Warning: this is a real opinion, and I know it’s unpopular. This is NOT going to end in me talking about how much I ‘loved it anyway’ because that’s bullshit. My particular IS300 provided a wealth of bad experiences up until its death.
I don’t remember a lot about being eight years old. I’m guessing no one does. I played a lot of Pokemon, I struggled with math, and I thought the Lexus IS300 was the coolest car on the planet. I don’t remember exactly why I felt that way, but it was steadfast. It was never prominently featured in pop culture, but I suppose its general idea was. I was smitten every single time I looked at one. Learning about it was a catalyst for my love of cars.
I’ve owned eight cars in the last six years. I am very fortunate to have been in a position where I could frequently swap out cars by buying and selling on Craigslist (with the exception of a single hand-me-down Avalon). Given my diverse automotive interest, I made sure that those cars represented a wide sample of drivetrain and body style configurations, but I had never owned a rear wheel drive, manual transmission sedan. Those are supposed to be the best, right? The power is driven to the right wheels. The driver has control. Balance. Handling. Blah blah blah. It’s why everyone loves the BMW 3-Series, and the Lexus was supposed to be an excellent, reliable and manageable alternative.
Sidenote: I’ve been struggling to write this post for months. I’ve written it, re-written it, scrapped it and started over three times. I have so many raw, angry emotions about how truly awful this car was. Sometimes it comes off too mean and pedantic. Sometimes it’s too general. But I’m done now. My goal is to say at least one nice thing about the car (like my mom taught me) by the time you reach the bottom of the page.
A brief history lesson
In the late 90s, Lexus had made headway in the North American market by breaking into a the tough, full-size, luxury sedan market with the LS400. It came bearing cutting-edge engine technology with the Ward award winning 1UZ V8, and a very smooth ride. It was not a performance car by any means, but it excelled at creature comfort. I’ve always thought it was really cool that Lexus chose to debut their brand in the US with a flagship luxury model; it proved they were committed to craftsmanship and innovation (anyone remember the Bose suspension?), and I think that’s really stood the test of time as a tenet of their brand. I genuinely love the LS400.
Next came the ES300, another car I really like, which succeeded in being mildly better than the Camry it was based on, followed by the RX300 crossover in 1998. At this point, Lexus had generated enough interest and confidence in their brand that it was time to introduce an entry-level sports sedan to compete with the BMW 3-series and Audi A4, in the hopes of cornering the Yuppie Youth market and creating lifetime Lexus owners.
A new challenger appears?
Enter the IS300 for the North American market, closely coinciding with the introduction of the BMW E46 3-series. It was massively exciting on paper; the 3.0L, 2JZ-GE I6 from the Toyota Supra? A Supra sedan!? That’s rear-wheel drive?! Available with a 5-speed manual transmission!? No way. What did people think at the time?
Car and Driver called it a “delight,” and thought a manual transmission was the only thing keeping it from truly contending with the 3-Series (they didn’t offer a manual until 2002).
Motor Trend used the words “outstanding,” “youthful,” “athletic,” and “nimble,” all within a single page. High praise.
But what was it really?
It was a logical choice when I was looking for my next relatively cheap car. I liked the idea that it was rear-wheel drive, with a large aftermarket community and a famous engine. Of course, deep down what I wanted was a Supra, but a comparably clean one was upwards of $40,000. So I found a unicorn of an IS300. The pinnacle of the breed: a low mileage, stock, manual transmission model, with the limited-slip differential.
And I hated it. I hated its interior, its handling, its engine, its transmission, its aftermarket, even its essence. I hated it all.
God, was the interior stupid. Great foresight with the chronograph-inspired readout. Everybody loves to struggle for information while driving. I would argue that the chronograph is more dating than Lexus maintaining a cassette-deck option (which they did until 2010 with another car that sucked).
On the subject of staring forward, Lexus royally screwed up the IS300 dashboard. I have never been in a model of that car in Texas that hadn’t peeled to shit. With no possible cure other than to find another dashboard. It’s a serious eyesore and almost completely unavoidable.
But you know what is avoidable? Their decision to use a trash fabric insert like Alcantara in lieu of leather for the whole seat. It’s like they sat down and said “you know what makes a seat better? Allowing your blue jeans to stain it a little every time you sit down, so that in a few years it will be entirely blue! Oh, yeah, and it should fray really easily too.” One of my worst memories was the time I sat down with a fucking shaving razor and tried to shave the seats like they were my face. It didn’t work like the forum said it would.
The handling was disappointing. I can’t come up with a clever header to describe it.
All in all, not the worst aspect of the IS300. The most important thing to remember here is that it was supposed to be competing with a handling benchmark, the BMW 3-series. It failed. It really, really failed. There’s no point in even discussing it, honestly. It’s just a less competent car. The steering had way too much play in it, it had significant body roll at all speeds, and was never as tail-happy as young me imagined it would be. I don’t know why it had a limited-slip differential; it honestly felt pointless.
The lack of ‘fast’ made me furious
Early models were clocked at 7.6 seconds to 60 miles an hour. I’m not really one for gunning the pedal, but I’m sure this was a bold-faced lie. The famous 2JZ engine (shared between IS300, SC300, and Supra) is a joke without two turbos strapped to its lungs. It was choked and disagreeable, with an unpredictable, weak torque curve. This was only made more worse by the five long, wide hallways that Lexus sold as a manual transmission.
It was efficient in the sense that it was able to convert gasoline straight into noise without any runoff emission of usable horsepower, but that is where its efficiency ended. The EPA estimate of 19mpg combined on Premium gasoline was a pipe dream. I never got better than 275 miles out of my 16 gallon tank even on 300 mile trips, and it cost roughly $45 every time I filled up. Where the hell was all that gas going? It certainly didn’t contribute to a fun driving experience. Frankly, the IS300 was underpowered enough that its driving dynamics wouldn’t have been significantly changed by making it front wheel drive instead of rear wheel drive.
So make it faster, right?
If it were me, young, naive and full of life, I would say “well it’s a 2JZ, how about you just add some power! Duh.” I’ve seen movies. The IS300 taught me a valuable lesson and common misconception; naturally aspirated, Japanese cars are not easy to gain power from. These are not American LS1’s, which are inefficient enough in overall design to gain 30 horsepower from headers and an intake. These are finely tuned, Japanese motors with variable valve timing and fuel distribution. And you cannot gain any recognizable power from them without spending upwards of $2,000. There is no “value” horsepower gain. None. So either you commit to a full GTE (turbo) swap, or you get nothing. I got nothing.
Let’s recap with the things that it wasn’t: fun, modifiable, economical, a Supra, comfortable, or a nice place to be.
So what was it?
It sure was nice to look at. The IS300 really is an attractive, understated car. It was also pretty reliable for the year that I owned it (in case you didn’t catch it, that was the one nice thing I promised from earlier). Every now and then it would burn a battery terminal, but that was about it. To it’s credit, it only left me stranded one time. It sent a rod through the cylinder wall halfway between Austin and Houston, it was the only time I’ve ever blown an engine. It’s a telling sign for a performance car when smoke comes out of the hood before the rear tires. I wasn’t sad, and I never saw it again. I sold it from the side of the highway and had it trailered to its new home in Fort Hood, where it was slated to receive the turbocharged heart it so desperately needed. Good riddance.