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2001 Lexus IS 300 Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $30,000 to $35,000 Compact Sport Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person who prefers athletic performance and attitude over a cushy luxury sedan.
Comparable cars in this class: BMW 3 Series,  Audi A4

Click here for a Road Test of 2006 Lexus IS350

WhenLexus goes on the prowl for another new market segment, the automotive presstakes notice. This is because, when the dust settles, the class leader thatemerges often wears a stylized L inside an oval in the center of itsgrill. Witness the string of class leaders that currently display that badge:  
  • The LS-400 has consistently been at the top of the full sized luxury sedan class since its introduction in 1989 as a 1990 model. (And wait until you see the all-new 2001 LS-430)
  • The ES-300 has remained one of the best cars in the near luxury sedan class since its introduction in 1992
  • The SC-300 & SC-400 are the dream cars of many individuals who desire a no-holds-barred luxury sports coupe. (Including Bill Gates who said his SC-400 was his favorite car)
  • The RX-300 currently dominates the luxury SUV market with the other manufacturers scrambling to come up with something that is comparable.

Thenew IS-300, which will be available in July of 2000 with a starting price of$30,995 (including the destination charge), shows every sign of extending thistradition into the luxury compact sport sedan class. This kick-butt car is ready to do battle in this category with attributesranging from its trim athletic looking body to its chronograph style instrumentpanel to the high performance 215 horsepower 3-liter engine that comes asstandard equipment mated with a 5-speed electronically controlled automatictransmission with E-shift.  In thisclass, it will be up against the BMW 3 series and the Audi A4.

I drove this carthrough scenic winding roads in New York State's Catskill Mountains. These roadssnaked around mountain passes, through quaint little towns and down through theHudson River Valley.  I came awayfrom these drives suitably impressed (oh, and I liked the car too.)

With this car, Lexus is targeting a new (forLexus) class of buyer in the 25-40 age group. Their sales target is 25,000 units per year, which I believe they willhave no problem meeting.  Theyexpect the IS-300 to appeal to technically astute individuals (mostly male) wholove to drive and even like to open the hood from time to time, if for nothing morethan to admire the precision machinery.  Withthis in mind, I will give this report more of a technical"car-enthusiast" slant than I normally do when I write for my generalreadership

This is a highly refined driving machine with aLexus personality, in other words, minimal sensory feedback. The steering is direct and accurate but feels a bit over-boosted and theexhaust has a very muffled song to sing. Understand that it is a good song; itjust needs the volume turned up a bit.  Lexusis getting the message, however, with the soon to be introduced "L-Tunedpackage for the GS-300 & GS-400, which will correct the same personalityquibbles on those cars.  My guess isthat in a year or so there will be an L-Tuned IS-300 for those who are lookingfor "Mr. Hyde."       

On these winding mountain roads, this car was inits element, beautifully balanced and predictable in any situation that I threwat it.  Throttle response wasexcellent due to the sophisticated drive-by-wire system (more on thisbelow.)  The engine was turbinesmooth with a wide power band, thanks to the variable valve timing (VVTi), and the 5-speed automatic transmission with E-shift did its part to keep the enginein that power band.   

I likedthe fact that the transmission could be placed in manual control to allow thedriver to select the desired gear using steering wheel buttons located on thefront and back of the wheel withineasy reach of thumb and forefinger.  Tapping one of these buttons produced a crisp shift to thenext higher or lower gear as long as the engine could handle it. When it could not, it produced a beep instead. A digital display indicated which gear was selected. This feature was ideal on winding mountain roads like these and I had alot of fun with it.

I felt in total control and found myself pushingto see what it would take to throw this car off-balance. The ride was firm butcompliant, and the car had no problem handling these mountain roads withreasonable comfort.  On the highway,stability and directional control were quite good and wind noise was minimal. Road noise was not bad, considering that this car was equipped withstandard Z-rated 215/45R17 low profile high performance summer tires.  Gasmileage was on the low side with an estimated EPA rating  of 18 city and 23highway requiring 91 octane fuel. With all the sophisticated technologythis car is equipped with, the gas mileage should be better.

This is a small car and it shows in the interior. While front seat room is ample and the front seats are exceptionallycomfortable with good lateral support to accommodate aggressive cornering,the rear seat is somewhat cramped for anyone pastelementary school age.  The trunk issmall, but well shaped with 10.1 cubic feet of volume, containing the trademarkLexus first-aid kit strapped to the right trunk wall and a full-sized spare tiremounted on an alloy wheel under the trunk floor.  There is also a glow-in-the-dark lever inside the trunk lidto allow a person to escape if they were somehow trapped in the trunk. While this is a good safety feature for children, adult sized people need notworry about getting trapped in this trunk.

