best of all.
Weight over the front wheels (undesirable) was reduced by mounting the engine (and battery) as far rearward as possible. The double-wishbone independent suspension was specifically designed to resist roll (lean) in corners and front-end dive under hard braking, and it thoroughly succeeds. Meanwhile, the engine-speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides precise control with excellent feedback.
But it was the car's balance that dazzled us. We drove it very aggressively through our favorite remote twisty section in the wet, and we kept trying and trying to get the tail to hang out, but the IS 300 resolutely refused to oversteer. The Bridgestone Potenza summer radials did a great job gripping corners in the wet. (All-season tires are available as a no-cost option.)
Our SportCross was not equipped with the optional Vehicle Skid Control, but it did not seem to need it, and that's saying a whole lot. (Still, for $350, the VSC option remains a steal. Think fail-safe. Think ice.) The SportCross handled better in the wet than the front-wheel-drive Acura TL-S did in the dry. We found the IS 300 more fun to drive than a lot of sports cars.
We loved using the steering-wheel buttons to change gears, but the E-shift transmission will override some of your decisions. Drive into a corner hard, begin clicking the button on the steering wheel to downshift, and often it won't respond. It's designed to prevent abuse to the transmission and/or over-revving, but it's set way too conservatively; one time it wouldn't even downshift for us at a modest 3800 rpm. Sometimes, when accelerating out of a curve, it even leaves you below the powerband, which is reasonably broad. Also, it won't do short-shifts when you want heavy throttle at low rpm. Bottom line: If you really want to shift for yourself, get the sedan with the manual transmission.
The IS 300 offers a great balance between handling and ride quality. The ride presented remarkable equanimity, which is to say it felt the same over every kind of surface. On high-speed ripples it was firm and steady; on low-speed bumps, firm and never harsh. Out on the freeway, it delivered a nap-inducing smoothness.
The brakes (big ventilated discs in front and solid discs in back) were always there. The anti-dive suspension geometry really works. We abused the brakes during our longest cornering session and they never faded. We dove into rain-slicked second-gear turns too fast and too late, relying on the anti-lock system to save us; and it did, with rock-steadiness and without protest.
The engine, using continuously variable valve timing, delivers keen acceleration. Of course, the sedan with the five-speed manual is quickest. According to Lexus, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are 6.8, 7.3, and 7.4 seconds for the sedan 5MT, sedan AT, and SportCross AT respectively, and quarter-mile times are 15.1, 15.5, and 15.6.
We were impressed by the performance of the traction control with optional limited-slip differential. The rear wheels will slip on wet pavement, when accelerating from an uphill stop sign for example, but pound the throttle and the limited-slip kicks in and prevents the wheels from spinning any more.
The Lexus IS 300 offers ride, handling, power, brakes, comfort and price comparable to the BMW 3 Series and other sports sedans.
The IS 300 SportCross is an excellent concept with tremendous promise. If it had an available roof rack and either a manual gearbox or sportier programming of the auto/manual transmission, it would fulfill that promise. In both cases, we were particularly impressed with the braking and handling.