The year was 2000. The world was smug in its successful survival of “Y2K” and a young William Byrd — that’s me — was in his second year navigating the corporate world in Washington, D.C. I was still driving the car I purchased after college, a conservative manual transmission Honda Civic EX coupe. I was starting to make a little money, and I wanted to make sure I made an appropriate entry into the corporate garage on Monday morning. Unfortunately, I was still very much an entry-level employee, and my automotive desires were not aligned to my salary.
There were certain things that I knew at that point to be truths in the car world; among them was the notion that Japanese cars were reliable. So, while I may have pined for a BMW 3 Series or an Audi A4, I knew they weren’t good decisions for someone making less than $30,000 a year in one of the most expensive regions of the country. Enter Lexus!
Lexus was known for reliable, well-equipped luxury cars. However, nothing about their lineup was enthusiast-focused back in 2000 — or, that is, until the Lexus IS300 arrived on our shores. It was dubbed a “compact executive car,” by someone, at some point, at least according to Wikipedia. The IS300, which was also known as the Toyota Altezza, was Japan’s answer to the BMW 3 Series. With a low curb weight, rear wheel drive, and a smooth and reliable inline-6 “2JZ” engine, it had all the right components. Plus some clear taillights. But was that enough to unseat the mighty BMW?
Spoiler alert, no it was not. Clearly, in hindsight we know that was not the case. When the IS arrived stateside, BMW was selling well over 100,000 cars a year in the states. By contrast Lexus only moved around 20,000 of the new IS per year. Does that make it less of a car? No, and I’ll tell you why.
The 3 Series formula isn’t magic or witchcraft: In the early 2000s, BMW was building a relatively light, rear-wheel-drive platform with great chassis dynamics, adequate power and a manual transmission. You can debate whether or not that is still the case today in the comments below, but Lexus obviously understood the formula, since it was exactly how they built the IS300.
Launched in Japan in 1998, it was engineered by a fellow called Nobuaki Katayama; if that name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps “AE86” will. He was an engineer on the famed AE86 project, and he also helped Toyota’s Motorsports division by engineering cars for the World Rally Championship, Sports Car World Championship and Le Mans. Oh, right, and he was chief engineer on the final generation of the Supra. How’s that for a resume? This was the man Toyota placed in charge of making sure the IS favored “fun” over “luxury”; a novel concept coming from Lexus. And he engineered an excellent cars, as I’ll now explain.
Much like the target 3 Series, the IS was never about pure power. However, it featured the venerable, dare I say legendary, 3.0-liter 2JZ-GE inline-6 engine. Insert any, and all, memes showing two pictures of Jay-Z in the engine bay. Or perhaps a timely quote from Jesse from “The Fast and the Furious,” who was oddly surprised to see a 2JZ engine in a Supra. (You know, the engine that the Supra came with!) Come on Jesse, you’re better than that.
Buyer’s tip: Look for a sticker under the hood denoting the last time the timing belt was changed. The IS300 is incredibly reliable, but it can’t withstand a timing belt snap. So if it hasn’t been done, and it’s over 100,000 miles (which most are), make sure you factor that into your purchase.
Anyway, the silky smooth inline-6 that Toyota placed up front in the IS300 — which was also being used in the heavier GS300 at the time — was not a big power engine. Unlike big horsepower Supras, the naturally aspirated engine here was only making 215 horsepower and just a tad more torque. But, unlike zee German competitors, it made that horsepower incredibly reliably. It’s not necessarily fast — zero-to-60 was a reported 7.4 seconds — but it’s enough to still be fun. Plus, as you’ll see, the power to weight ratio is pretty solid compared to zee competition.
3,255 pounds. That’s the curb weight of a 2002 IS300 sedan, or roughly 71 percent the weight of a new Dodge Charger Hellcat. Admittedly, it’s no secret that cars weigh more in 2017 than they did 15 years ago. While we’ve made some great strides using lighter materials, we are still packing new cars full of technology which adds, grams, pounds, hectograms and the like. For proof, these days, the aforementioned 3 Series — the benchmark for sports sedan — weighs in at 3,370 pounds. And that’s for the entry level 320i sedan with a paltry still-less-than-a-2002-IS300 180 hp. Ramp up to the 328d model, and you’re at 3,510 pounds. The upward trend continues: A 340i xDrive that will tip the scales at 3,858 pounds. Curious how much the current IS300 weighs? 3,737 pounds, progress has its penalties.
