The Lexus IS 300 stuffs snappy performance and superior quality into a sassy compact four-door sedan. It's the enthusiast's choice among the more affordable cars in the Lexus stable and, inside and out, it looks like nothing else in the lineup.
The Lexus IS 300 is comparably priced with the more conservative Lexus ES 330, but is targeted toward a younger audience. While the ES 330 uses a V6 and front-wheel drive, the IS 300 uses an inline-6 and rear-wheel drive. The ES is smooth and sophisticated; the IS is hip and aggressive. With 215-horsepower, rear-wheel drive and road-hugging handling, the IS 300 is an alternative to the benchmark BMW 3 Series and Nissan G35. The SportCross sport wagon brings practicality to the mix.
Lexus IS 300 5-speed manual ($29,435); IS 300 automatic ($30,805); IS 300 SportCross ($30,805)
The Lexus IS 300 looks like a sports sedan with short front and rear overhangs. Its wheels are pushed out toward the corners of the car.
The IS 300's wedge-shaped form features a low prow with a bulge down the center of the hood that suggests power, especially from the driver's seat. Creased lines on the hood flow down steeply from raked A-pillars to a familial trapezoidal grille, ringed with chrome and bordered by jewel-like HID headlamp clusters. Round halogen foglights are shielded within the air dam behind trapezoidal composite lenses. In the rear, round red taillights peer out of contoured bezels behind aerodynamic clear covers.
The SportCross looks like a sporty wagon. It's more sport than wagon. There is no roof rack available nor any rain gutters to attach an aftermarket rack. The three rear windows on each side of the SportCross look a bit odd, the back two crowded, as if they're an unsolved design problem. Behind the rear door window there's a non-opening triangular pane that looks like an old-style vent window, and behind that there's another one shaped like a triangle/trapezoid outlined by a thick black band inside the glass where it fits against the car's interior.
Designed to suggest a cockpit, the Lexus IS 300 cabin is oriented around the driver. Graphite-tinged plastics and machined metallic finishes set the theme. Drilled aluminum pedals, a polished metal shift ball, a notched shift gate rimmed by chrome, and doorsills covered with stainless steel scuff plates studded with rubber cleats add a racy, high-tech image. A graphite plate on the driver-side door panel surrounds rocker toggles that power the windows, door locks and mirrors.
The instrument panel includes a round analog speedometer inset with three smaller gauges for temperature, battery charge, and instant fuel mileage. The whole cluster is designed to resemble a sports chronograph wristwatch, and in its attempt to be cute, cool, clever, unique, whatever, it fails the no-nonsense test: The instant fuel gauge is too small to be useful, as a tiny needle flips in a tiny semicircle between 0 and 80 mpg. The watch-face cluster stands between a half-moon tachometer on the left, whose clarity is compromised by the clutter of the faux chronograph and quarter-circle fuel gauge to the right, above a digital display for gear selection and trip odometer. It's all accented with bright silver.
The power bucket seats felt a bit hard and wide at first, but we found adequate lateral support when we drove a SportCross hard through the curves. Two-position seat memory for the driver's seat is included with the optional power seats. We liked the full leather package.
A very attractive, stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel tilts manually. Models with automatic transmission get pairs of buttons on the left and right spokes that enable the driver to shift up or down one gear at a time without removing his or her hands from the wheel. The front button downshifts with the thumb and the back button upshifts with the middle finger.
The vents and pods for audio and climate controls drop down from the center of the dash to the console. Climate and audio controls are accented in bright silver and black trim. The center dash has a storage compartment with a lid. The doors lock automatically when underway.
The sedan's firm rear bench will accommodate three in a pinch, and has a fold-down armrest that conceals a small pass-through portal to the trunk.
With its 60/40 split rear seat backs folded, the SportCross offers 21.8 cubic feet of cargo space, more than twice as much as the trunk of the sedan. The wheel wells intrude quite a bit into the SportCross cargo area, making the space hourglass-shaped, which reduces its practical carrying capacity. Fitting a bicycle into the back isn't easy and there's no available roof rack to mount one on top.
The Lexus IS 300 is agile and fun to drive. We were impressed by the agility of the E-shift sedan, and the SportCross seems to corner even better, thanks to its slightly more balanced weight distribution (53/47 versus the sedan's 54/46) and wider rear tires.
Weight over the front wheels (undesirable) was reduced by mounting the engine (and battery) as far rearward as possible. The double-wishbone independent suspension was specifically designed to resist roll (lean) in corners and front-end dive under hard braking, and it thoroughly succeeds. Meanwhile, the engine-speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides precise control with excellent feedback.
But it was the IS 300's balance that dazzled us. We drove it very aggressively through our favorite remote twisty section in the wet, and we kept trying and trying to get the tail to hang out, but it resolutely refused to oversteer. The Bridgestone Potenza summer radials did a great job gripping corners in the wet. (All-season tires are available as a no-cost option.)
Our SportCross was not equipped with the optional Vehicle Stability Control, but it did not seem to need it, and that's saying a whole lot. (Still, for $350, the VSC option remains a steal. Think fail-safe. Think ice.) With its rear-wheel drive, the IS 300 handles better in the wet than front-wheel-drive sports sedans.
We loved using the steering-wheel buttons to change gears, but the E-shift transmission will override some of your decisions. Drive into a corner hard, begin clicking the button on the steering wheel to downshift, and often it won't respond. It's designed to prevent abuse to the transmission and/or over-revving, but it's set way too conservatively; one time it wouldn't even downshift for us at a modest 3800 rpm. Sometimes, when accelerating out of a curve, it even leaves you below the powerband, which is reasonably broad. Also, it won't do short-shifts when you want heavy throttle at low rpm. Bottom line: If you really want to shift for yourself, get the sedan with the manual transmission.
The IS 300 offers a great balance between handling and ride quality. The ride presented remarkable equanimity, which is to say it felt the same over every kind of surface. On high-speed ripples it was firm and steady; on low-speed bumps, firm and never harsh. Out on the freeway, it delivered a nap-inducing smoothness.
The brakes (big ventilated discs in front and solid discs in back) were always there. The anti-dive suspension geometry really works. We abused the brakes during our longest cornering session and they never faded. We dove into rain-slicked second-gear turns too fast and too late, relying on the anti-lock system to save us; and it did, with rock-steadiness and without protest.
The engine, using continuously variable valve timing, delivers keen acceleration. Of course, the sedan with the five-speed manual is quickest. According to Lexus, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are 6.8 for the sedan 5MT, 7.3 for the sedan AT, and 7.4 seconds for the SportCross AT, and quarter-mile times are 15.1, 15.5, and 15.6 respectively.
The Lexus IS 300 offers a sporty balance of ride, handling, power, brakes, comfort and price. It's rear-wheel-drive layout makes it more fun to drive than front-drive sports sedans. The SportCross adds some practicality and is at least as much fun to drive, if not more, than the comparable sedan.