Here's What These YouTubers Are Doing With a 186,000-mile Lexus IS300
An increasingly rare manual "intelligent sport" build is underway and we're taking notes.
- Cars 101
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The first-generation Lexus IS300 has been on my most-wanted list for ages. Of course, as anyone with such a list knows, a Five Guys will open on Mars before I get around to everything on it. Still, every time I see an early IS300 in good stead, a pang of desire wells up. That’s not even considering the IS300 SportCross wagon, which is the unicorn that actual unicorns dream about.
After all, the OG Lexus "intelligent sport" sedan is the stuff of legend. It had the build quality of an atomic clock, a bulletproof 3.0-liter 2JZ-GE—the straight-six that made Nissan’s mighty RB26DETT quake in its crank journals—and that sweet chronograph-style gauge cluster. And the sound, which at WOT is like warm butter over silver-dollar hotcakes.
(Disclosure: The Drive's partnering with Throtl on a series of build articles. No money is changing hands, but The Drive is part of Throtl's affiliate program.)
Still, the perfect IS specimen: early-2000s Stage II L-Tuned, manual-trans, LSD car with under 100k miles, continues to elude me. Instead, I'll just pore over the official IS300 Car Bible and live vicariously through the guys at Throtl, who just brought home a $7,000 2005 Lexus IS300 project car. It's not an L-Tuned version, but it is a manual.
Throtl's Introduction Video
Excuse me as I'll be aimlessly scrolling through Craigslist and Carvana for the foreseeable future and through every single meeting today.
What Is the Lexus IS300?
Simply put, the Lexus IS300 was the Toyota luxury brand's answer to the dominant compact sport sedan of its time, the BMW 3-Series. Engineered by Nobuaki Katayama, who led Toyota's AE86 project, the IS—dubbed the Toyota Altezza in other markets—was lauded for its steering, chassis dynamics, and a DOHC straight-six that could support tons more power than the original's 215 hp and 218 pound-feet of torque.
At the IS300's launch in 2000, Toyota didn't have a homologated manual transmission ready to handle the 3.0-liter six's torque. By 2002, an updated version of the Aisin-built (Toyota W-series) W55 transmission was ready to go, and the IS finally had its manual. An optional limited-slip differential was offered for both manual and automatic.
Although the IS300's initial reviews were positive, some critics deducted points for a stiff suspension that compromised ride quality, and understeer at the limits of adhesion. A year after the IS's launch, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) showed up with a performance upgrade package in tow. Launching the L-Tuned sub-brand that year, Lexus used the TRD kit to give the brand a patina of motorsports cred. The IS300's dealer-installed L-Tuned package came in two stages: Stage 1, which cost $4,000, included a body kit, fog lamps and a larger-diameter stainless-steel exhaust Lexus said added 8 hp, and the $7,700 Stage II package, which included progressive-rate springs that lowered the IS by an inch, larger anti-roll bars, cast-aluminum wheels, and wider Michelin Pilot Sport tires.
Back in 2002, Motor Trend writer Kevin Wing said the L-Tuned mods gave the IS300 "even crisper turn-in, sharper reflexes, and generally neutral at-the-limit predictability." Still, at lower speeds, he found it "understeers considerably unless a trunkload of throttle is used to coax the tail around." Luckily the manual transmission's shorter ratios gave the IS the extra kick needed to do just that.
Seldom do these cars pop up on the used market with all of our preferred boxes ticked, considering how sought-after they are and how few well-preserved models remain above ground, so we're not surprised the Throtl project isn't an L-Tuned, although it does have a manual.
What Does the Project Lexus IS300 Have?
In the first episode of the IS300 build series, the Throtl boys give their recently acquired 186,000-mile IS a quick detail job, and find some, er, interesting stuff under the seats, and a few ominous stains, but you can really see how beautifully the Lexus leather and cloth seats have held up. It's not in our perfect spec, as it's not an L-Tuned car, but it is a manual and it was cheap enough, considering even passable IS300 manual cars are appreciating like beach houses in a pandemic.
The Millennium Silver metallic paint looks decent, although the roof appears to have been wrapped. Has the rest of the body received a respray? I guess we'll find out soon.
(UPDATE: Here's what they found when they got it into the shop.)
What’s the Plan for the Lexus IS300?
Since the ’05 manuals weren’t offered with LSD, the Throtl guys will likely consider a diff swap. The automatic transmission cars had a shorter final drive, so some IS aficionados choose to swap that pumpkin into their manual cars. That's not the only drivetrain job on the list. Judging from the test drive, the aging IS’s Aisin W55 transmission may have a bum reverse syncro. A W58 version from the Mk4 Supra is a popular swap for IS300s, but either way, this project has more pressing needs under the hood.
That brings us to the engine. This IS's dash looks like Times Square on the last day of December. Which warning lights are on, you ask? Roll call: ABS, Check Engine, Maintenance Required, Airbag, and TRAC OFF (which looks to be a fault, not a pre-drifting-session ritual). Indeed, the engine will have to be replaced.
Considering the original six produces quite a bit less horsepower than even a modern Hyundai Veloster N, a big power bump is in order. But what to do? Original 2JZ? Twin-turbo GTE version? LS swap? Something else like, say, the glorious 2UR-GSE V8 from the Lexus IS-F?
"The chassis makes an excellent candidate for 1J, 2JZ-GTE, or even turboing the NA 2JZ GE," Throtl's Evan Beckerman told The Drive, "but on this one, we want to do something different. Our plans are ambitious. We are going to fix it up (all maintenance), transform the performance, exterior, suspension, and brakes, and then we're going to kick off a social media campaign." More to come on that.
So many choices already, and there are more. Let’s help them out. What should the Throtl guys replace this tired powerplant with? No wrong answers; these guys are pretty handy.
Remember, working on your car can be dangerous and messy. Cars are heavy, chemicals can burn, and gasoline has a tendency of catching on fire or exploding. If you’re not careful, you can die, get maimed, or lose a finger and those jeans, shirt, and skin won’t remain spotless. We’re not your mothers, so it’s up to you to stay safe. Don’t be an idiot.
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