So, at this point you’re saying “I get it, the OG IS300 was light.” But the fact that it weighs less than a lot of modern 2-door performance cars is pretty surreal. That lightness shows, especially when things get twisty.
The 3 Series handles well, we all know that. Sporty sports sedan handles sportily. It’s how the benchmark Bimmer reaches that feat that most fail to mimic successfully. Maybe it was having a famed Japanese chassis engineer — the aforementioned Katayama — on board the project, but Lexus nailed it. Light makes lithe. I just coined that term. Just now. We already established that the IS is light; well, it was 15 years ago. Toyota didn’t over-complicate things, they went with a pretty basic setup featuring double wishbones, front and rear. This was well before magnetorheological dampers and other stuff that’s hard to pronounce that comes on cars these days to make them handle well.
Our man Katayama led a four-year development program on the IS, and that was just to get the Altezza to market in Japan in 1998. It debuted in Europe the following year, and by 2000, it was finding its way to Lexus showrooms. So they had some time to perfect it, and I can say with some authority that it’s a fantastic car to drive. It has a balance and a feel that most cars lack. Hailing from the classical era of hydraulic steering, the IS300 feels like an athlete through the turns.
I recall the first time I slid into the leather bucket seats of an IS300. It was at a Lexus “Ride and Drive” event at FedEx field in D.C. How I got onto the invite list, I’m still not sure, but I both rode and drove the new car. I was particularly smitten with the chronograph-style gauges. In a market where everyone did it the same, Lexus said “oh you like nice watches, we’re going to put one in your instrument panel.” Lexus was the Xzibit of the luxury world, just without the “Yo Dawg.” Sure it’s not quite as easy to read as a normal cluster, but normal is boring.
Elsewhere inside, it’s a well put together cabin. Nice plastics, decent to meh ergonomics, it’s a nice place to spend time. Plus, regardless of whether or you got the automatic or were one of the lucky 5 percent to get a manual, you got a fantastic little round ball on top of the shifter. It’s not exactly “roomy” inside, but it’s comparable to a lot of the other compact luxury sedans of its era. The back seat fits adults, the trunk fits stuff, and if you’re lucky, you’re in the drivers seat.
Plus, oh by the way, they made wagon. Game over man! Well, almost, as they never made the wagon with the manual. Top tip: A DIY manual swap will run you $4000 or more.
Later in life, Lexus IS300s did suffer from the much maligned “sticky dash”: The dashboard melted in certain warm weather climates. But, after a decade and a half, there are fixes available. And take solace if you find a car that spent its life in a hot southern state, at least your IS won’t rust like cars that grew up in the North.
So, it’s decently quick; the 7-plus second zero-to-60 doesn’t sound all that impressive, but the power to weight ratio is pretty solid. A manual transmission 2011 E90 328i Msport sedan that I just sold a week ago weighed about 3362 pounds and had 230 hp, while the IS300’s 215 hp only has to lug around 3255 pounds. That’s a power to weight ratio of 0.0684 for the BMW and 0.0661 for the Lexus. And that’s still comparing a 2002 to a 2011.
And it’s also comparing my “old” car to my “new” car. That’s right, I believe the IS300 is so perfect, I just bought one I found on Autotrader!
The screenshot above represents just how difficult it is to find a manual IS300. That is a nationwide search of all 5-speeds, and there are seven. Seven! I engaged with the owner/dealer of most of them advertised for less than $8000. The middle car had rust, in case you were wondering (great folks, though; they called me back and said they had a body guy fixing it), but I had already purchased mine, the car on the bottom. It had literally been posted the night before I bought it, and the dealer said they had half a dozen calls asking about it after I showed up. Here she is!
So I’m now an IS300 owner. I sold my unicorn E90 328i Msport for a very used Lexus. Stay tuned to find out if I’ve made a good decision, or if I’ve made a huge mistake. OK, Obviously I haven’t made a decision so egregious as my fellow Oversteer contributors. (Looking your way, Hoover.) But I’m still nervous about owning a 15-year-old car after having owned so many new cars. Mods and maintenance are coming, stay tuned. Find a used Lexus IS 300 for sale
Based in Northern Virginia, William is professional writer and editor and acts as the Editor-in-Chief of Right Foot Down. He misspent most of his youth on tracks in the Mid-Atlantic, as well as killing cones in parking lots and he once taught at a teen performance driving school.