BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Perhaps Lexus underplayed the IS300, who knows, but as a model in its own right, this car was underrated by the British public and generally failed to keep them out of premium specification BMW, Mercedes and Audi products. This was something of a shame, as the illusion of premium quality upon which these German brands campaign proved, in the light of various customer satisfaction surveys, to be just that - illusionary. Lexus has consistently trumped the Germans when it comes to pleasing its owners and the IS300 is no exception.
Models Covered: (4 dr saloon, 5dr estate 3.0-litre)
The IS200 first debuted in the UK in 1999 and Lexus missed a trick by not slotting in the IS300 version alongside it from launch. With just the modestly powerful IS200 to campaign with, Lexus could never hope to do battle with the arrayed might of the German premium brands and although the model sold in respectable numbers, the novelty of its sharp styling, clear-lensed lights and compact shape had probably worn off by 2001 when they finally got round to launching the 211bhp IS300 version. Backed up by a SportCross five-door estate model, the IS300 looked good on paper but failed to capture the public's imagination. Being 20bhp down on BMW's 330i and fitted with an automatic gearbox didn't help its credentials as a drivers' car and the market had moved on in the intervening years, leaving the IS300 rather high and dry. In the spring of 2004, all models received tinted rear light clusters, a price hike and a minor specification upgrade. By the end of 2005, the new IS had arrived to replace this model.
What You Get
The tape measure reveals the IS300 saloon to be 71mm shorter than a 3 Series, 5mm lower and 19mm narrower. This is a difference you feel once inside, particularly in the rear, where headroom for six footers is at a premium, despite scooped-out seats that put second row passengers below the level of those in front. Boot space isn't huge either. Seated behind the wheel, you'll notice that the chronograph-style instruments that gave the IS200 such a big showroom wow-factor are still present, while metallic inserts brighten up the cabin. As you'd probably expect from Lexus, standard equipment is generous to a fault. Perhaps feeling somewhat guilty that a manual gearbox isn't available in such a willing car, Lexus attempt to soften us up with full leather trim, electrically adjustable, and heated seats, 17" alloys, electronic folding door mirrors and a host of other fitments. You can tell the latest IS300 from its predecessor by its tinted rear light clusters. Standard specification lives up to Lexus' grandiose claims, the IS300 being fitted with lowered suspension, rear spoiler, halogen High Intensity Discharge headlamps, smoked rear windows, more airbags than a shower of bullfrogs and as much safety conscious electronics as the might of parent company Toyota could pack into its 176-inch length. An optional DVD-based satellite navigation system holds 13 times as much data as rival CD-based systems. For the fact obsessed Nick Hornby-era man, this could just tip the balance.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
As with all other Lexus models, there is, amazingly, almost nothing to report. Toyota were determined to make these cars as faultless and long-lasting as possible and it seems they've succeeded. The main worry with a Lexus will be accident damage or mileage clocking. The panel gaps on the IS300 astound even now in terms of consistency and flushness of fit, so a second-rate repair will be obvious. If you can, check the car's service records and cross-reference mileage with the dealers who carried out the scheduled maintenance. That way, you'll have peace of mind that the immaculate, low-mileage car you're looking at really is just that.
(approx. based on IS300) Front brake pads are around £85 a set, with rears a reasonable £55. A radiator will cost around £350 and an alternator is around £400, with a new starter motor priced at £170.
On the Road
With a perfectly good 3.0-litre six cylinder engine powering the GS300, keen drivers with a little more disposable were crying out for it to be fitted to the IS series. Lexus answered the call. The IS300 gets the punchy in-line six which drives the rear wheels in classic sports saloon style, the 211bhp being funnelled through an automatic gearbox. Granted, it's an E-shift push button automatic gearshift along the lines of a Porsche Tiptronic system, but it shunts the IS300 some way off the sporting axis. The engine is hard to fault, the chassis everything we thought it could be and the overall package gels with an air of authoritative quality, but the IS300 never seems to carve out an identity for itself, always feeling exactly what it is - an IS200 with a big engine. This may sound a churlish complaint, but bear with us here. Larger engined variants of BMW, Audi and Mercedes sports saloons always feel the definitive choice, the smaller engined cars being just badge-delete specials that offer us a little of the magic until we land that next promotion. The way Lexus have rolled out the IS range counters this. Here, it's difficult to escape the notion that you're paying a lot of money for an 'accessory pack' for your IS200. It's this that moves the car into deep waters. Harsh? Possibly. As a sports saloon, the Lexus isn't going to blow any socks off, the 211bhp engine punting the car to sixty in a respectable 8.2 seconds. It's some way shy of Jaguar's X-TYPE but still represents swift progress by most yardsticks. Given that the IS200 struggles to crack ten seconds, that premium starts to look less of a barrier. Spend some time with the car and you'll appreciate the clever detailing, the still-fresh styling and the way the gearbox slurs more smoothly than Des Lynam after one too many single malts.
If you can track down a reasonably priced IS300, it makes a very satisfying ownership proposition. The interior is well appointed, the engine is delightfully smooth and the reliability record is second to none. As one of those cars that seems to make a whole lot more sense used than new, the IS300 deserves a little recognition. The SportCross model doesn't add a whole lot of extra utility but both models are interesting used buys.