Back in 2001, Lexus got a lot more serious about competing with the likes of BMW and Audi, by increasing its model range. The new IS, on sale in Japan for a period of time as the Toyota Altezza, ended up in the United States as the Japanese answer to the BMW 3-Series. On the surface, it is structurally very similar to the German, with an inline-six at the front, rear-wheel-drive, and sporty personality. However, these cars are fast becoming something far greater than Lexus imagined a decade ago.
The IS300 hit our shores in 2001, as Lexus continued to expand in its attack on the German establishment in the luxury market. Initially available only as a four-door sedan, a wagon, the SportCross, was added in 2002. The first-gen IS was a big departure from previous Lexus models, which were rather lacking in the outright “sport’ department, and more focused on “luxury.” The chronograph-style dials drew praise for their style but criticism for being harder to read than conventional gauges. The IS got off to a relatively good start, but sales started to falter in a short time, with only a bit under 10,000 sold in 2004. In 2006, a new model arrived, but it lost one of the keys to what makes this such a great car–the engine, with three little initials: 2-J-Z.
The IS300’s engine, which is similar to the one in the older gen-4 Supra (non-turbo), is none other than the 2JZ-GE. There’s a lot of parts that fit this car, and for good reason–the 2JZ engine family is known to be a strong series of motors. For extra zing, it is possible to swap in the GTE engine out of the Supra Turbo, or turbo kits themselves are available. It may have only 217 from the factory, but it’s capable of producing much more than that with forced induction.
An automatic transmission was all that was offered at launch, but the sedan later received (in 2002) a 5-speed manual transmission for USA-spec cars–a much better option than the automatic, but be aware that both transmissions must be upgraded to handle more power–the manual is good for up to about 350whp, while the automatic is probably around the same, but better internal components can raise its limit. Prices are reasonable for the first-gen IS. I haven’t seen one go for much over 15K in quite some time, and the best ones can be had usually for about $13,000. Considering that it has a 2JZ in the engine compartment, along with the practicality it offers, this is a serious value, and one worth taking a look at if you’re into Japanese sports sedans.