The Lexus IS started its life across the waters in Japan way back in 1998. Of course, it was sold under the Toyota nameplate and called the Altezza. Look no further than the name, which literally means “highness” in Italian, and you’ll sense that Toyota expected big things from its small, sporty, V6 powered luxury sedan. For a late 90’s vehicle, Its looks were way ahead of its time. For example, rear taillights came standard. In an era where many car enthusiasts felt swept away by the auto tuning tidal wave that flowed heaviest from Japan, many were trying to replicate the clear taillights look anyway. The gauge cluster looked amazing, the interior struck a rarely seen balance of luxury and sportiness. It was the first car I bought in Gran Turismo 2 on my Playstation. That really says it all. Understandably, we were all thrilled when it arrived on our American shores.
Fast forward to today and the IS300 has stayed true to its core formula for fun. From the outside, the new IS300 has the design features we’ve come to expect from the house of Lexus. Lines are sharp, aggressively angled headlights flank the wide open trapezoidal front grille. The muscled shape, tastefully flared fenders and sporty wheels deliver a car that remains one of the more visually appealing specimens out there for the money. The interior carries the theme further, blending lexus luxury with the sportiness of the IS line. The center console sits low and stretches wide with a nicely tiered dashboard. Cabin materials look and feel great, even with synthetic leather as standard to keep the cost down. Everything mixes to create a visual effect similar to vehicles that would cost twice as much. The back seat is as tight as you’d expect, but fronts are comfortable. There are plenty of advanced safety features and a rearview camera that come as standard equipment.
The new IS300 comes as a rear-wheel drive with a 4-cylinder turbocharged engine, or with an AWD V6. My 3.5L V6 model made 260 hp and could run a 0-60 in just over 6 seconds. It’s no slouch, and the 6-speed automatic gearbox pairs nicely and keeps up with little problem in Sport mode. Paddle shifters are available if you ever need to step in and help it along. The 2.0L turbo model makes less power, but feels nearly as quick and features a smarter 8-speed direct-shift automatic transmission. It’ll even get you an extra 4 mpg. All for a few thousand dollars less even. Everything considered, the more efficient 4-cylinder would be my pick. Ride comfort is excellent and the cabin stayed well-insulated from road and engine noise as well.
As Good as the original ‘highness’ Altezza was in 1998, and remains 20 years later, its got its work cut out for it if it wants to pull BMW and Mercedes buyers away from some of the most compelling options in the small sedan segment. In many ways, the base model IS is starting to feel eclipsed by stronger, better performing and more polished offerings from Lexus too. There’s the IS350, RC line and really anything with an ‘F’ badge on it. Despite this, the IS300 remains an affordable and fun to drive option. Classic Lexus good looks with an interior that feels higher end than the price tag would have you expecting, make it as worthy of strong consideration as ever. Just stick with the 4-cylinder turbo, or if you must have a V6, pony up the extra dough and head for the top IS 350, preferably with the F Sport package.
By: Brandon Randall
Prices start at: $40,660