When you think of a sports sedan, one country comes to mind: Germany. German sedans have long been considered the industry standard; a benchmark for quality and performance that every other countrys manufacturers aspire to achieve. The Audi A4 (introduced in 1995), BMWs new 3-Series, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class are all world-class cars in their own right, but change is in the air. This is not to say that Germany is not still on top, but as is the case with any heavyweight champion, there is always a contender waiting to snatch the crown.
This contender could very well come from the East. But Acuras first challenge came in the form of an oversized TL, and Lexus gave us the ES 300 in the shape of a rebadged Camry. Not exactly heavy-hitters. But this year sees a sleeker, more muscular TL, and Lexus countered with a new, more sophisticated VVT-i V-6 for the ES 300. Japan is definitely trying to loosen Germanys stranglehold on the sports sedan market. However, we were expecting a little more from the company that gave us the world-class GS platform. Thankfully, Lexus plans to fill these expectations with its next big launch.
We know youve heard of Toyotas Altezza sedan. The car will land on our shores as a Lexus IS in mid-2000 as a 2001 model. Everybody has recently been singing its praises, and you may remember reading about the IS way back in our March issue (pg. 48). This ride is hot, having just been named Car of the Year in Japan. It also found a place in the hearts of the finicky Japanese tuning crowd; at last years Tokyo Auto Salon, trick Altezzas were the centerpieces at dozens of tuner booths. The car pictured here is the first tuned Altezza to make it stateside, and we managed to get these pictures before it was sent home.
Mackin Industries was responsible for smuggling this car in with Wise Sports (a Japanese tuner specializing in aero kits), and it made its U.S. debut at SEMAs Import Auto Salon in March of this year. Wise Sports has already developed this tight-looking body kit, and the company also fitted the IS platform with its after-cat exhaust. Wise Sports struts are coupled with Esperior springs to assist the sporty sedans already capable independent double-wishbone suspension. Mackin also contributed to making this car one of the show-stoppers at IAS.
In addition to importing the Wise Sports line, Mackin is also the distributor for Volk Racing Wheels, which are some of the most prestigious Japanese tuner wheels on the market today. For the Salon, the future Lexus was rolling on the companys trademark Daytona Speed on the left side and the new five-spoke SS on the right side. The SS is a stunning wheel with a fresh-looking center cap. With wheels this nice, only the best rubber will do. Yokohamas new AVS Sport tires in a 225/40ZR18 front and 245/40ZR18 rear, get the job done in both style and performance.
This particular car has Toyotas 16-valve four-cylinder engine with the VVT-i technology first used on the GS 300/400, and it also borrows the F1-style steering wheelcontrolled five-speed automatic found in the GS. But what will this car come equipped with when the steering wheel is moved to the left side?
Four-banger or six? Manual or automatic? IS 200 or 300? These are the questions everyone has been pondering for the last six months. The Toyota Altezza, as it is currently known in Japan, can be had as an RS 200 with the potent 2.0L four-cylinder or the AS 200 with a more docile 2.0L DOHC 24-valve I-6. Gears are changed through the five-speed E-Shift automatic. As of this writing, the car is due to be unleashed on Europe as an IS 200 with the same engine variants, but with only a four-speed auto, which cant be selected with the steering-wheel controls. As a consolation, the Euros will get the option of a close-ratio Aisin six-speed manual box, which is also available in Japan. When we get the car, around this time next year, it will be badged as the IS 300, and it will most certainly get the 3.0L I-6 from the GS 300. In terms of transmissions, we should have the option to choose between the E-Shift five-speed or the six-speed manual (Please, please, please bring the manual.MAX).
At a projected price in the low- to mid-$30,000 range, this should put the IS 300 in line with the rest of the sports sedan combatants. We like the price, and we are also generally pleased with the overall look of the car. A few conservatives are uneasy with the look of the clear cover taillights and chronograph-like instrument cluster, but we welcome the departure. We would actually like to see more of a GS-inspired headlight design and while were fantasizing, how about dropping in the old Supra engine with the Getrag six-speed transmission? Were not asking for too much, are we?
Who knows what kind of performance we can expect from the IS 300? But the A4 and new 3-Series have been taunting the rest of the sports sedan market to put up their dukes for some time now. With the IS and the new TL, the Fatherland may have a greater fight on its hands than it bargained for.