Seeking a performance image to match its luxury reputation a few years back, Lexus turned to its corporate sister for help and chose a Japanese/European-market Toyota Altezza as the basis for its first compact sports sedan. A wise choice, too, for the Altezza had the right stuff: Inline, twin-cam six; sophisticated all-independent suspension; powerful ABS brakes; an attractive 4-door package. It would seem as though some of the tuning was done on German race tracks or the Autobahn, for the 2004 Lexus IS 300 handles just like that Bavarian icon it hopes to match. The IS 300 comes in two flavors, a 4-door sedan and a European-style 5-door wagon called the SportCross, which is not only the most useable of the two, but better-looking to boot.
The 2004 Lexus IS 300 is not particularly distinctive, I thought, its lines too subtle to be noticed. Then one evening I stopped at our neighborhood liquor store for a bottle of wine. Through the shop window I could see two young women and a man staring in my direction, smiling. I walked in and asked, "hey, what did I do to deserve all this attention?" Needless to say it was the car, not the driver, for all three were impressed by its appearance and wanted to know more. Beautiful wheels and fine detailing makes the difference, along with a gorgeous charcoal metallic paint job, proving, I guess, that a sexy silhouette isn’t everything. (My women friends have been telling me that for years.) The cockpit is equally understated; soft black leather with metallic accents, most notably on door sill and pedals, where they have the appearance of drilled aluminum such as you’d see in a race car. Nicely bolstered sport seats offer body-hugging support. The rear seat, if you can get into it (took me two painful attempts) is satisfactory for a pair of medium-size adults or children, making this car best suited to small families where the daily driver also seeks handling and performance.
On the Road
V-6’s are okay but give me an overhead-cam inline-six every time for smoothness, balance, and mellow tunes flowing from the exhaust pipe. With 225 hp on tap, this 3-liter unit, derived from the last of the Supras, launches the 2004 Lexus IS 300 to 60 mph from a dead stop in seven seconds. Torque flow is steady from the moment you tickle the throttle right up to the top of the rev range; there are no distracting hot spots. Our test vehicle came with a 5-speed automatic featuring a gated shifter plus a do-it-yourself sequential shifter operated by "down" buttons on the front of the small leather steering wheel and "up" buttons on the back. Nice for canyon carving, of little value in normal driving. Handling is impeccable, with just a small amount of body lean; Lexus has really solved the question of matching roadholding with ride, sans compromise. Steering is precise, turn-in quick. And the big ABS disc brakes, as my co-driver discovered when a semi turned over in front of him at the base of a mountain road, are a precious asset. In almost all respects, the Lexus IS 300 is a pleasure to drive, regardless of the situation, definitely a car I would take on a long journey over challenging roads.