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First Drive

Styling Edge to Lexus, Driving Edge to BMW

These cars--the IS 300 from Lexus and the 330i from BMW--are conceptual cousins. But they part company down the road.

November 01, 2000|ROBERT BEAMESDERFER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All cars--like the people who design, build and drive them--have common elements. But where the differences between a crew-cab dualie and a sports car are obvious, there are times when, despite all the similarities, visual and technical, two cars can have entirely different characters.

Such is the case with the 2001 Lexus IS 300 and the 2001 BMW 330i. Both are rear-wheel-drive sports sedans with 3.0-liter inline-6 engines with variable-valve timing, performance suspensions, 17-inch wheels and a willingness to be driven with vigor.

It's in the last regard that their differences become most apparent.

The IS 300 distinguishes itself visually with cues from the world of tuner cars: low-profile 215 Goodyear high-performance tires, clear rear lens covers, styled brake and accelerator pedals and, in the case of our Solar Yellow test car, a color so bright it arrives a few milliseconds before you do.

The instrument cluster is a modern adaptation of a Rolex or TAG Heuer watch. It's stylish, but too busy, until you learn to ignore the less important voltage and fuel-economy dials. Radio and climate controls are well marked and intuitive.

(On the ergonomic downside, this Lexus, oddly, is the second Toyota Motor Corp. product in a row we've tested that has a poorly designed left footrest. Although adequate in size, it wobbled unless the foot was firmly planted.)

The steering wheel and stalk controls are logical and intuitive, with the exception of the E-Shift (for electronic shift), activated by one button on each side of the face and backside of the wheel. Those and the gearshift require some reading of the owner's manual to decipher.

The IS 300 does not yet offer a manual transmission--the five-speed is due the fall of 2001--but its electronic automatic provides reasonable versatility and performance. Although the "manual" shift option is described in terms of engine braking, hitting the down button and finessing the throttle closely approximate the proper technique with a standard shift. The chrome sphere that tops the shift lever is the nicest touch in the interior.

Seats in both the Lexus and the BMW are multi-adjustable and powered; adjustments can be accomplished by hand if you prefer. The Lexus has no lumbar adjustment, but the seat was well-shaped. On our test BMW, lumbar and power are part of a premium option package that more than doubles the price spread between the two cars. Both cars have adjustable steering wheels, although the 330i's has a telescoping feature lacking in the Lexus.

Whereas the Lexus interior is flashy, the BMW's is staid. Straightforward instruments are joined by rectangular buttons, all about the same size. Not terribly ergonomic for the auto maker that practically invented the term. This isn't a deal breaker, but the Lexus controls are easier to learn.

The BMW features a multi-function steering wheel as part of the sport package. Radio tuning and volume and cell phone controls are handled by five buttons on the left; cruise control is mastered by another quintet of buttons on the right. The latter proved to be one of the easiest cruise controls to operate, far simpler than the stalk controls commonly found in cars.

An automatic dimming day-night mirror is an example of a bell with whistle. (How hard is it to flip the lever of a standard mirror and leave it there at night, after all?) The test BMW included wood trim and extra leather touches in addition to the seats, also part of the pricey option package. Unlike with the IS 300, here all clutch, brake, accelerator and dead pedals are rubber covered, the latter having a large surface and solid mounting--just what the driver needs in the corners.

Both cars share an annoying feature: a gauge that's supposed to tell you what your fuel mileage is. The needle on both of these would swing wildly and at times indicated unlikely results. For instance, the BMW's read somewhere between Abrams battle tank and '64 Corvette when in first gear going 15 mph. The Bimmer redeems itself by offering a static readout of average mpg--far more useful.

On the outside, this third-generation 3-Series sedan continues the marque's familiar styling cues. Nothing is oversized or overemphasized. Although the Lexus' styling isn't over the top, it is a bit more pronounced.

*

Cosmetic differences aside, it's out on the road where these cars part company.

The engines are close on paper: the IS 300's 215 horsepower and 218 foot-pounds of torque versus the 330i's 225 horsepower and 214 foot-pounds.

Power comes on early and stays right up to redline, perhaps a little more convincingly in the BMW. The Bimmer accelerates more willingly, and that shows in a better than half-second-quicker trip to 60 mph (6.4 seconds versus 7.1 in the Lexus). Attribute that to the BMW's excellent manual transmission and clutch.

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