"IS" stands for instant (and now Inherited) success
In spite of the proliferation of sport/utilities, the sport-sedan segment is hot. It’s the type of vehicle that can make or break a maker’s reputation and bottom line, as well. So in mid-2000, Lexus decided to get into this competitive game with its ’01-model-year IS 300. The car came to market in Japan as the Toyota Altezza and the U.K. as the IS 200, albeit with a smallish, 2.0L motor. Lexus knew the Altezza’s 153-hp inline-six wouldn’t cut it with American buyers who were already fond of BMW‘s 193-hp 328i and the 225-hp Acura TL. Wisely, Lexus borrowed the more powerful 2JZ-GE 3.0L I-6 from the company’s larger and heavier GS 300 sedan. In IS tune, it was good for 215 hp, routed through a five-speed automatic to the rear wheels. The result was a new, fresh-looking (sub-) compact sport-sedan alternative to the front-drive Acura, rear-drive BMW, and AWD Audi A4 quattro. It promised competitive performance plus well-known Lexus reliability and opulent dealer pampering while costing thousands less. Enough reason to have one.
We ordered a Spectra Blue Mica tester, based at $30,500, and added the few available options: sporty leather/artificial leather (ecsaine) seating with the eight-way power-adjustable driver’s side ($1705); a limited-slip differential ($390); and a trunk mat for $66. The $495 destination charge brought our high-fun, high-value total to just $33,156. Due to our early request, the only option we couldn’t have was the pop-up nav system.
Soon after its arrival, our IS 300 served as the Lexus representative vehicle for our ’01 Car of the Year competition. The initial impression was that it’s a non-traditional Lexus–and we mean that in a good way. Not that other Lexus models don’t similarly make class-competitive performance numbers, but they’re generally not as much fun to drive as the IS 300. Often, Lexus products don’t have the communicative dynamic quality of their European counterparts. The IS 300 changed all that. Besides serving up outstanding balance and feel, we were happy to find the new IS 300 had attitude, youthful styling, plus a quick and nimble chassis. The smooth inline-six coupled to the slick E-Shift button shifter drew high praise, as did its precise, athletic steering response and heroic brakes. The IS 300’s track-test data demonstrate that it was, indeed, competitive with others in its pack. A mid-7-sec 0-60-mph time was countered with a sports-car stop from 60 mph in just 113 ft. Its 67.7-mph slalom speed was icing on the cake.
As with all our long-term-test cars, we recorded mileage, fuel consumption, and all problems and repair costs, including dealer checkups. However, as this loan progressed, our quarterly One-Year Test Updates were becoming increasingly difficult to write: Zero problems and free scheduled maintenance made this among the least worrisome one-year evaluations in some time.
That’s not to say we didn’t create problems of our own. At about 6000 miles, we discovered a driveway entrance had high centered and dislodged a portion of the vehicle’s plastic undercarriage cover; it began to scrape the road at freeway speed. What’s worse was the loose tray allowed the parking-brake cable to dangle dangerously. We temporarily fixed the cable with a ziptie and later had the tray replaced at no cost. At about the same time, a parking-impaired staffer managed to scrape both curbside wheels. Yes, we blame ourselves for both. However, owners should account for the car’s low ground clearance (5.3 in.) and miniscule rubber overhang on the rims to avoid a similar plight and embarrassment.
The interior drew several common staff entries in the logbook. Foremost is the aesthetically pleasing, yet ergonomically challenged instrument cluster. We tip our hats to the chronograph presentation, but found the speedo hard to read at a glance. The inclusion of a tiny, instantaneous fuel-mileage gauge is just plain silly. “How about something more useful such as an oil-pressure gauge to round out the typical European triumvirate of coolant temp and voltmeter?” wrote one driver. Also common was the criticism of the too-low center armrest and cupholders best suited for tomato-paste cans. Otherwise, stereo, HVAC, and other controls were simple to operate and tastefully presented. That said, the chrome-plated shifter ball proved to be a hot potato to handle after the car was parked in the sun more than a few minutes. Still, the metal embellishments and unique design are innovative instead of just “me, too.”
