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2003 Lexus IS 300
Sam Moses

Introduction
The IS 300 is the rogue of the Lexus family, a compact four-door sedan combining sassy looks and snappy performance with the superior quality control usually associated with the Lexus name.

The IS 300 is priced nearly the same as the more conservative Lexus ES 300, but is targeted toward a younger audience. While the ES 300 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. In fact, with rear-wheel drive, best-in-class horsepower, and the road-hugging handling of a German touring car, the IS 300 offers a compelling alternative to the benchmark BMW 3 Series.

The IS 300's high-tech 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine is renowned for its smoothness. It produces 215 horsepower on recommended 91-octane fuel. The E-shift five-speed automatic transmission shifts automatically or manually via buttons on the steering wheel.

Last year, Lexus added the SportCross, a 4+1-door body style to the IS 300 family. The company jumps through hoops to avoid the words five-door or hatchback or anything else that would suggest practical economy, but it does add practicality. Lexus says the SportCross appeals to a much younger crowd than even the sedan; we figure that means active-lifestyle jocks in addition to well-heeled geeks and gearheads. (We pride ourselves as gearheads, but geeks is probably a more accurate label.) Fortunately, the SportCross isn't as awkward as its tag. In fact, it is anything but awkward.

For 2003, the Lexus IS 300 offers new standard and optional wheel designs, including a new 16-inch aluminum alloy wheel with 205/55R16 all-season tires. All-season tires will be available for other models in addition to the summer performance tires. Otherwise the rogue Lexus remains unchanged from last year.

Model Lineup
The Lexus IS 300 sedan with the five-speed E-shift automatic ($30,805) comes standard with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD), side-curtain air bags, halogen foglamps, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, five-spoke alloy wheels (redesigned for 2003), 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 system, cruise control, power windows and door locks, auto-dimming rearview and driver's sideview mirrors, heated external mirrors, remote entry, security system and more.

The SportCross ($32,305) comes with the same high level of standard equipment, but features slightly wider rear tires on half-inch wider rims, and a sturdy rear window washer/wiper.

The IS 300 sedan is also available with a five-speed manual ($29,435). It comes with a sport-tuned suspension and all the same standard stuff. Drivers, you're in luck: More sport for less money. Driver jocks are not so lucky, however, since the five-speed doesn't come in the SportCross body style.

Black or ivory leather seats with full power adjustment add $2105 to the sedan, $2145 to the SportCross. A leather/Ecsaine (suede-like) combination costs $1805 in the sedan and $1845 in the SportCross. Other major options include DVD GPS voice navigation ($2000), power moonroof ($500), heated front seats ($440), Vehicle Skid Control ($350), and a limited slip differential ($390).

Walkaround
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.

Its wedge-shaped form has a conspicuously low prow, while a bulge down the center of the hood 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 bezels are smoked gray on dark-colored cars, and chromed with light colors.

The three rear windows on each side of the SportCross look a bit odd, the back two crowded, as if they're an unsolved design problem. 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, which neither looks in nor out on anything, and is outlined by a thick black band inside the glass where it fits against the car's interior.

Lexus calls the SportCross more than a sedan but less than a full wagon'' (that's the cross), and adds that the new silhouette admittedly places unique design ahead of maximum utility. This priority leaves room for a gaping hole in the concept: There is no standard roof rack, nor even an available one, nor even any rain gutters to attach an aftermarket rack; and the radio antenna, rising from the center rear of the roof, would get in the way anyhow. Lexus says the SportCross will appeal to mountain bikers, and the press kit includes a photo of a SportCross with a bike squeezed in the back to prove it, but we don't think so. The bike has whitewall tires, which suggests how much Lexus knows about mountain bikers. They go everywhere in pairs; their bikes are perpetually caked in mud. They need roof racks.

Interior
The Lexus IS 300 cockpit reflects an attempt at contemporary, driver-oriented styling. 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 fails 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.

The power bucket seats felt a bit hard and wide at first, but we found adequate lateral support when we drove our SportCross hard through the curves, and the suede-like/cloth-like Ecsaine surface was good and grippy. We were less than impressed by our test model's $1845 Leather/Ecsaine interior trim. Earlier we described it as suede-like, but it could just as easily be considered cloth-like. Another $300 for the full leather seems like a bargain (which is not to say that $2145 for leather and power seats is a bargain).

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. The front button downshifts with the thumb and the back button upshifts with the middle finger. The vents and pods for audio and climate controls drop down from the center of the dash to the console.

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.

Driving Impressions
Nobuaki Katayama, the chief engineer for the Lexus IS 300, is a passionate racing fan who admits that his personal driving style is dynamic; he likes to pitch his car. So he designed the chassis and suspension of the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 to accommodate such a style. He did a great job. 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.

Katayama started by mounting the engine (and battery) as far rearward as possible. The double-wishbone independent suspension was specifically designed to resist roll 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 downright 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. 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 gars, 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.

Turning to the ride and brakes, the IS 300 gets great again. 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.

And the brakes (big ventilated discs in front and solid discs in back) were always there. The anti-dive suspension design 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, but the three models are not equal. The five-speed is quickest, the E-Shift sedan next, and SportCross the slowest because it's the heaviest. According to Lexus, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are 6.8, 7.3, and 7.4 seconds respectively, and quarter-mile times are 15.1, 15.3, and 15.6. Any one of them is considerably quicker than a Lexus ES 300.

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.

Summary
The Lexus IS 300 sedan 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.

Model as tested
IS 300 SportCross ($30,805)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Iwate, Japan
Destination charge
575
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
29435
Price as tested
34613
Options as tested
moonroof ($500); heated front seats ($440); Leather/Ecsaine Package ($1845) includes dual eight-way power seats, garage door opener; limited-slip differential ($390); cargo mat ($58)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
IS 300 5-speed manual ($29,435); IS 300 automatic ($30,805); IS 300 SportCross ($30,805)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front airbags, seat-mounted side-impact airbags, three-point seatbelts for five seat positions with force-limiting pre-tensioners and height-adjustable anchors in front, anti-lock brake system, disc brakes with electronic brake distribution (EBD), all-speed traction control (TRAC), child restraint seat anchor brackets, first aid kit
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve inline-6
Transmissions
5-speed automatic with E-shift

Specifications as Tested
automatic climate system, dust/pollen interior air filter, engine speed-sensing power steering, xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, power door locks with multi-function in-key remote, power windows with express up/down for driver, power mirrors, manual tilt steering wheel, analog instruments with tachometer, leather-wrapped steering wheel with shift controls, front bucket seats with eight-way power controls, front floor console, 60/40 split folding rear bench seat, rear window electric defogger, remote release for fuel door, Lexus premium AM/FM/cassette with in-dash six-disc CD changer and nine speakers, 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels

Engine & Transmission
Engine
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve inline-6
Drivetrain type
rear-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
215 @ 5800
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
18/25
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS and EBD
Suspension, front
independent
Tires
215/45/R17 front, 225/45R17 rear
Suspension, rear
independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
5
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
37.8/52.8/42.7
Head/hip/leg room, rear
37.3/53.9/30.2

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
21.8
Wheelbase
105.1
Length/width/height
177.0/67.9/56.7
Turning circle
33.4
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
58.9/58.1
Ground clearance
5.3
Curb weight
3410


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