The sporty compact rear-drive Lexus was introduced for the 2001 model year and is a noteworthy rival to the BMW 3 Series. The IS 300 gets a number of changes for 2002, the most notable of which is the arrival of a SportCross body style to join the original sedan. First seen at Detroits auto show in January 2001, the SportCross has a unique roof, quarter panels, back doors, rear side glass and front fascia. A subtle roof spoiler also is installed. A different rear end increases cargo space from 10.1 cubic feet in the sedan to 21.9 cubic feet in the SportCross.
Also new for 2002 is a manual-shift IS 300 sedan, aimed at drivers who arent satisfied with the original automatic transmission. All versions of the IS 300 use the same engine: a 215-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder.
New features for 2002 include Brake Assist and curtain-type airbags for the front seats. A DVD-based navigation system and full leather interior are new options this year. Lexus electronic stability system, called Vehicle Skid Control, is optional on the SportCross and on sedans with the automatic transmission. A rear spoiler is standard on the SportCross and optional on sedans.
Until recently, Lexus was known for high-quality, reliable luxury and near-luxury cars. What it lacked was the emotional appeal offered by such rivals as BMW. Lexus sought to change that image, first with the GS 300/430 sedan and then with the sporty rear-drive IS 300, which is a dramatic departure from the luxury-oriented, front-drive ES 300.
Slanted rear roof pillars give the IS 300 a semi-fastback profile. The sharp-edged body has short overhangs in the front and rear. Back-end styling resembles that of the Lexus GS series. Five new colors are available for 2002.
The IS 300 is considered by many to be a compact, with its 176.6-inch overall length and 105.1-inch wheelbase. It barely edges into midsize territory, as measured by the cars.com wheelbase definition, and is 14.5 inches shorter than the front-drive Lexus ES 300 sedan. Standard wheels and tires are 16 inches in diameter, but 17-inchers are optional.
Few automobiles have a more distinctive dashboard than the IS 300, though its fashionable style can get in the way of utility. Lexus says the chronograph-style instrument cluster was inspired by sport watches. Three small gauges are positioned within a large speedometer. But those instruments are so small that they are difficult to read. A separate tachometer sits to their left, with a fuel gauge on the right.
Standard equipment includes automatic climate control, heated outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, and a stereo system with cassette and CD players. The IS 300 seats five occupants, but the three-place rear seat is divided by the driveline tunnel (a prominent feature in all rear-drive cars), so two passengers are likely to feel more comfortable back there. A pass-thru section from the rear seat to the trunk has a 10.1-cubic-foot capacity and permits carrying long items.
Under the Hood
Lexus borrowed the 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine from its larger GS 300 sedan, but the IS 300s version is rated at a lower 215 hp. The E-Shift five-speed-automatic transmission has steering-wheel controls that permit manually selected gear changes when desired. A five-speed-manual transmission with a round gearshift knob is new for 2002. Front-seat side-impact airbags, antilock brakes and traction control are standard.
Lexus did it right, creating a sporty sedan that delivers on its promise of athletic behavior and invigorating action. Even more than the GS 300/400, this smaller model strives to satisfy enthusiastic drivers who can appreciate a taut suspension and rear-drive layout with curve-hugging capabilities. When pushing hard on the gas pedal, the IS 300 is prepared to respond with a level of energy that can come as a surprise. Better yet, the sedans athletic maneuvers are not accompanied by a decline in ride comfort.
The E-Shift automatic transmission operates easily and effectively, whether its set in fully automatic mode or controlled via the steering-wheel buttons. For drivers who prefer shifting on their own, the new manual gearbox is among the better choices, flicking neatly between gears.
Chiseled-looking sheet metal helps give the IS 300 an eager demeanor. In this case, whats under the hood and on the chassis matches the cars assertive appearance. Well-behaved in ordinary driving, its ready to be pushed. Except for the instrument layout, theres not much to distract the driver from an enjoyable experience behind the wheel. The interior has enough luxuries to remind occupants that theyre in a Lexus.