Car reviews - Lexus - IS - IS300 sedan
Strong performance, intelligent transmission, great ride and handling, superb build quality
Room for improvement
Mottled interior, cluttered instrument cluster, lack of passenger amenities, small boot
7 Dec 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
COULD it be this simple? Bung a bigger engine into the Lexus small sedan and problem solved?
In a word: no. In truth, there is a neckfull of needling aspects that continue to plague the car the Japanese built to take on the finest from Europe.
But the improvements brought with the GS300's engine and automatic transmission have done wonders to its overall health, clearing up the biggest bother of the IS200 and doing much to keep the other irritants in the background.
Despite packing on 100kg compared to the 2.0-litre version and dropping 9kW compared to the GS, the new 3.0-litre powerplant makes a world of difference to the Lexus kid.
It is a pearler of an engine, a DOHC 24-valve straight-six featuring a clever strain of variable valve timing and dishing up 157kW at 5800rpm - some 30 per cent more power than the IS200 and setting up a power-to-weight ratio of 104kW per tonne.
According to Lexus, just eight ticks of the clock are needed for the car to reach 100km/h. And still on the soapbox, the Japanese constructor claims the engine delivers 80 per cent of the 288Nm peak torque from a trifling 1400 revs.
It all rings true.
Where the 2.0-litre car compels its driver to linger in the upper reaches, the 3.0 has a great spread of performance with strong and crisp acceleration to redline, fabulous response from the electronic throttle and ample pulling power from low engine speeds. This is more like it.
Like other engines in the Lexus stable, this one is silken and quiet, requires no more than normal unleaded fuel to deliver its best and, even though paired with a five-speed auto, keeps consumption down to a reasonable level.
And what an auto it is. Shifts are conducted with intelligence, haste and decorum, the spread of gear ratios is well suited to the engine and sequential manual gear selection is available should the driver - who at this point in time does not have the option of a manual - desire more control.
In a similar fashion to others of its ilk, the auto in sequential manual mode will downshift at low revs or in response to large throttle openings but makes for a refreshing change in its insistence that the driver, not the computer, determine the upshift.
Gear selection in this manner is restricted to buttons on the steering wheel, however the gated shift also allows the driver to use the T-bar like a manual - another uncommon sight on sensitive new-age semi-automatics.
As for the remainder of the driving experience, the good news is the heavier front end (weight distribution is now 54/46 front/rear) has barely affected the beautifully balanced chassis and thoroughly engrossing dynamics we have come to love with the original IS200.
Immense grip, agile handling, terrific body control - these traits remain at the fore with the bigger engined IS, which is also supported by traction and stability control to stamp out what it considers excessive understeer or oversteer.
What were we saying about handing control back to the driver? Despite a switch provided to turn off the electronic handling assistant, the brain behind the so-called TRC will still intrude when it sees fit.
The steering remains a highlight of the package with good communication, perfect weighting and great accuracy.
The IS300 rides well - and with quietness - across all manner of road surfaces despite the aggressive wheel and tyre combination.
The IS300 interior is packed to the gunnels with features to make a deep impression on people who would otherwise turn to traditional luxury marques such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
A sunroof, alarm, HID headlamps with washers, electro-chromatic mirrors, first-rate stereo, climate control air-conditioning, full leather trim and 17-inch polished alloy wheels are all included.
The new model has not, however, dispensed with the multifarious cockpit design, the gimmicky and difficult-to-read Swiss watch instrument cluster, the use of hard plastics across the dash or the primitive one-way steering wheel adjustment.
Reasonable comfort and heat treatment can be found with the front seats, yet there's no lumbar support and no electric adjustment for the front passenger.
This person should also be supplied with a separate climate zone and all occupants, particularly the driver, deserve to receive trip computer information. Instantaneous fuel consumption, one of the small gauges inside the dazzling speedo arc, is not good enough indeed, this particular item is not needed at all.
The rear seat will accommodate a couple of average-sized adults with acceptable comfort but, again, notwithstanding the inclusion of twin cupholders and a ski port, there are some blatant omissions: airbags, maplights, door grabhandles and a split-fold backrest.
And there is more of the same out the back. Included here are a warning triangle, first-aid kit, full-size spare wheel and a valet pack complete with gloves, mat, towel and soap.
But hold the applause: there's no external boot release (access is made via an internal lever or remote keypad) and not a great deal of room (790mm between the wheel arches, 920mm floor length to seatback), a token strap is provided for securing small objects and luggage-impeding hinges are used on the bootlid instead of struts.
Have we made our point about the needling aspects?
Despite the long list of standard features, the value price and perhaps the best sports sedan drive this side of $100,000, the IS300 still needs some work before it becomes a serious threat to the cars it tries so hard to emulate.
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