The cars we loved.
The IS was introduced in the US in 2001 as a sub compact entry-level sports luxury sedan (that was a mouthful). Slotted below the ES, it was priced to match its status at the bottom of the Lexus line. There were three versions being sold in Europe and Japan with 2 and 3 litre V6 engines, the smaller one being tuned by Yamaha. It was an aggressive looking (almost boy racer like) sedan that was unlike anything Lexus had offered in the US up to that point. It had similar performance compared to the larger first generation SC 300, but with larger wheels, trick tail lights and video game like instrument cluster, it was intended for a slightly younger audience. In Japan the car was called Altezza, the Italian word for highness. The IS aimed high, targeting European sports sedans like BMWs 3 Series and the Audi A4. The enduring feature that the first generation IS will most likely be remembered for is its distinctive tail lights, later to be called “Altezza Style” by aftermarketers who rushed to make versions available for every sport compact wanna be car on the second-hand market. Other car makers took note also and incorporated them into the design of their regular offerings (Nissan Altima most notably).
Style was arguably one point that Lexus faithful could not agree on with the IS. All the other cars Lexus offered were restrained (if not almost timeless) by comparison. Performance potential of the 220 hp 3.0 L inline V6 was something that most could agree on. When combined with either a 6 speed manual or 5 speed automatic, the IS acquitted itself well against its European competition, but not quite matching them in ride composure and comfort, even with a double wishbone suspension.
Considering that the IS was never intended to be a luxury car in the first place, it managed to keep it’s composure on all road surfaces while carrying all the extra baggage that comes with a luxury car (6 air bags, power everything etc.). Even on slippery surfaces, the rear wheel drive combined with the stability system keep it’s performance balanced.
Sales of the IS were better in North America than in Europe, partly because the IS was only available with an automatic transmission where in Europe, manuals are still very popular, especially for a performance oriented car. despite it’s small size the IS performed well in crash tests, something when combined with Lexus quality record helped boost sales in the US. There was a wagon variant available for a short time called the SportCross.
The first generation IS remains popular with tuners, often swapping engines with the Toyota Supra. It’s taunt suspension and racing looks made it a kind of spiritual successor to the long missed AE86. Many companies including Toyota Racing Development sell JDM performance parts for the IS, many swappable with the Celica and Supra. As a used car, the IS is a good bet, often being spared the worst types of customizations. despite the all out performance image associated with the IS, most were sold as automatic transmission equipped cars. In 2006 a new larger more refined and expensive IS was introduced.