Fit and finish on this car is typical Lexus,which means world class.  Theupholstery in the test car was leather with suede-like "Escaine"inserts, which gave a nice look to this interior. The dashboard is another matter, however. The ergonomics are typical Lexus with all the controls in the right placeand easy to understand and use, but the look and feel of the dash is a bitplasticy for a car in this price range and certainly out of character for aLexus.  Of course, this is a matterof taste and some people will love the ultra-modern "techno-look" thatit certainly has.

Lexus has always been innovative with their instrument cluster designsand this one is no exception, but I found that I had to take my eyes off theroad for too long to find the information that I needed. Don't get me wrong, I like the way the cluster looks and it adds to thecar's personality,  but instruments need to be readable at a glanceespecially on a winding road with unforgiving trees all around.  The gauges are a mixed bag for me,but withmore time behind the wheel, I think that I can get used to them. 

Lexus engineers laid out this rear wheel drivecar with as much weight pushed towards the vehicle's center as possible.  For instance, the gastank is mounted under the rear seat ahead of the rear axle and the engine centeris about two and a half inches behind the front axle.  Even the battery is mounted at the rear of the enginecompartment.  All this juggling wasdone in order to reduce the inertia required to change directions quickly. In engineer speak, this is called reducing the yawing moment ofinertia.  To understand thisconcept, picture yourself holding a pipe with a weight mounted on each end. Nowhold the pipe up over your head and twist your wrist right and left quickly. Notice the resistance of the pipe to changing directions?  Now, move the weights to the center of the pipe and do thesame thing.  See the difference? It takes less force to change directions when the weight is closer to thecenter of the pivot.  Im not sure how much this feature will contribute tooverall handling in the real world, but when youre competing with some of thebest handling small sedans on the planet, every little bit helps.

The suspension, in typical performance carfashion, is fully independent with double wishbone control arms all around. This is the optimal suspension design for keeping the tires firmly planted onthe road while still providing a comfortable ride.  The weight distribution is 54/46 front to rear. Mucheffort was expended calibrating and refining thissuspension system in places like the famous Nurburgring racetrack in Germany, whichis one of the toughest road courses in the world.

The headlights are automatic on/off, HighIntensity Discharge (HID) units with an auto level feature. The auto level system insures that the headlights are always properly aimedregardless of the load in the vehicle.  When you start this car at night, it is interesting to watch the lightscycle through a quick checkout procedure where they first dip down, then cycleup before finding their level position.  Thesystem also includes daytime running lights (DRL) and a headlight off delay featurewhich allows you time to reach the front door before the lights go out.

The wireless remote control for the securitysystem, is built right into the ignition keyand has buttons for door lock/unlock and trunk release as well as a panicmode.   The key uses rolling code technology for added protection. A Homelink garage door opener is built into the sun visor as part of theoptional leather package.

There is a limited slip differential option onthe IS-300, which is very unusual considering that this car has full-rangetraction control (TRAC) as standard equipment. Normally, the TRAC systemprevents wheel-spin by applying the brake momentarily on the spinning wheeluntil it brings that wheel under control. It may also reduce power from theengine if necessary to stop wheel-spin which is great for driving under slipperyconditions but lousy for best acceleration times. Theadvantage of limited slip is its ability to apply power equally to both drivewheels so the TRAC system can be reprogrammed to allow a certain amount of wheelspin for the best acceleration times.  

The brakes (11.65 ventilated frontrotors & 12.09 solid rear rotors) are large powerful units with a 4 sensor, 4 channelantilock system and Electronic Braking Distribution (EBD) as standard equipment. EBD balances the braking forces between the front and rear brakes electronicallywhich is much more effective then the proportioning valve that was used in thepast.  While I didnt perform any panic stops during the road test, the fewtimes that I hit the brakes hard I found them to be powerful with a good pedalfeel.

This car hasan Electronic Throttle Control System which, in simple terms, is a "drive-by-wire" accelerator pedal which lets thecomputer control the vehicle speed and acceleration based on the gas pedalposition.  Before this system was developed, a cable would connect the gaspedal to the throttle valve, moving the throttle in lockstep with the driver'sfoot, so that you would have to step further down to accelerate up a hill thanto produce the equivalent acceleration going down a hill.  Withdrive-by-wire, stepping down about an inch on the gas while going uphill will produce thesame thrust as it would if you were driving on level ground.  In practice,this produces superb throttle response and near effortless acceleration under mostdriving conditions. Another advantage to this system is that it can handlethe duties of systems like cruise control and traction control therebyeliminating some hardware.

