Going against the grain and my own username about two months ago I made the uncharacteristically prudent decisions to buy not an esoteric European GT coupe or sketchy modified truck or something with a turbo but instead a nice practical Toyota hatchback. At the time it had 94,000 miles and I paid $5,700. Here are my thoughts after 6,000 miles of road trips and commuting.
The IS300 looks good. That’s about it. It’s not drop dead gorgeous nor is it particularly ugly. It exists, and that’s just fine. It is handsome yet strangely anonymous to the average Joe who at a glance often confuses it with a Subaru. In Japan the IS300 is called the “Altezza” and the Sportcross the “Altezza Gita” and is most known for popularizing the clear-lens-chrome-interior style of tail lights that went on to be a plague on the aftermarket car scene for a decade, and gave multiple Mazda designers raging erections as they hurridly ruined the Mazda6, NC MX-5, and RX-8 with godawful overstyled Altezza-style tail light clusters.
Fortunately the O.G. manages to pull off the look very well, especially with the factory dark-chrome tails that come on the darker paint codes.
As a side note the OEM five-spoke wheels that came on these cars are absolutely fantastic looking and I want to hoard sets of them until the end of time.
The IS300 is a Toyota sports sedan. Not a luxury car. This car had its sights SQUARELY set on the BMW 330i and skews heavily towards the “sports car” side of the “Sporty ————- Luxury” sliding scale. Amusingly BMW did not make a wagon variant of the 330i in the US, instead producing the 325i Touring as the closest analog to this particular car. Having driven a 325 sedan and combined with the increased maintenence cost of the BMW I would not hesitate to drive one promptly off a cliff in favor of the slightly less prestigious Lexus.
But how does it compare to a 3 series?
The IS300 skews heavily towards sporty but the E46 is the peak of BMWs “Ultimate Driving Machine” ethos and, in my opinion, the absolute peak of their chassis and suspension design. As such the Lexus feels a bit less planted, has a bit more body roll, and doesn’t feel quiiiite as tossable as a Bimmer. I have read that a $300 set of Eibach sway bars will put the IS300 with a competent driver on a similar playing field as an E46 M3 but until I do such an upgrade (which is planned; don’t worry) and having driven several M3s I’ll withold my reservations on such a statement.
Personally I find the Lexus’ handling to be better than expected for a 3,500lb car but nothing to set the world on fire. Turn in is lazy and due to the miles on my suspension it gets a bit floaty sometimes when carving up a mountain at 8/10ths. Steering is nice and weighty and road feel is fantastic at the cost of ride comfort which is just average.
The IS300 is powered by its namesake: the infamous and much-lauded Toyota 2JZ 3 liter straight six. This isn’t the rip-roaring twin-turbo variant from the Toyota Supra, instead being a far more mild 2JZ-GE naturally aspirated engine with a perfectly fine 10:1 compression ratio making a perfectly fine 215hp and a similar number of torque. Somewhat confusingly for being only 3 liters in a 3,500lb car the IS300 only manages 25mpg highway and 18 city, which lines up perfectly with what I have been getting. Even more confusingly for the relatively low 10:1 compression ratio the Lexus insists on a diet of 91 octane or better. 89 is usable, 87 makes the car feel like it’s dragging a boat anchor due to what I assume is massive amounts of knock retard. This means the Lexus is an expensive beast to keep fueled around town, which is a bummer.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story. The car I drove in high school was a 2000 Buick LeSabre making similar power numbers out of a 3.8l pushrod V6 as the IS300 in a car that weighed very much the same. I also owned a ‘97 Buick Riviera with the same engine and slightly more weight (despite less doors). The IS300 does not accelerate like a Buick V6. The Buick will pull like a freight train below 3,000 rpm and then quickly run out of steam as any top end power is just converted into more noise instead of more shove. The IS300, by comparison, provides obscenely smooth and consistent power all the way to its 6,000RPM redline with a slight bump happening around 4,300RPM where I assume the VVT cam profiles switch over.
The power is perfectly good on modern roads in modern traffic, being just a hair over “perfectly adequate” just touching on “fun” territory.
And it is smooth.
It is SO smooth.
I mourn the relative death of the straight-six and shake my fist at Toyota for killing it off in favor of the easier-to-package V6 found in the 2nd-gen and up IS-series cars because short of a Tesla or a V12 Mercedes I have never driven a car with as smooth of an engine as this Lexus. On more than one occasion I would finish spending 6 minutes to find a song to listen to for my 3 minute commute to work and then reach over to start a car that was already running. When carving through the mountains where the naturally aspirated engine struggles for a gasp of air it happily sits between 4,000 and 6,000 RPM and sings through the hills without feeling strained whatsoever.
Behind the 2JZ is a 5 speed auto tranny which is perfectly fine. Shift speed is quick enough, though sometimes it gets confused when shifting from first to second and will pause slightly before continuing, which is very odd. There is a manual mode which is supremely useful in the mountains for engine braking and for running the touge, yo to keep the car in 3rd and 4th to carve up the twisties instead of shifting to 5th as soon as possible. There is a sport mode which does absolutely nothing and a snow mode that makes the throttle do absolutely nothing to keep you from spinning your tires.
Behind the transmission is a torsen limited slip differential, which is neat and useful and I love it.
My particular car has a fairly base interior with a tan and black two-tone and non-leather seats. That is, the seats are leather but the part you actually sit on is suede. The suede ages about as well as you’d imagine (like garbage) but is grippier and more comfortable in my opinion than leather. The seats are well-bolstered, which I appreciate, the interior space is pretty average for a vehicle this size, and the Sportcross has a couple neat party tricks.
The first is that the entire rear of the car is a false floor which can either be dropped down a couple inches for more vertical space, or you can stash all kinds of goodies underneath it. The second is that as well as being able to fold down there rear seats the front passenger seat also folds flat giving you horizontal space from the passenger dashboard to the rear hatch for hauling large coat racks (which I have done).
Cruise control, rear wiper with sprayer, automatic headlights, auto-leveling headlights, HID headlights, premium 9 speaker sound system, external temperature readout, heated mirrors, power sunroof, auto driver window, keyless entry, automatic climate controls, power front seats. That’s the short list of “fancy” features I can remember off the top of my head.
The sound system is decent. The front door speakers deliver a shocking amount of sound, the front door tweeters give lots of presence without being shrill. The subwoofer does an okay job above 40hz and the rear speakers exist, too. I equalize the bass down slightly and call it a day. In the future I’ll be getting JL Audio C3 series speakers and a 5-channel amp and replacing the whole lot piece-by-piece but for now I have no complaints for an 18 year old stock system.
The headlights are excellent but I do wish they’d come on earlier in the evenings. The threshold for darkness for the automatic headlights to kick on is just a bit darker than I’d like but I haven’t found a way around this aside from turning them on manually like a HEATHEN. Also annoying: they don’t turn on with the wipers.
The biggest hits against the IS300 SportCross are the lack of a manual and the lack of availability. These things are IMPOSSIBLE to find and I got incredibly lucky with mine, especially getting it as cheap as I did. Admittedly it is a Chicago car with a bit of rust that will require addressing but consider I can’t find a single one for sale right now on craigslist with less than 120k miles and a clean title, and the only ones on AutoTempest are mis-labeled sedans.
The Sportcross is a daily driver that doesn’t penalize you for wanting Corolla-like reliability and practicality and with a near infinite amount of aftermarket parts. Sedans can be found for slightly more money than the equivalent BMW but the increase in reliability and cheap aftermarket would have me swinging Toyota every single time.