A cool mist covers the verdant hills heading inland from the Santa Barbara coastline. A short stretch of freeway and we peel off onto dark and narrow Stagecoach Road, a trail that was ancient even before the Wells-Fargo express plied this rutted route.
Tight bends lead to treacherously off-camber corners, steep rises hide sudden dips. It’s a perfect stretch for testing the merits of any automobile, especially a Japanese up-and-comer like the new Lexus IS 300, which has pretensions to the performance throne long occupied by BMW.
In the decade since its debut, Toyota’s luxury brand has done an impressive job. The original LS 400 set new standards for ride comfort, especially when it comes to isolating wind noise and road harshness. Subsequent products have maintained a tradition of impeccable fit and finish. And if you’re looking for the latest in creature comforts, the marque always stands shoulder to shoulder with the competition.
Yet there are a number of areas where Lexus has fallen short. Styling has been one of them. The division’s products are handsome, yet conservative, often to the point of becoming lost in the growing luxury crowd. Part of that reflects the fact that Lexus isn’t a universal nameplate. In other parts of the world, a Lexus may be sold under other Toyota corporate badges, making it difficult to establish a consistent family look.
2001 Lexus IS 300 interiorEnlarge Photo
The division’s products have also tended to appeal to an older buyer, one who might, in the past, have opted for a Buick or Cadillac. How to win over a younger, hipper customer? Lexus has tried with several products, including the pricey and slow-selling SC coupe, as well as the current GS series.