Although the front seats were voted magnificent by all who sampled them, offering sumptuous materials and generous lateral security, accommodating four full-size adults in relative comfort was a challenge. The IS 300’s small rear doors don’t open wide enough to allow for graceful ingress or egress. And once passengers were seated, knees contacted the front seatbacks while overall seat comfort and back angle were judged barely acceptable.
Finally, near the end of the Bridgestone tires’ hard life on magazine duty, more people began jotting down that roadgrain noise and vibration–which had previously been commendable–had approached the level of annoyance. The Potenza RE040s’ 45 aspect ratio and countless heat cycles finally caught up. We’re certain new tires would return the IS to its factory-fresh, quiet smoothness.
Most of our minor complaints have been addressed by Lexus with the introduction of the ’02 IS 300. The best news is the car is finally available with a five-speed manual transmission, which makes it even more of a joy to drive. Some of the unexpected surface wear we experienced, as well as the armrest gripe, have also met with upgrading this year. As if that weren’t enough, there are two new variants: The ultra-attractive not-quite-wagon not-quite-sedan called the SportCross and a limited-availability TRD-packaged model called the IS 300 L Tuned. IS sales remain brisk, and it’s been successful at attracting even younger buyers to the Lexus fold. With this new generation and its running improvements and enhanced performance (see sidebar), Lexus will continue to enjoy the success it earned with the IS 300–and deservedly so.
What’s New, Changed, Different
It appears Lexus heard the loudest criticism of its otherwise capable compact sport sedan, and for ’02, added a five-speed manual transmission accompanied by an even more communicative suspension. On the unexpected side, Lexus threw in a model variant to the U.S. lineup with the SportCross, which is effectively a (smallish) sport wagon. In a limited run of about 5000 units annually, the SportCross is available only with the IS 300’s five-speed E-Shift automatic transmission. New comfort features across the entire IS 300 lineup include auto-dimming inside (and driver’s side outside) mirrors with compass, a new center armrest, and the dashboard now has more black coverage with a softer look and feel. A full leather interior, ivory or black, is a new option while the leather/ecsaine remains standard. Buyers can replace the standard chrome shift knob with a leather one. Navigation-challenged individuals will find this year’s optional on-board system easier to use and faster functioning. Finally, two suspension and styling packages (Series I and II) were made available under the L-Tuned moniker. Debuting first in the Western states, the $3999 and $7698 packages are meant for those who wish to customize their cars, but don’t have the inclination or experience to do so. Available at selected dealerships, the factory- and warranty-backed packages were developed by Toyota Racing Development (TRD).
|2001 Lexus IS 300|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, RWD|
|Engine type||I-6, Cast-iron block, aluminum head, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Horsepower @ rpm||215 @ 5800|
|Torque @ rpm||218 @ 3800|
|Suspension, f/r||Upper & lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar/upper & lower control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes, f/r||Vented disc/solid disc, ABS|
|Wheels||17×7.0, cast alum alloy|
|Tires||215/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE040|
|Traction control||Yes (optional)|
|Curb weight, lb||3270|
|Cargo capacity, cu ft||10.1|
|Fuel capacity, gal||17.5|
|0-60 mph, sec||7.4|
|1/4-mile, sec/mph||15.5 @ 90.0|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft||113|
|600-ft slalom, mph||67.6|
|Avg test mpg||17.5|
|Price as tested||$33,156|
|Current value, wholesale/retail||$27,410/$29,995 (Kelley Blue Book)|
|Airbags||Dual front, front side|
|EPA mpg, city/hwy||18/23|
|Range, city/hwy, miles||315/402|
|Basic warranty||4 years/50,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty||6 years/70,000 miles|
|Roadside assistance||4 years/50,000 miles|