08/07/2009 05:28

Lexus IS300 SportCross review (2000-2005 model)



A mix of saloon, hot hatch and estate, plus Lexus quality - and questionable taste

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Gracious: pretty but hardly ground-breaking, for most of its length the SportCross hardly differs from the saloon

Gracious: pretty but hardly ground-breaking, for most of its length the SportCross hardly differs from the saloon

Is it a saloon? No! Is it a hot hatch? Not exactly. Is it an estate? Well, not really. . . It's - SportCross! Lexus's solution for all those `lifestyle' buyers who can't quite make up their minds.

Hybrid: if most `Tourer' lifestyle estates are like slightly shortened estates, then the SportCross is like a slightly elongated hatchback.

Hybrid: if most `Tourer' lifestyle estates are like slightly shortened estates, then the SportCross is like a slightly elongated hatchback.

No, let's not sound ungracious about this, there's nothing here to be particularly ungracious about. The IS300 SportCross is actually an interesting solution to a problem that not everyone has noticed to exist: a cross between all the above - saloon, hot hatch and wagon, with the added spice of Lexus refinement and individuality.

A matter of taste: in typical Lexus fashion, the cabin is beautifully made but annoyingly fussy

A matter of taste: in typical Lexus fashion, the cabin is beautifully made but annoyingly fussy

Let's not use the word style, because SportCross style follows another Lexus norm - in the love it or hate it sense. As far back as the middle of the rear doors it is very like the pretty but hardly ground-breaking IS saloon; aft of that, well, it's marginally more extended hatch than proper estate, or marginally more truncated estate than conventional hatch. Just think `does my bum look big in this?' and you won't be far out. Let's just say it's distinctive.

Loadspace is more big-hatch than estate: intrusive wheelarches and a compromising shape mean it's no load-lugger. Rear seats fold, though.

Loadspace is more big-hatch than estate: intrusive wheelarches and a compromising shape mean it's no load-lugger. Rear seats fold, though.

Inside, the cabin follows the sporty feel of the IS saloons, beautifully made and extremely well kitted out for price - but annoyingly fussy and showy, impressively comfortable but irritatingly over-decorated. Of course, it's a matter of personal taste, but mine is that a little bit less showing off here would mean a lot more true style - there's only room for so many different surfaces, so many unrelated shapes, and so many labels and icons. About half as many as here, say. But to each his own.

Smooth operator: the SportCross enjoys superb quality and is impressively comfortable.

Smooth operator: the SportCross enjoys superb quality and is impressively comfortable.

Right, that's the taste-police stuff out of the way, how about practicality? Well, think hybrid again. In terms of seating it's just like the saloon; in terms of luggage space it isn't much more accommodating, but it is a lot easier to load - except that it's way too compromised by the shape of the rear compartment (especially the suspension-turret intrusions and the high floor) to frighten any real estate car, so the main advantage comes from the foldability of the rear seats, which really brings us back to big-hatch territory.

Lexus IS200 saloon: the IS 200 is the first Lexus to be offered in a choice of bodystyles.

Lexus IS200 saloon: the IS 200 is the first Lexus to be offered in a choice of bodystyles.

All this is a matter of choice - practicality against individuality - and Lexus are obviously convinced that enough people want to be different without necessarily aspiring to the removals business. This is, after all, the first Lexus ever to offer a choice of shapes in a single range. Saloon or SportCross? Take your pick. . .

There is less of a dilemma involved in terms of performance or driving experience. The IS saloons are good, the SportCross is every bit as convincing. The 2-litre IS200 established the credentials, with rear-drive, all double-wishbone and coil suspension, and a sporty enough feel to give BMW's 3 Series something to think about, if not exactly to run and hide from. The 3-litre IS300 adds the main element the 200 was lacking, real performance. With 211bhp and 212lb ft of broadly spread torque, the 24-valve straight six with its VVTi variable valve timing is considerably more punchy than the 153bhp 2-litre six, and just as uncannily smooth and refined.

This is an outstanding engine in so many ways, not least the way its character changes with the way you drive it. Potter around and it is docile and utterly unobtrusive; treat it more aggressively and it responds with a harder edge, both aurally and in its punchy, willing power delivery. A five-speed auto (with `E-shift' steering-wheel-button manual controls if you want to play) is the only transmission choice, but it suits the car well, particularly if you are willing to give it a bit of consideration by feathering the shifts slightly and not simply doing everything with the pedal to the metal.

Lexus say the alternative body style (and the additional stiffening that's demanded in order to keep the shell honest) add no more than about 50kg, so performance is little different from the newly introduced 3-litre saloon version. In fact, on the road, the SportCross actually feels livelier than the numbers suggest - 8.4 seconds to 62mph doesn't sound anything special these days in this league, but the flexibility is impressive, and the middle-order sparkle even more so.

This brings out the best in a chassis that we all knew from the start would handle more power with considerable ease. We weren't wrong. The SportCross feels just the tiniest bit less focussed than the saloon, but you'd have to be very perceptive (or very picky) to find any fundamental differences. It's nicely balanced, with the classic power-adjustable characteristics of a compact rear-drive sports package (and a built-in enthusiasm for friendly oversteer, thanks to the rallying background of its chief chassis engineer). It has loads of grip from 215/45 and 225/45ZR17 rubber on neat five-spoke alloy wheels, and it does a good job of combining plenty of body control and quick responses with a very well resolved ride.

If it has one dynamic shortcoming it's that the steering is just fractionally light at low speeds, but in any sort of hurry it weights up beautifully, and is never less than razor sharp and precise. The brakes, too, are pretty well faultless - ventilated front and solid rear discs with ABS, electronic distribution and brake assist all as standard. The other electronic aid on offer is stability control, which interrupts over exuberant slides with feathered throttle, selective braking and several bells and whistles, but it's switchable.

It's a typical Lexus. Immensely refined conspicuously well built, aggressively priced alongside the German opposition (and the SportCross, from £28,450 is only £1750 more than the equivalent saloon), and very sweet to drive. Only now, you have a choice.

Pros:

terrific mechanical refinement and strong performance, well equipped for price, good to drive, even for an enthusiastic driver

Cons:

not the world's greatest looker, at least not at the back; added versatility is strictly limited; interior styling still OTT

Rating:

8/10

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