Text: Jude Morte / Photos: Ramon Sy | posted March 03, 2009 00:00
Fast for the piddling and furtively prosperous
That narrows down the choice to a selection of vehicles. The BMW 1-Series? Too basic. The Volvo S40? Not much power. The Volvo C30? Since Twilight was released locally, everybody knows that car now as the "Edward Cullen-mobile." The Mercedes Benz B-Class and C-Class? The three point star on the hood or within the grille is a dead giveaway. The Subaru Impreza WRX STi? The wide stance and the exhaust note are telltale signs of the Pleiades presence. The E90 BMW 3-Series? Puh-leeze. People can see the brand from afar due to the kidney grille and the roundel badge on the trunk.
That leaves us with Lexus IS 300.
On looks alone, the IS 300 is perfect for keeping one's newfound prosperity on the down low - sleek and subtle. The overall shape at first glance, remarked this writer's photographer colleague, is similar to certain high end Toyotas (e.g., the Corona). In fact passers-by didn't know the IS 300 was a Lexus until they saw the telltale Lexus "L" logo in the front grille and the trunk hatch.
But inside is a different story. The cabin makes no bones about showing its occupants what it has to offer, even with a black-gray interior colorway that exudes quietness. To this writer, though, the cabin should have a black-tan colorway, similar to that on the Euro market-only IS 220D for a more relaxing ambience. The power-assisted anniline front leather seats are heated and ventilated, and they provide soothing comfort along with effective side bolstering during rapid travel. Airconditioning is cold, even at the lowest blower setting. However, vents for rear passengers are behind the center console. The bright, white-light rear interior illumination is closer to the middle of the rear windshield, making it easier to look for lost items on the rear floor. The dual zone climate control blasts constant cold or warm air, and can be tailored so that all occupants on the left (including those in the rear) can enjoy a different temperature setting than those occupying the right half of the car. One odd thing about the IS 300's climate control is that the rear vents are behind the center console, right on top of a high rear floor divider. This divider got this writer's goat also for another reason, but shall be discussed in the paragraph after to give way to the great Pioneer-sourced audio entertainment. It has that rare, lucid balance of treble and bass atypical of OE sound systems. Play "The Magnificent Seven" theme to find out, especially the last 26 seconds where the 13-speaker system broadcasts with force and clarity the cymbals and the faraway drums before the wind section blasts the theme's distinguishable bars for the last time.
Putting people and things within the IS 300's confines is a love-hate matter. The cabin can seat four comfortably, but it feels cramped due to the low roofline. Another problem - should two six footers occupy the front buckets, rear legroom and kneeroom are severely limited. It doesn't help that there's that aforementioned high rear floor divider, which makes getting into the rear area tough. The center console can fit four paperback books stacked upright, has a 12-volt outlet and a USB port for external MP3 players, and its the lid can be moved forwards, backwards or moved further back and tilted close to 70-80 degrees upwards for easier access. It's a good thing Lexus put a storage bin between the a/t stick and center console, as it's perfect to place the key fob there - within easy sight - and not somewhere else where the driver/owner can easily lose it or lose track of it. Also, front door storage is deceptively small, as the bins have movable walls that can be pulled laterally towards the cabin for better storage (similar to that on the outgoing Nissan Teana). It can only hold a 500 ml bottle of water, though.
Although locally we get the 3GR-FE 3.0L V6 instead of the US-market 2GR-FSE 3.5L V6 (found in the IS 350), the former is nonetheless potent. Knowing that you have 224 horses on tap - all in a bodyshell with dimensions close to mass market compact passenger cars - invites you to test acceleration constantly. The ECT (electronically controlled transmission) switch near the ignition on/off button tailors powertrain mapping for either performance or fuel efficiency. The default normal (or "NORM") mode is for city driving and cruising, while the power (or "PWR") mode is for spirited travel. Powerband entry is at 3,000-3,100 rpm, the a/t is willing to downshift at one-half throttle and the six-speed setup allows fifth gear usage for flat tarmac overtaking. For inclines it's best to use fourth, plus the manual mode or the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters since the shift points are higher. However, the gear readout display in manual mode and the actual gear ratio being used often don't match. The 0-100 kph sprint is an impressive 7.05 seconds, and it can hit 255 kph (albeit ECU-governed).
Even the fuel consumption - eight km/l, four days mixed driving - is noteworthy despite frequent givings-in for aggressive driving. Plus, you can make inner rings within the rev counter and speedometer to light up at a pre-set engine/vehicle speed, thus warning you to back off the throttle should you have little fuel left. It can be set via a menu button and toggle arrow buttons to the immediate left of the steering column, with the maximum pre-set vehicle speed at 120 kph and the maximum pre-set engine speed at 4,000 rpm.
Complementing the engine are the suspension, steering and safety. Grip from the sticky 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050s - 225/45 series tires for the front, 245/45 series tires for the rear -holds until 125 kph (sans TRaction Control or TRC), and the rear wheel drive setup allows for a bit of tail-happy horseplay before TRC wakes up and halts the madness. Turning off the TRC is irksome, though, as the car has to be motionless. The brakes bite at the slightest prod, the foglights can take over for the headlights anytime, using the foot-activated parking brake is easy (push down on the footbrake pedal with your left foot to turn on, push down on the said pedal a second time to turn off) and the rear parking sensors are a great help since the rear glass area is small, making rearward vision limited.
The steering is light but extremely sharp, similar to that on the current Audi A4 but with better feedback. You're not wrestling with the steering wheel even at low speeds (a trademark of the E90 BMW 3-Series) nor sawing at the steering wheel on prolonged sharp turns (typical of the new Mercedes Benz C-Class) to get the line right. Perhaps the best analogy for this writer's point would be the sharp 80-degree bend leading to the SCTEX tollgate going to Manila. The line for that turn progresses from the outer left hand part to the middle, and with the Audi A4 you have to move the wheel to the right around two to three degrees more to keep the car steady. In contrast the IS 300 just requires a flick of the wheel to the right. Overall, the steering in the E90 is more communicative than that of the IS 300's, but the latter is notches above that of the MB C-Class and the current Volvo S40. Perhaps it would be better if the IS 300 would get a bit of steering feedback DNA from its IS-F - the IS brand's pinnacle - sibling.
A competitive P 2.938 million tag, a low key exterior profile, a cabin meant for everyday driveability (and liveability) and jaw dropping performance make the Lexus IS 300 a fitting and fast auto prospect for the piddling and furtively prosperous.