Reviews

2001 Lexus IS 300 Road Test

Reading Time: 10 minutes

When Lexus goes on the prowl for another new market segment, the automotive press takes notice. This is because, when the dust settles, the class leader that emerges often wears a stylized L inside an oval in the center of its grill. Witness the string of class leaders that currently display that badge:

The new 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 this tradition into the luxury compact sport sedan class. This kick-butt car is ready to do battle in this category with attributes ranging from its trim athletic looking body to its chronograph style instrument panel to the high performance 215 horsepower 3-liter engine that comes as standard equipment mated with a 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with E-shift. In this class, it will be up against the BMW 3 series and the Audi A4.

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

I drove this car through scenic winding roads in New York State’s Catskill Mountains. These roads snaked around mountain passes, through quaint little towns and down through theHudson River Valley. I came away from 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 will have no problem meeting. They expect the IS-300 to appeal to technically astute individuals (mostly male) who love to drive and even like to open the hood from time to time, if for nothing more than to admire the precision machinery. With this in mind, I will give this report more of a technical”car-enthusiast” slant than I normally do when I write for my general readership.

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 the exhaust has a very muffled song to sing. Understand that it is a good song; it just needs the volume turned up a bit. Lexus is getting the message, however, with the soon to be introduced “L-Tuned package for the GS-300 & GS-400, which will correct the same personality quibbles on those cars. My guess is that in a year or so there will be an L-Tuned IS-300 for those who are looking for “Mr. Hyde.”

On these winding mountain roads, this car was inits element, beautifully balanced and predictable in any situation that I threw at it. Throttle response was excellent due to the sophisticated drive-by-wire system (more on this below.) The engine was turbine smooth 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 engine in that power band.

I liked the fact that the transmission could be placed in manual control to allow the driver to select the desired gear using steering wheel buttons located on the front and back of the wheel within easy reach of thumb and forefinger. Tapping one of these buttons produced a crisp shift to the next 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 a lot of fun with it.

I felt in total control and found myself pushing to see what it would take to throw this car off-balance. The ride was firm but compliant, and the car had no problem handling these mountain roads with reasonable 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 with standard Z-rated 215/45R17 low profile high performance summer tires. Gas mileage was on the low side with an estimated EPA rating of 18 city and 23highway requiring 91 octane fuel. With all the sophisticated technology this 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 exceptionally comfortable with good lateral support to accommodate aggressive cornering, the rear seat is somewhat cramped for anyone past elementary school age. The trunk is small, 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 tire mounted on an alloy wheel under the trunk floor. There is also a glow-in-the-dark lever inside the trunk lid to 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 not worry about getting trapped in this trunk.

Fit and finish on this car is typical Lexus, which means world class. The upholstery 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 place and easy to understand and use, but the look and feel of the dash is a bit plasticy for a car in this price range and certainly out of character for aLexus. Of course, this is a matter of taste and some people will love the ultra-modern “techno-look” that it certainly has.

Lexus has always been innovative with their instrument cluster designs and this one is no exception, but I found that I had to take my eyes off the road 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 the car’s personality, but instruments need to be readable at a glance especially on a winding road with unforgiving trees all around. The gauges are a mixed bag for me, but with more time behind the wheel, I think that I can get used to them.

Lexus engineers laid out this rear wheel drive car with as much weight pushed towards the vehicle’s center as possible. For instance, the gas tank is mounted under the rear seat ahead of the rear axle and the engine center is about two and a half inches behind the front axle. Even the battery is mounted at the rear of the engine compartment. All this juggling was done in order to reduce the inertia required to change directions quickly. In engineer speak, this is called reducing the yawing moment of inertia. To understand this concept, picture yourself holding a pipe with a weight mounted on each end. Now hold 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 the same thing. See the difference? It takes less force to change directions when the weight is closer to the center of the pivot. Im not sure how much this feature will contribute to overall handling in the real world, but when you’re competing with some of the best handling small sedans on the planet, every little bit helps.

The suspension, in typical performance car fashion, is fully independent with double wishbone control arms all around. This is the optimal suspension design for keeping the tires firmly planted on the road while still providing a comfortable ride. The weight distribution is 54/46 front to rear. Much effort was expended calibrating and refining this suspension system in places like the famous Nurburgring racetrack in Germany, which is 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 aimed regardless of the load in the vehicle. When you start this car at night, it is interesting to watch the lights cycle through a quick checkout procedure where they first dip down, then cycle up before finding their level position. The system also includes daytime running lights (DRL) and a headlight off delay feature which allows you time to reach the front door before the lights go out.

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

There is a limited slip differential option on the IS-300, which is very unusual considering that this car has full-range traction control (TRAC) as standard equipment. Normally, the TRAC system prevents wheel-spin by applying the brake momentarily on the spinning wheel until it brings that wheel under control. It may also reduce power from the engine if necessary to stop wheel-spin which is great for driving under slippery conditions but lousy for best acceleration times. The advantage 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 wheel spin for the best acceleration times.

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

This car has an Electronic Throttle Control System which, in simple terms, is a “drive-by-wire” accelerator pedal which lets the computer control the vehicle speed and acceleration based on the gas pedal position. Before this system was developed, a cable would connect the gas pedal to the throttle valve, moving the throttle in lockstep with the driver’s foot, so that you would have to step further down to accelerate up a hill than to produce the equivalent acceleration going down a hill. With drive-by-wire, stepping down about an inch on the gas while going uphill will produce the same thrust as it would if you were driving on level ground. In practice, this produces superb throttle response and near effortless acceleration under most driving conditions. Another advantage to this system is that it can handle the duties of systems like cruise control and traction control there by eliminating some hardware.

The fact that this is a new car loaded with all these sophisticated electronic 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 really new. Also, Lexus vehicles have always been rated at the top in reliability and this car should be no exception. Another thing to consider if you’re thinking about buying a Lexus is that the Lexus dealer organization has consistently received numerous awards for customer satisfaction.

The Test Car

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

What’s Coming Next Year

Click here for more pictures of the IS-300

How would I improve this car?

How does the IS-300 fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will feel like they have a tiger by the tail. While this 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 the perfect 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.

Specifications

Engine Type3-liter inline 6-cylinder, DOHC Cast iron block and aluminum heads. Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i).
Horsepower215 @ 5,800 RPM
Torque218 @ 3,800 RPM
Fuel RecommendedPremium 91 Octane Unleaded.
TransmissionFive 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 Length176.6″
Wheelbase105.1
Width67.7″
Turning Diameter34.1 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight3,270
Fuel Tank17.5 Gals.
Miles Per GallonEPA city 18, hwy 23.
Acceleration 0 to 607.1 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$30,500 + 495 destination charge

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

Major Available Options

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Author

Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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