Ever since being introduced in 1989, the cars that wear the Lexus badge have established an enviable reputation for luxury, refinement, and maturity. Last year, however, Lexus added a dash of youthful spirit to the mixture with the new IS 300 sport sedan. Well, now they’re stirring things up even more with two new variants of the IS 300, but each with its own unique Lexus twist.
Introducing the 2002 Lexus IS 300 sedan, now with the draw of a 5-speed manual transmission, and the even more invigorating IS 300 SportCross. Make that the invigorating and practical IS 300 SportCross. That’s because added practicality was the goal for designers of the SportCross. But not at the expense of what Lexus calls the IS 300’s “image of dynamic performance.” And we think they’ve done a mighty fine job. The SportCross is sleek and stylish, looking much more vigorous than competitors from BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
The key to the SportCross look is the rear hatch, which drops sharply down from the extended roof line. And while the tailgate’s sharp rake does cut available space when compared to a more conventionally shaped wagon, it still delivers 21.8 cubic feet of seat-up cargo space, more than double that of the sedan. Flip the 60/40 split rear seat backs down, and the SportCross can accommodate more extreme items like mountain bikes, and even snow boards. As well as plenty of itty-bitty things, thanks to smart storage compartments under the load floor. And for really long loads like skis, the front passenger seat back also folds flat.
Otherwise, it’s that same techie but businesslike interior found in the IS 300 sedan. With its trick-looking chronograph-style gauges, superbly organized dash controls, and available 8- way power seats with plush, suede upholstery.
Mechanically, the Sport Cross is standard IS300 too, with power coming from a 3.0-liter dual-overhead-cam 24-valve in-line 6 that makes 215 horsepower and 218 pound-feet of torque. Which here drives the rear wheels through a 5-speed, electronically-controlled automatic transmission, with the Lexus E-shift satellite controls mounted on the steering wheel.
With the same drivetrain, double wishbone suspension, 105.1-inch wheelbase, and only about 125 pounds more weight than its 4-door sibling, the Sport Cross exhibits the same sharp yet luxurious feel as the IS 300 sedan. You really don’t know there’s a fifth door.
But with a base price of $32,305, it does cost about two-grand more. Oh, the price of practicality.
If, however, you’d rather pay a little less and get a little more performance, you can opt for the 2002 Lexus IS 300 with a new manual 5-speed transmission. This is the transmission Lexus should have had available last year.
Naturally, we raced to our test track for a few runs in the manual, and were rewarded by a 0 to 60 time of 6.7-seconds. That’s four-tenths of a second faster than the automatic. The 1/4 mile took 15.1-seconds, ending at 94 miles-per-hour. But the added driving enjoyment is larger than the time saved.
Still, adding the 5-speed manual to the IS 300 image does not make for a perfect recipe. At the track, our hard core drivers found the short throw shifter hard to master smoothly. Under rapid shifting it proved harsh and notchy. However, on the street, when darting away from a light, a slight bit of patience rewarded you with entertaining throws. After all, how many IS 300s will ever make it to the drag strip?
Though no one complained about the fact that it dropped the IS 300’s base price to $29,435. That’s $1,370 less than the automatic IS, and almost $3,000 less than the SportCross.
So along with luxury, refinement, and spirit, the 2002 Lexus IS 300’s 3-model lineup now includes the practicality of the SportCross, and the performance of a 5-speed manual gearbox. So, there truly is a lot more to Lexus than just luxury. And we can’t wait to see how far they push the IS-envelope next!
Engine: 3.0-Liter, Dohc, 24-valve, In-line 6
Torque: 218 Lb Feet