The fact that this is a new car loaded with all these sophisticatedelectronic systems should not give you cause for concern.  For one thing,this car has been sold in Japan since 1998 as the Altezza so it's not reallynew.  Also, Lexus vehicles have always been rated at the top in reliabilityand this car should be no exception.  Another thing to consider if you'rethinking about buying a Lexus is that the Lexus dealer organizationhas consistently received numerous awards for customer satisfaction.  

The Test Car

2001 Lexus IS-3004-door sedan with limited slip differential, moonroof, heated front seats andthe leather package.

What's Coming Next Year

  • 5-speedstick version will be available for the 2002 model year. Its currently going through EPAcertification.  Lexus management knows that they won't sell enough manual-shift cars to make economic sense but the sports sedan image that they are after for the IS-300 demands that this option be available.  
  • I am bettingon an L-Tuned sport version of this car in a year or two, which should definitelyresolve the light steering issue as well as the exhaust note.
  • TRD (ToyotaRacing Division) is looking very seriously at developing dealer-installedpackages to enhance the sporty nature of this car.

Do you have any feedback on the Lexus IS300?  Any opinions or experiencesof your own?  We would love to hear from you. 
Clickhere to send us your comments

Clickhere for more pictures of the IS-300

How would I improve this car?

  • A $30,000 plus car should not need a prop to hold up the hood.
  • Give me the steering feel of a Honda Prelude or a BMW 3-series. 
  • L-Tuned - L-Tuned - L-Tuned... 

How does the IS-300 fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers will feel likethey have a tiger by the tail.  Whilethis is an easy car to drive smoothly, it responds eagerly when prodded. This type of driver would be much happier with the equally priced LexusES-300, one of the quietest, best riding cars in its class. It is a bit larger than the IS-300 but it has lots more room.

Sporty drivers will find this to be theperfect small sedan for them in this price class. The responsive steering and great throttle response will have this drivertaking the back roads whenever possible.  The BMW 3-series may have better road feel, but this car has more power and much better ergonomics.

Fast drivers will love pushing this car to its limits.  The drive-by-wire throttle makes the engine feel like it has a lot more horsepower than it actually does.  


Engine Type 3-liter inline 6-cylinder, DOHC Cast iron block and aluminum heads. Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i).  
Horsepower 215 @ 5,800 RPM
Torque 218 @ 3,800 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission Five Speed Electronic Automatic with E-Shift steering wheel controls
Tires - Standard
No-charge option
P215/45R17   Z-speed rated High Performance summer tires
P205/65R16 All Season tires
Overall Length 176.6"
Wheelbase 105.1
Width 67.7"
Turning Diameter 34.1 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 3,270
Fuel Tank 17.5 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 18, hwy 23. 
Acceleration 0 to 60 7.1 Seconds
Base Sticker Price $30,500 + 495 destination charge

Standard Equipment
Lexus IS-300 Rear Wheel Drive Compact Sport Sedan

  • 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine, 215 HP, 218 lb.-ft. of torque
  • Five-speed electronic automatic transmission with E-Shift steering wheel controls
  • Front ventilated and rear solid disk brakes
  • 17 x 7 alloy wheels with 215/45 R17 summer tires
  • Traction control (TRAC)
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS)
  • Alarm with immobilizer, and in-key remote control
  • Automatic climate control with dust/pollen filter
  • Stainless steel sport scuff plates and aluminum sport pedals
  • Cruise control
  • High-power AM /FM/cassette stereo with  8 speakers.
  • In dash, single-feed six-disk CD changer
  • Illuminated entry
  • Manual tilt steering column
  • Power windows with driver's one-touch up/down
  • High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights with auto leveling feature
  • Daytime running lights
  • Trunk pass-through

Major Available Options

  • Leather Package includes Leather/Escaine seats with 8-way power adjustment for driver & passenger and Garage door opener
  • Luxury Leather Package includes Leather/Escaine seats with piping, 8-way power adjustment for driver & passenger, Wood switchplates and Garage door opener
  • All season tires with 16" wheels.
  • Limited-slip differential
  • Graphite Polished Wheels
  • Heated Front Seats (requires leather package)
  • Power Tilt & Slide Moonroof with Sunshade

For more information on the IS 300, visit

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