2002 Lexus IS 300 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
July 8, 2002

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I’ve read some reviews from my colleagues portraying the Lexus IS300 as a wannabe BMW 3-Series that isn’t quite up to the lofty Bimmer’s track performance at the limits, its Germanic poise, or its graceful, conservative styling. End of story.

But that’s entirely beside the point. I have serious doubts that creating a precise 3-Series clone and stealing away BMW buyers is exactly what Lexus had in mind.

Review continues below

While driving a bright yellow IS300 and pondering exactly this, I gathered the notion that though there might be some overlap, in general a different type of buyer gravitates toward the IS.

The IS stands out as being a little bolder, lighter, and more youth-oriented than any of the other small sport sedans. While the standard 3-Series has become a sort of status symbol for no-risk middle-age professionals near urban centers, the IS attracts style-conscious young buyers who are more interested in driving something different and bold. It seems Lexus is smartly grabbing the buyers that the 3-Series used to have but lost somewhere along the way as it matured.

Proof of that focus is the availability of the IS300 in the flashy SportCross body style, which, quite honestly, isn’t a normal station wagon, but more of a low-slung “shooting brake”-style hatch variant of the sedan.

Sticky street cred

Initially, the IS300 was available only with a five-speed automatic gearbox. It has smooth, well-timed shifts and responds quickly to the throttle, and it even features manual shift control through steering-wheel-mounted buttons. But Lexus knew that a real manual needed to be available to give the IS some street cred as a real sport sedan. As Lexus has been hinting since the IS’s introduction, a five-speed-manual model was on the way, and it’s now available. We recently got to a first extensive drive of the IS300 with the new manual box.

2002 Lexus IS300

2002 Lexus IS300

Enlarge Photo
So does the manual-shift model deliver? Well, it’s apparent that the five-speed manual gearbox delivers bigger helpings of performance and driving enjoyment than the automatic transmission, but it doesn’t have the satisfying tactility that sophisticated performance luxury buyers might expect. The linkage is unexpectedly loud and notchy, and the throws seem long. The spacing of the first four ratios is near perfect, though we felt that fifth could be a deeper overdrive for fuel efficiency. As it stands, the engine always seems to be turning above 3000 rpm on highway cruises.

The 3.0-liter, straight-six engine, shared with the GS300, is very smooth at high revs, but not as isolated at low revs as the BMW 3-Series or M-B C-Class Sport—particularly at idle, when the shift knob vibrates visibly back and forth. Overall, it’s not quite as silky as BMW straight sixes, but it feels just as responsive.

The in-line six pulls smoothly and strongly all the way up to its 6400-rpm redline, thanks to VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence). Response is snappy in just about any gear and situation, accentuated by an aggressive throttle calibration. Its sound is also nice: the engine isn’t at all loud, but it makes a very pleasant purr down low and sings up high—somehow accentuated with the manual transmission.

The manual transmission is only available in the IS as a separate-spec model, priced $1370 less than the automatic. Besides having the stick, the manual-shift model has slightly firmer suspension tuning than automatic-transmission models.

Firm, controlled ride; capable handling

The ride quality doesn’t have the fine balance between comfort and sharp reflexes of the small sport sedan from Bavaria, but the IS’s road manners should be enough to please any buyers who understand that sport sedans don’t always have a luxury-car ride. The IS’s ride is best described as quite firm, with an underlying softness. It’s very firmly damped, but not as firmly sprung as it could be for the best body control. The IS carries itself very firmly, until you’re right at the limit, when some body lean is noticeable. Oddly, though, this has the result that the suspension gives a ride that’s hard over minor imperfections yet prodigiously damped over pockmarked roads and rough railroad tracks.

Overall, the handling feels very safe: Though we weren’t near the limits of adhesion for more than a moment, it’s easy to feel that it’s designed so that the front tires will slide before the rears, unless you’re really provoking the rear end to slide out with your right foot, which can be quite entertaining in the right situation. We did wish for just a little bit more steering-wheel feedback, though.

Front seating is very comfortable, snug, and supportive, though some larger drivers will be uncomfortable with how narrow it feels. This stick-like six-foot-six test driver found plenty of leg room and head room and found excellent lateral support and back support from the seats.

