Quick! Name a decent-handling, rear-wheel drive, four-door sedan with an inline-six engine and a proper three-pedal 5-speed manual transmission. Nope. Not that. Care to guess again?
In my oft-mentioned quest for something new to beat around in, I repeatedly find myself looking at automobiles outside the mainstream. For my relatively short commute, a latter-day Honda Accord probably makes a lot more sense than a 15-year-old Land Rover Discovery II. Heck, I could even lease a new something at a ridiculously low annual mileage point, rather than delude myself on ponder the benefits of a 20-year-old Audi S6. But where’s the fun in that?
Today’s brilliant suggestion is the 2001-2005 Lexus IS300, a car originally thought to compete with the BMW 3 series and Mercedes-Benz C-class. Turns out, however, that the IS300 was different enough to not just be a Japanese knockoff of the traditional German sports sedan. For a company like Toyota – and by extension Lexus, when their tagline was still “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” – in the US market, the IS300 was kind of weird.
The driveline is something to covet today. Power from the 215-horsepower, twin-cam, 3.0-liter inline-six – the best kind of six-pot – was routed through either a 5-speed automatic or, a little bit later, a 5-speed manual on out to the rear wheels. Handling was by links and wishbones, and steering was via a good old-fashioned hydraulically-assisted rack. Some examples were even born with a limited-slip differential. The whole banana was relatively light at around 3,200 lbs.
Inside, the clean interior featured cloth or leather-and-fake-suede sporty seats, a six-disc in-dash changer, and all sorts of power stuff like a sunroof. Sat-nav was an option, sprouting from the top of the center stack like just about every car these days.
And then there are those gauges. The interior’s signature design element – maybe even the whole car’s, save the tail lights – was the tricompax chronograph gauge cluster. It looks like it should be backed by a outsized Valjoux 7750 watch movement rather than a magic box of electronics.
Speaking of those tail lights, they ushered in the era of Altezza. Named after the IS300 in overseas (non-US) markets, no aftermarket supplier ever nailed the look as well as Lexus in its native application. And, oh, what a trend it was! Altezza lights on your Cavalier? Please. How about on your Nissan pickup? I’ll get you a spoon to gouge out your eyes.
The rest of the car has aged pretty well, a little gray around the edges but still sharp and handsome. It remains a muscular, compact design that stands out against today’s homogenous jellybean designs. The 17-inch wheels fill the wells perfectly.
The IS300 debuted to decent reviews. Car and Driver seemed to like it well enough. Automobile Magazine was kinder. In fact, none other than David E. Davis, Jr. found it a charming four-seasons conveyance, even in transmission-challenged two-pedal format. Power, handling, and braking all struck well beyond average, and while the BMW 3 series provides a sharper edge on the race course, the IS300 proved itself mighty on the more realistic urban and suburban loops.
Today, they’re a reasonable used bargain. Since options were few, you’re buying on color, condition, and transmission choice. Automatics are plentiful, as one might expect, but so are decent colors, unlike today’s 50 shades of the proverbial gray.
Of course, this assumes you desire and can find the elusive combination of a 5-speed manual transmission in an example that hasn’t been mucked with. A tall order, as these cars have become the darling of a very specific tuning niche. Swap in a turbocharger or two, slam the car to the deck on coilovers, drill holes in the hood for pins and locks, slather in stickers or vinyl… again, finding an unmolested 5-speed manual is tough. Of course, converting the transmission is always a possibility, albeit one with a $5k ante.
Like a lot of cars, it seems like prices start to plummet after the 100k-mile mark. Which seems odd, since under the sheets it’s still a Toyota from when they built bulletproof cars that were actually interesting. Late-run cars with lower miles are running in the low- to mid-teens, with high-mileage beaters dipping well into the mid four digits. Modified car values seem to depend on “what” and “how well” as well as the level the next enthusiast is willing to pay for the previous owner’s taste and style.
I can’t think of another Lexus – or any other Toyota for that matter – I might want to drive. Indeed, from this era and segment at this dollar level, there’s not a lot from any of the Japanese brands I have much interest in. Virtually nothing has a row-your-own gearbox. The original Infiniti G35 leaves me cold, and the first-generation M45 has odd proportions, uneven handling, and no manual option. Further, everything else that comes to mind is front-wheel drive.
Toyota also made a longroof version, called the SportCross. More of a shooting brake than a traditional station wagon, it’s a shining example of Toyota harking back to its roots on the eve of total CUV domination. Today it would be called the Venza; too tall, too chubby, and pushing hard on the $40k door.
Why am I not looking for a SportCross, given the TTS penchant for cars with a D-pillar? Mostly, because they are all automatics. In searching for a sedan, I at least have a decent amount of hope in finding a manual. As mentioned, a conversion on any IS300 is possible, but – especially with a SportCross – you really have to want it.
Add the IS300 to the ever-expanding list of cars I’ll be seeking out for test-drives when the time comes. Who knows? Maybe I’ll luck out and find a recent Pacific Northwest transplant in good colors with a 5-speed stick around the corner for short money.
Weirder things have happened.