- Aggressive styling.
- Go-kart handling, especially with sport-tuned suspension setup.
- Fade-free brakes deliver amazing braking performance.
- Excellent build quality.
- Lots of options available, so you add only what you need.
- Compact rear seating.
- Sportier suspension only comes with manual sedan.
- Needs a more powerful engine.
- Trendy instrument cluster is hard to read.
- Price adds up quickly with options.
Press Coverage :
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
1997-2001 Lexus ES300
2,995 cc / 210 hp / 220 lb-ft / 3373 lbs / 0-60 mph 8.2 sec.