Lexus quickly established itself as a manufacturer of high-quality, reliable luxury cars, but its lineup lacked the emotional appeal of rivals like BMW, which attract buyers with a reputation for performance. Lexus is trying to change that, first with the midsize GS 300/430 sedan and now with the IS 300. The IS 300 gives Lexus a direct rival for the BMW 3 Series. With rear-wheel drive, an inline-six-cylinder engine instead of a V-6 and an emphasis on sporty handling, the IS 300 is a marked departure from the luxury-oriented, front-drive ES 300, a dressed-up version of the Toyota Camry.
Slanted rear roof pillars give the IS 300 a semi-fastback profile, and there is little front or rear overhang on the sharp-edged body. The overall length of 177 inches puts the compact-size IS 300 in the same ballpark as the 3 Series sedan and about a foot shorter than the ES 300. The standard wheels and tires are 16 inches in diameter, and 17-inchers are optional.
A chronograph-style instrument cluster that Lexus describes as inspired by sport watches mounts three smaller gauges within a large speedometer. However, the gauges are so small they are hard to read. A separate tachometer sits to the left and a fuel gauge to the right. Automatic climate control, a stereo with cassette and CD players, heated outside mirrors and remote keyless entry are standard.
Lexus says the IS 300 holds five, but the three-place rear seat is divided by the driveline tunnel, so two is the practical limit. A pass-through section from the rear seat to the 10-cubic-foot trunk allows carrying long items.
Under the Hood
The 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine is the same one used in the larger GS 300 sedan, though it is rated 10 horsepower less at 215 in the IS 300. The engine teams with a five-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel controls that allow manual gear changes. Lexus says it will add a manual transmission in the future. Side-impact airbags for the front seats, antilock brakes and traction control are standard.
More chiseled styling gives the IS 300 a meaner, hungrier look than the luxury-oriented ES 300. Instead of stressing quietness, luxury and comfort, the IS 300 offers crisper handling, quicker acceleration, and more road and engine noise.
The IS 300 feels more like a BMW than the typical Lexus a sensation that is purely intentional and quite enjoyable.