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.
2001 Lexus IS 300
Despite these efforts, those hip, Euro-oriented buyers "never stepped inside a Lexus store before," admits Lexus General Manager Brian Bergsteinsson. "Maybe they drove by in a BMW or Acura and looked inside to see if their dad was inside waiting for service."
Now Lexus is trying again, and if our time behind the wheel provides an accurate indication, the new IS 300 is likely to do a credible job of calling out to the young, performance-minded customers who’ve made BMW so successful.
Derivatives that pay off
Like so many other Lexus models, styling is a bit derivative. Nose on, the first impression suggests a Saab. There’s a modest family resemblance to the Lexus GS, especially when it comes to the rear end. But where the GS seems awkward and a bit ungainly, the IS 300 is a good-looking sedan, broad-shouldered in a way that suggests power and sure-footedness.
The "jewel-like" headlights might prove the most controversial exterior detail. Jewels, perhaps, but if so, they’re the oversized baubles favored by the nouveau riche.
The interior is likely to generate a bit of controversy, too, but we admire the decision by Lexus designers to go with what the industry calls "bi-polar design." You’ll either love it or hate it, but you won’t forget the look.
2001 Lexus IS 300 gauges
Central to the cockpit is the gauge cluster, which is styled like a fine chronograph watch. It’s an intriguing design that’s also easy to read. Lexus might be well advised to come out with an accessory timepiece, for we can imagine many owners will want to compliment the look of this novel IP with a matching watch.
2001 Lexus IS 300
Tasteful use of aluminum trim compliments the gauge cluster. The pedals and scuff plate, (or dead pedal, if you prefer), are made of stylish, drilled aluminum.
The IS 300 is designed to be affordable, by luxury segment standards. And the materials used in the interior reflect that in subtle ways. That doesn’t mean cheap. Far from it, but the sedan doesn’t have quite as opulent a feel as an LS 400. But it does maintain the incredible fit-and-finish that’s a Lexus trademark.
Perhaps our biggest gripe is the rippled top of the instrument panel. It’s an odd styling choice that also tends to reflect, unpleasantly, in the windshield under bright sunlight.
The eight-way power seats are easily operated and comfortably but firmly cradle driver and front-seat passenger, even during the most aggressive driving. Leg, head and shoulder room is ample, both front and back.
Driving home a point
When it comes to a performance machine, beauty is far more than skin deep. And that’s why we’ve taken the old stagecoach route, rather than the main highway to Ojai.
Despite the route’s rough surfaces, tight corners and sudden dips, the IS 300’s four-wheel independent double-wishbone suspension is difficult to upset. Steering is tight, providing a clear feel of the road, yet isolating out bumps and other harsh inputs.
At 215 horsepower and with plenty of torque coming on low in the power band, the IS 300’s engine delivers acceleration right when you want it. Combine that with the car’s rear-wheel-drive layout, and serious drivers will love the way you can add a touch of throttle steer on tight and twisty turns, like those on Stagecoach Road. It wouldn’t take much to turn the IS 300 into a very serious rally car.
Our first test vehicle did have one problem: unexpectedly spongy brakes. We turned the vehicle in for another IS 300, which performed as we’d expected, with brakes to match the car’s engine and suspension. As we later learned, the first car’s brakes had not been fully bled, an annoying problem, but one we can forgive considering we’d gotten our hands on what is still a pre-production prototype.
We’ve always been fond of Lexus vehicles. In little more than a decade, the marque has helped redefine the word, "luxury." In most ways, we like the new definition, but one element seemed missing: "driver passion." With the IS 300, Lexus is making a serious and credible effort to design the passion back in. The new sedan won’t empty BMW showrooms, but it’s likely that many younger buyers will now have reason to visit a Lexus dealership — with or without their parents.
|2001 LEXUS IS 300
Base Price: est. mid-$30,000
Engine: 3.0-liter in-line six, 215 hp
Transmission: five-speed electronically-controlled automatic with manual "E-Shift"
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Length: 176.6 in
Width: 67.7 in
Height: 55.5 in
Weight: 3270 lb
Fuel economy: 18 city/23 hwy (est.)
Major standard equipment:
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