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For more than two decades now, the BMW 3-Series has enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the king of the small sports sedans. Stylish, quick, and, most importantly of all, a fabulously good drive, the junior Bavarian has never brooked serious opposition, despite the best efforts of homegrown rivals Audi and Mercedes. As for Detroit and the Japanese, neither has ever even offered a serious small sports sedan in the American market. But for the 2001 model year, Lexus is trying to change all that. A decade after it humbled the German automakers with its stunningly capable LS 400, Toyota’s luxury division is now rolling out Japan’s first major challenge to BMW’s hegemony in the small sports sedan sector: the new IS 300. At first glance, the baby Lexus seems to have the right stuff. Aggressive, well-proportioned, and pleasingly curvy, the exterior is decidedly sexy. Somewhat less successful is the car’s overreaching, look-at-me interior. The TAG Heuer knock-off instrument panel is gimmicky, while the plasticky steering-wheel hub could have come off an arcade game. On the plus side, the seats are supportive, and the controls have Lexus’ typically superb ergonomics. On the road, the engine is mechanical nirvana. Super-smooth and amply powerful, it makes passing a joy: a flick of the ankle, a muted, vibration-free roar, and an unrelenting surge forward. Helping out is a seamless, five-speed automatic transmission. The chassis, however, disappoints. In hopes of making the IS 300′s suspension as sporty as possible, the engineers at Lexus made it overly stiff. On the bumpy, frost-heaved roads of upstate New York’s Adirondack mountains, the Lexus bucked up and down like a pogo stick, even scraping its tailpipe against the road during spirited driving. And the steering, although nicely weighted, was ultimately inert, transmitting little information about what the front wheels were actually doing. But if the IS 300 lacks a BMW’s verve in performance driving, the IS 300′s strong suits of style, speed, and comfort remain impressive. Like every Lexus, the IS 300 is cool, capable, and fast. Just don’t expect it to dance. IS 300 Statistics: M.S.R.P. – $30,805 Mileage – 18 city/25 highway Warranty – 4 years/50,000 miles

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