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Lexus IS300 puts sports into sedan

Sixpack to go: IS300 has the mumbo its chassis always deserved.

Six-cylinder power pits the Lexus IS300 against established German compact sports sedan opposition

22 Aug 2001

LEXUS will expand its popular compact sports sedan range in less than a month, but two comprehensively facelifted IS200 models and the new IS300 are just the beginning of an entry level model proliferation that could culminate in up to four body variants of the deft-handling Lexus IS platform.

Exposed exclusively by Automotive NetWorks during validation testing in the Gembrook area of Victoria more than four months ago, the IS300 joins heavily facelifted IS200 and IS200 Luxury Option models to bring the number of Lexus models to seven.

And at the start of the company's second decade of sales in Australia, Lexus executives cannot hide their desire to expand the IS range into a complete entry level model family which will eventually comprise wagon, coupe and convertible body styles - and all with the potential to be four-wheel drive.

In the short term, Lexus Australia has requested an allocation of the manual transmission version of the IS300 recently released in Japan and is currently investigating the viability of selling the IS-based SportCross five-door wagon here.

In a candid exchange, IS300 chief engineer Nobuaki Katayama, speaking at the IS300 launch in Sydney yesterday, also admitted a V8-powered "IS430" rival for BMW's M3 and the Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG was "his dream".

For now, while the IS200 and IS200 Luxury Option will receive a host of subtle midlife tweaks to improve appearance, comfort, safety, handling and equipment levels, the new IS300 lifts its 3.0-litre powerplant directly from its GS300 large sedan sibling.

The DOHC, 24-valve straight six employs infinitely variable inlet valve timing and an acoustic induction system to produce 157kW at 5800rpm and 288Nm of torque at 3800rpm. Answering criticism the IS200 lacked engine performance, this represents a 29 per cent power boost on the IS200 and results in an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 104.3kW per tonne.

Propelling a kerb weight of 1505kg - up 100kg on the IS200 and with a slightly front-heavier 54/46 front/rear weight bias - the IS300 is said to accelerate to 100km/h in just 8.2 seconds.

Of course, 3.0-litre power pits the Lexus IS squarely against compact sports sedan market leaders like BMW's 170kW 330i and the 160kW Mercedes-Benz C330. But the IS300 undercuts them on price significantly, its $73,960 asking price being $16,740 less than the BMW's and $25,940 less than the C320.

Delivering more performance than the less expensive Saab 9-3 2.0T, Alfa Romeo 156 2.5, VW Bora V6 4Motion and Passat V6 4Motion, the IS300 is almost $11,000 less expensive than Volvo's S60 T5 and will also undercut forthcoming rivals from Audi (A4 3.0) and Jaguar (X-Type 3.0).

After a two-year wait (the IS300 was launched in the US in the northern spring of 1999 - around the same time Australia received the original IS200), the IS300 will be sold alongside two facelifted IS200 models from October. It is expected to outsell both the 330i and C320 in numbers of 100 per month and the 19 Lexus dealers nationwide currently hold a pre-order bank of around 40 cars.

Due to go on sale in late September at a price to be announced, the facelifted IS200 brings with it a host of minor changes.

These include:
  • New seven-spoke 16 x 6.5-inch alloys with 205/55 R16 rubber
  • A new three-bar radiator grille
  • Chromed exhaust pipe
  • New-profile side protection mouldings
  • Smoked rear combination lenses for dark exterior colours
  • A soft-feel upper instrument panel
  • New-look air-conditioning control panel
  • Chrome plated surrounds for the front door speakers
  • A redesigned centre console including armrest
  • Increased amplifier power and bigger 25mm tweeters
  • New ivory fabric seat trim and upgraded black seat trim
  • Four new colours - white pearl, spectra gold, green envy and Atlantis blue - which bring the total number to seven.

Mechanically, the IS200 facelift has standard new items including:
  • Lexus Brake Assist
  • Electronic Brake Force Distribution
  • A new brake booster
  • New suspension calibration including revised spring, damper and sway bar specification
  • Heated exterior mirrors
  • Three-hole washer nozzles
  • Front curtain-shield airbags
  • Pollen filter
  • A new dual-pipe exhaust system
  • An automatic transmission fluid cooler
  • A resin protector at the aft end of the front wheelhouse to reduce crash impact energy transfer
  • An updated front door design for easier post-crash access.

The IS200 Luxury Option model adds 17 x 7.0-inch five-spoke alloys and 215/45Z R17 tyres to the equation, plus a limited slip differential (manual models only), dark privacy glass for rear and rear side windows, power driver's seat adjustment, heated front seats, drilled alloy pedals, door sill scuff plates, leather gearknob and steering wheel, and leather/Alcantara seat trim and matching door inserts (instead of the IS200's Chenille cloth trim).

Like the base IS200, both six-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are available on the IS200 Luxury Option.

As the range-topper, the IS300 adds polished five-spoke 17 x 7.0-inch alloys, VSC stability control, self-levelling High Intensity Discharge headlights with washers, yellow (not white) foglights, woodgrain surrounds for the power window control module, anti-glare mirrors, a "moonroof", the high-tech VSC stability control in addition to the IS200's traction control, and full leather trim.

Toyota's new DVD-based satellite navigation system will be available on both IS300 and IS200 Luxury Option models at a cost expected to be around $5000, but in the latter's case only in concert with the optional sunroof.

Despite inevitable cannibalisation between the IS models, Lexus expects to continue to shift around 125 IS200s per month.

It says an additional 100 IS300 sales per month will bring the projected sales target for the IS range to a total of 2700 - more sales than the entire Lexus range is likely to notch up this year.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

OF course, unlike the 2.0-litre six-cylinder IS models which employ a six-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission, the IS300 comprises the creamy five-speed E-shift automatic transmission known as A650E and lifted directly from the GS300.

Steering wheel-mounted shift buttons aside - one on each spoke to change down, one behind each spoke to change up - the beauty of the system is that, unlike other Tiptronic-style systems, E-shift will not change up at redline in manual mode but it will downshift when required.

Further, the shift gate retains the option of selecting lower gears the old fashioned way - a feature superseded by most other semi-auto systems.

In what must be one of the world's finest transmissions, gear selection itself is seamless and almost instantaneous, and makes accessing the straight-six's large reserves of mid and low-range torque a cinch.

Lexus says the six-pack delivers some 80 per cent of its torque at just 1400rpm and it feels like it, but it is not unwilling to rev freely well past the 6000rpm mark.

It is not the most quiet Lexus engine we have heard, but the 2JZ-GE powerplant is silky-smooth, willing to deliver at all engine speeds and not as abrupt during on/off throttle movements as other fly-by-wire offerings.

Lexus says the square-bore straight six also makes the Californian LEV-compliant IS300 one of the most fuel efficient 3.0-litre sports sedan available, with claimed economy figures being 10.5L/100km on the city cycle and 8.0L/100km on the highway.

It has been a long time coming, but six-cylinder power makes the already agile IS sedan a formidable package.

More than just icing on the cake, the extra performance combines with brilliant brakes, refreshingly meaty steering, a comfortable and well appointed cabin, impeccable ride and class-leading handling to create a car that is both a doddle to drive quickly and quite likely the sports sedan bargain of the decade.

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