The very attractive optional seating surfaces in our test car, part of the optional ($1805) Leather/Ecsaine Trim Interior package, have a dual surface of suede-like and finished leather, along with special piping to dress it up. It’s far more comfortable than the plasticky leather that the auto industry seems to believe the public prefers to good quality, breathable textiles.

Mini back seat, roomy trunk

Rear seating is only for the extremely petite. Here, it’s obvious that the IS300 is a small car—and one that’s not particularly space-efficient. The sunk-in rear seats leave the knees far above the waist. Lexus lists the seating capacity at five, but we can’t imagine trying to cram three people in the back, or having anything other than a child seat strapped in the middle. The trunk is actually quite roomy. The rear seats don’t fold down to allow trunk access, but there is a narrow, jacketed pass-through for skis.

Based on Lexus’s established reputation for making consistently well built vehicles, it wasn’t any surprise that our IS300 felt tight as a drum, with no squeaks, rattles, or wind noise.

Switchgear is a mix of some pieces from other Lexus/Toyota products and others unique to this product, but it all fits together tastefully. A chronograph-watch theme rules the interior. The gauge cluster contains three smaller gauges for engine temp, charge, and fuel economy within a bezeled-out speedometer, with larger tachometer and fuel gauges flanking it. The climate controls also follow this style, with outer bezels that turn and larger buttons inside them. All of the controls are easy to find and use, though some of the audio controls seemed a little too far down in the driver’s line of sight. There are no steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.

Wisely, Lexus stayed away from the use of the cheesy wood trim that younger buyers wince at (though wood trim is optional), opting for attractive buffed aluminum touches in the console/IP area and for the drilled pedals and dead pedal. The round, buffed-aluminum shift knob (leather trim is optional) is a nice touch. It doesn’t seem to heat up after long exposures to direct sunlight, either.

Our test car had the $440, optional rear spoiler that doesn’t look aggressive enough—or in the right place—to be functional on this sedan. We think the design looks much cleaner without.

Lots of standard features, but no VSC

Oddly, VSC (vehicle skid control), which is now offered more liberally across the Toyota/Lexus lineup, is only optional on the automatic IS300 and not offered at all on the manual-transmission model. It’s standard on the BMW and Mercedes-Benz competition, and it should be at least available on a rear-wheel-drive performance car. Basic traction control is standard, though. Our car was also equipped with the optional ($390) limited-slip differential, which should aid performance in tight handling courses and low-traction conditions.

The fuel economy gauge—mimicking the vacuum-type gauges that BMW has used in its vehicles for decades, and criticized by many as being pointless—seems quite useful to geeks like me who want to see the approximate fuel consumption at different cruising speeds and in various gears.

On the subject of fuel consumption, we noticed that the small, light IS300 returned embarrassingly low gas mileage—about 17 mpg in a mix of driving, albeit with a heavy right foot.

Even though the IS is already a couple of years into its U.S. product cycle (and it had already been on sale in Japan and Europe), a cruise around town in the IS reminded us that the IS300 is a showstopper for twenty- and thirty-somethings. Several gawkers gave our bright yellow IS the thumbs up. The IS definitely has a limited but well-focused appeal.

Lexus has successfully orchestrated a two-fronted invasion on the luxury market, first with excellent but rather bland ultra-luxury vehicles, led by the LS, then with more spirited performance/luxury vehicles like the GS and the IS vehicles. If you’re looking for a bold, true sport sedan that’s stylish, competitively equipped, well built, should hold its value well—and one that you probably won’t confuse for another identical one in the parking lot—the IS300 should be at the top of your list.

2002 Lexus IS300
Price: $29,435 base, $33,174 as tested
Engine: 3.0-liter in-line six, 215 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Length: 176.6 in
Width: 67.9 in
Height: 55.5 in
Curb Weight: 3255 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 18/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front side-curtain airbags, electronic brake distribution and Brake Assist
Major standard features: Automatic climate control, keyless entry, power windows, locks, and mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, cruise control, 240-watt AM/FM/cassette sound system with six-CD changer
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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