Stepping Out 

The honchos at Lexus have got a lot of explaining to do, and they readily admit it. They’ve taken a big gamble on a clever car that was designed for a poncy bunch of Euros, and now they’re hoping that Yankee car aficionados will understand what a 4+1 sport wagon is. That they are hedging their bet is evident from the modest projection of 5,000 U.S. sales of the unorthodox IS300 SportCross for ’02. I think they should easily do better than that—but not because of the apologetic press release that reads, “While the Lexus IS300 SportCross is not a true wagon (it’s not supposed to be), it does carry wagon DNA in its design.”

As it happens, the SportCross is a far cry from a rolling Petri dish. It’s also a far cry from any other Lexus I’ve driven before, and that includes the aging LS400 my pop floats to work in and the 10-year-old ES300 I bought last year for The Wife. Instead of designing a suspension around sensory deprivation parameters, the SportCross boasts a genuinely precise-feeling, road-tuned suspension. It showcases powerful four-wheel disc brakes through the spokes of aggressive, 17-inch alloy wheels. Most importantly, it preens in traffic thanks to a voluptuous body style that is genuinely unique on the road. So what’s Lexus so nervous about?

For one thing, I suspect that a company whose success derives from aping its betters and then underpricing them feels more than a tinge of anxiety about striking out alone into uncharted waters. The irony, of course, is that Lexus is not alone with its hip, happ’nin’ SportCross. Mazda beat it to the punch with this year’s frisky Protegé5 sport wagon, targeted at the same youthful— if significantly less affluent—market that Lexus desires. Nevertheless, since Lexus only seems to acknowledge the existence of competing models from BMW or Mercedes-Benz, it’s bound to ignore Mazda’s cheaper, less sophisticated precedent.

The fact remains, however, that SportCross is a bold departure for Lexus. Far from quirky, the 4+1 layout (i.e., four passenger doors plus one cargo hatch) represents a clever auto alternative to the SUV for free spirits who enjoy both driving and an active lifestyle. In the former instance, SportCross delivers 215 rousing horsepower from a brilliantly smooth 3.0-liter straight-six. Moreover, the combination of taut steering feel and responsive handling approaches sports car levels of performance. As for indulging different lifestyles, SportCross combines almost 22 cubic feet of cargo space with 60/40 folding rear seats. That’s plenty of room for a chocolate Lab or for the odd-sized gear of any number of hobbies.

Even if hobbies and pets be damned, there’s still reason enough for driving enthusiasts to entertain the SportCross concept. For one thing, Lexus’ IS300 platform is Japan’s first to assault the primacy of Germany’s 3-Series from BMW, A4 from Audi and C-Class from Mercedes-Benz. At last, a Japanese automaker combines rear drive, sophisticated powerplant and sport-tuned suspension and brakes not to mimic, but to challenge its rivals. And while each German manufacturer now fields a station wagon in this class, it is arguably only Lexus that gives its wagon an iconoclastic attitude for a change.

On a bill of particulars, it’s ride and handling that earn SportCross its best marks. Acceleration, on the other hand, is praiseworthy more for its smoothness than its evident power. Zero-to-60 performance in the mid-seven-second range is merely adequate for this class of car. More disappointing is a persistent stumble in acceleration from a standing stop. It’s a computer glitch, I’m told, and easily remedied with a firmware upgrade by the dealer; but its occurrence mars an otherwise satisfying surge of power that issues from the engine’s sophisticated variable valve timing.

As for the SportCross transmission, it seems to stand, appropriately, at a crossroads. Although a new five-speed manual is finally available for ’02 in the IS300 sedan, the wagon makes do with a five-speed automatic only, featuring E-Shift. Like an increasing number of similar systems, E-Shift incorporates pushbutton actuators into the steering wheel—right and left downshift buttons on the front paired with invisible upshift buttons on the back. It takes only a few dexterity drills to master this unusual system of sequential manual shifting without a clutch; and during aggressive stretches on twisty backroads, E-Shift can be an enjoyable plaything. In traffic, however, I found it counterintuitive. Far better, I learned, was the technique of slapping the gleaming chrome ball shifter across one and down one to manipulate between fifth-gear overdrive and fourth during stoplight drags at rush hour.

Unusual as these gear-shift options may be, the overall impression of the SportCross interior is obviously meant to complement the unorthodox exterior. The central instrument cluster is an ingenious collage of nested dials reminiscent of a clock maker’s workbench. Thanks to judicious illuminations and color-coding, however, the graphic display of information is never confusing. Controls and switches are likewise obvious and intuitive. Just the same, an interesting quirk is the apparent electrostatic charge of the dark center console housing the six-CD-plus-cassette sound system as well as semiautomatic climate control: I was constantly brushing a thick layer of dust particles from the console, and the dust was just as constantly defying me on its return journey home.

At a base price of $32,305, SportCross represents a competitive buy in the entry-level luxury class; and even with such options as heated leather and ultrasuede seats, moonroof and limited-slip differential, its as-tested price of $36,524 should prove a tempting alternative to rival European models. Its looks place it in a class by itself, however, and far from apologizing for that fact, Lexus should be congratulating itself for stepping out on a limb for once.

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