Saturday, July 31, 2004

Lexus IS 300 loses luster

Competition forces once-signature car
to seek a personality

Lexus IS 300


The IS 300 has introduced Lexus to the young-30s male car buyers. This is the SportDesign Edition.

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
3 1/2 wheels

Lexus' sportiest model needs its own identity.

What I drove: 2004 Lexus IS 300, SportDesign Edition, a four-door, five-passenger sedan

Base price: $30,805

Price as tested: $36,529

Options on test vehicle: Limited-slip differential, navigation system with electrochromic inside rearview mirror, heated front seats, cargo net, trunk mat, wheel locks

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 3.0-liter, in-line 6-cylinder, producing 215 horsepower and 218 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifter

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Length: 176.6 inches

Width: 67.9 inches

Height: 55.5 inches

Weight: 3,285 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 18/24

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; 6 years/70,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/unlimited miles

Assembled in: Kanji Iwate, Japan

Safety: Dual front air bags, front side-impact air bags, front curtain air bags, front seatbelt pretensioners, daytime running lights, engine immobilizer with in-key remote control, LATCH child-seat anchors

Cool: Lexus quality, agile handling

Uncool: Tight rear seats, smooth but bland dynamics, awkward paddle shifters

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Car Talk
When Lexus launched its sporty rear-wheel-drive IS 300 in 2000, auto enthusiasts were of two minds. Some applauded the Japanese automaker for having the courage to go up against Germany's much-vaunted BMW 3-Series. Others accused Lexus of misguided arrogance.

Nevertheless, the IS 300 has endured, having proven itself a capable, well-built and relatively affordable sports sedan. Plus, it has earned Lexus its youngest group of buyers: men in their early 30s.

Priced in the $30,000 automotive sweet spot, the IS 300 finds itself competing in an increasingly crowded field. Last year, IS 300 sales took a 33 percent tumble from 2002, no doubt due to the influx of such hot new luxury-sport sedans as the Acura TSX, Audi A4 and Infiniti G35.

Compared with these new contenders, the IS 300 seems middle of the road and lacking in personality. Clearly, an emergency blood transfusion is in order. But with a complete redesign at least a year off, here's what we have.

The IS 300 comes in three different renditions: four-door sedan with five-speed automatic transmission and E-shift (permits manual up- and downshift control with a touch of the thumb or forefinger), four-door sedan with five-speed manual transmission and specially tuned suspension, and five-door SportCross wagon with five-speed automatic transmission and E-shift.

Powered by a 215-horsepower, 3.0-liter in-line six (the same engine used in the GS 300), Lexus says the IS 300 with a manual transmission can scoot from zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds (0.4 seconds shy of the BMW 330i's 6.4), and 7.3 seconds with the automatic (0.3 seconds slower than the BMW).

SportDesign Edition

Most IS 300 buyers opt for the automatic transmission (only 14 percent get the manual), which explains why my tester was automatically equipped.

Lexus introduced a SportDesign Edition package for 2004. In manual-transmission models, this $1,715 option includes a Euro-tuned suspension with 20 percent stiffer shock absorbers and a larger rear stabilizer bar.

On automatic-transmission models like my tester, the SportDesign's additions are purely cosmetic. They include full leather seats, eight-way power-adjustable front seats, a power moon roof, a special grille, SportDesign badges, a chrome-tip tailpipe and 11-spoke aluminum alloy wheels.

Buyers get three exterior colors to choose from: alabaster, black onyx or "thundercloud" metallic. My tester was painted "thundercloud," a dirty silver that would more aptly be described as "dust cloud."

During my week-long test, I put more than 1,000 miles on the IS 300. The more I drove, the more I longed for a manual transmission. The automatic tranny with E-shift gives you the option of letting the transmission shift automatically or letting you control shifts via buttons on the front and back of the steering wheel. I found these buttons awkward, as I was constantly sliding my hands down to the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions to access them.

Silky smooth, composed

The IS 300's road manners are so silky and composed it's easy to forget you're driving a small car, let alone driving anything at all. Fortunately, the brakes are stellar: ventilated in front and disc in back, and aided by ABS, brake-force distribution and brake assist.

The 3.0-liter's exhaust note is smooth and subdued: nothing more than a pleasant hum at high rpm; not loud enough to wake any slumbering kids.

Speaking of kids, my 9-year-old and her friend deemed the rear seats "comfy, squishy and roomy" (though adults tell me they're too tight). My kids also enjoyed having two cup holders in back, which is more than front passengers get.

"Come on! This is a Lexus!" said my friend upon finding only one cup holder in front. He and I took turns being polite - "You use the cup holder." "No, it's your turn." "No, I insist." - while one of us held a cup between our legs.

Aside from the dearth of cup holders, all IS 300s come well equipped with auto-dimming mirrors, automatic climate control, high-intensity-discharge headlamps, an in-dash six-disc CD changer, and 17-inch wheels. Options include combination leather and faux-suede seats, power and/or heated front seats, a power moon roof, navigation system and several tire/wheel packages.

The cockpit features stylish, but hard-to read "chronograph-style" gauges, including three dinky dials inside the speedometer arch displaying coolant temperature, voltage and average mpg. After donning my reading glasses, I saw we were averaging 19 mpg in mostly freeway driving, which isn't great, especially considering this car demands premium fuel.

Not sporty enough

The IS 300 might be Lexus' sportiest sedan, but (in automatic trim, at least) it's not a very exciting one. Like that boy your parents wanted you to date in high school, it's good-looking and comes from good stock, but after 10 minutes, it runs out of things to talk about. And in today's marketplace, that's not enough.

The IS 300 is a watered-down version of the very vehicle it strives to emulate: the BMW 330i. It offers outstanding Lexus quality, capable manners, the cachet of the Lexus nameplate, and it costs several thousand dollars less than the Audi A4 and BMW 330i.

But what it lacks is that crucial ingredient called personality.

Maybe the message to Lexus should be this: Spend less time "passionately pursuing perfection," and spend more time pumping up the power and spicing up the sport. In short, it's high time to give the IS 300 a real personality.

Contact Carol Traeger by e-mail at

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