Well well well. Look who's back again with another episode of 'checking cars off the automotive bucket list.' RSX? Check. Impreza 2.5RS? Check. STi swapped GC6? Check. E36? Check. Mustang GT? Check. So what's next?
Ever since I first saw it in the 'First Drive' feature back in the May 2000 issue of Motor Trend, the Lexus IS300 grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. I loved the aggressive headlights, the super short front overhang, the gentle fender flares, the short rear deck and the quad tail-light design. On the inside I loved the gauge cluster with that chronograph-inspired layout, the simple ovals and ribbed highlights throughout, and the sporty look of the seats. At a scant 14 years old, I was convinced I had found the perfect car. Trouble was, I wouldn't be driving for another 2 years and I wouldn't have any real idea of how much cars could cost - especially something that was such a complete package, until much later.
Little did I know, of course, that my automotive wanderings would take many side streets on my path to the best compromise between the immensely emotional inner enthusiast and the immensely frustrating practical side. You know, the angel and demon that sit on your shoulders and fight to the death over every automotive purchase? Yeah, I thought you might. From wimpy 4-banger Hondas to buzzsaw big turbo Subarus to testosterone injected Mustang V8s, you might say I was a bit of a lost cause - but truth be told, they all lead me to experience certain qualities and features across a broad range of genres and gave me a rather widespread understanding of what I wanted - and more importantly what I needed - in a car. There's been ups and there's been downs, but ultimately the best way to learn is to experience things for yourself.
It was clear during my past few years of car shopping that my childhood desire for an IS300 would always be just beyond reach for a clean, low-mile, well-maintained example. This is even before considering option packages and colour combination choices ('Eurobeige or death!', they exclaimed; I sided with death). Every time I'd be browsing for a replacement car, I'd start with the IS300s. It wouldn't take long, of course, to realize that anything remotely affordable was trashed. Toyota reliability or not, I had no desire to take on a 250,000km+ example and hope for the best, even if you could find one that wasn't tackily modified or had gone through 5 or 6 owners and had no records or hope of being what I was looking for. At this point I had resigned myself to settling for an automatic - of which I had heard good things, so I felt it was an okay compromise just to get the rest of that package - as anything with the fabled 5-speed manual was well out of reach.
Perhaps the stars aligned or perhaps I'm the luckiest gear-head around, but last week, it happened.
It's a 2002 5-speed sedan in Intensa Blue Pearl. However rare that combination is, there's a few other things going on that raise eyebrows. The car is factory optioned as follows:
- 5-speed manual transmission
- Cloth sport seats (non-heated)
- HID headlights
- Fog lights
- High spoiler
- 16" alloy wheels
- No sunroof
And this is interesting because:
- I've only seen 5-speeds with full option packages (leather, sunroof, wheels, etc.)
- I've only seen one or two across the full 01-05 production range without leather seats
- I've never seen one without a sunroof
So while mine is far from the utmost statement in luxury, it's surely unique in how it was optioned. Whether this is a good thing or bad is a matter of personal preference; I happen to prefer cloth seats to leather and have never had a thing for sunroofs. All the better for me, I suppose.
My car has a few things to note that aren't factory spec:
- New Tokico Illumina struts
- New Tein S-Tech lowering springs
- New JDM Stern 18" wheels
- New Nankang Ultra-Sport NS-II tires
- New AEM cold-air intake
- New HKS Hi-Power axle-back
And has had the following items taken care of in the last 5000km (the car has just over 150Km):
- Timing belt
- Water pump
- Coolant flush
- Brake fluid change
- Transmission fluid change
- Differential fluid change
- Brake rotors / pads all around
- New battery
The car is, from what I've been able to experience thus far, mechanically sound and very well maintained. My initial driving impressions from tooling around town and taking a few 60min+ trips are as follows: It's quiet. It's comfortable, but communicative. The steering is nigh-on telepathic - and while that's an immense pleasure when the going gets twisty, it does require more effort to keep the car on-center and out of grooves or indentations during highway driving. At 110km/h (70mph) the engine is turning 3K, which seems rather high to me for a 3.0L; I knew the rear end ratio was quicker with the manual but I didn't expect it to be revving so high at that speed. It's not annoying or buzzy or all that noticeable, but I always find myself reaching for 6th gear - and from a fuel efficiency perspective that would be a plus as well. I have yet to drain my first fill-up, so I have no report on mileage at this time. I'm not expecting amazing results, but I've found that some people report better than average and some report worse; either way it's not a deal breaker for my projected driving usage. The NA 2JZ isn't anything amazing, but it's got a very smooth power delivery and more than adequate torque across the rev range. At idle, you can't even tell that it's running - it's that smooth.
The seats aren't aggressively bolstered, but they do hold your mid-section fairly well. Thigh support is mild, but with the center tunnel as large as it is, you're always resting and able to brace on that anyway. The clutch is light and has a bit of an odd engagement feel (there's a hydraulic system of sorts that feathers the engagement to prevent stalling - I need to look into this more, as I've found many owners bypass the system). Compared to the stage III clutch in the Mustang, this thing is effortless. The shifter can be a bit notchy, but it engages positively and there's no doubt as to where you've just slotted it. I have reason to suspect there is a short-shift kit installed based on the shape of the shifter itself, so I'll be investigating that sooner or later. The brakes are, in a word, fantastic. There's a bit of lead-in when you first apply pressure, then there's a very positive build of power as you depress further. The throttle response is a touch slow - and I knew I'd miss a cable-actuated throttle - so it took a little getting used to; it's not really noticeable now however. The pedals are near enough together to facilitate heel-toe braking, and the stock pedal covers offer a firm, solid platform and transmit the nuances of the vehicle's activities well through thin-soled shoes. All of this driver-centered communication works very well when you're looking for a spirited drive, and it fades back to being comfortable and reserved when you're not in the mood. The suspension, being far from stock at this point, is firm without being harsh, but absorbs bumps well and doesn't transmit any crashing or bounciness to the cabin. The rear suspension design, as also reported via other owners and review articles, allows for a bit of an odd 'wallowing' when at speed and driving over perpendicular bumps or ridges. It's not ideal to feel that the rear is 'disconnected' for that brief moment, but it's not alarming. I'm wondering if a sway bar would aid in bringing that looseness into check. All in all, it's a very focused and enjoyable experience.
For now my plan is to enjoy the car as is. I have a stash of the stock parts that came with the car, and I may replace that gigantic HKS muffler with the stock axle-back; I'll see what I think later on. It doesn't seem to drone and gives the 2JZ some flair without being obnoxious, so perhaps it will stay. The previous owner kept his aftermarket stereo system at my suggestion, so I'll be on the look out for something that suits my tastes on that front. I'm tempted to return to a stock stereo and run an auxiliary amplifier and subwoofer, but that depends on availability of the stock head unit. I haven't had much luck in the short time I've looked locally.
So that's that. I finally bought an IS300, 12 years after the seed was planted. It's bright blue, it's rare, it's just a touch of flash with a dash of Lexus refinement and a heaping of Toyota reliability - and I absolutely love it.