Lexus IS300: The Car Bible (JCE10; 2001-2005)
The quintessential RWD, straight-six, Japanese sport sedan.
Welcome to the Lexus IS300 Car Bible. As you scroll down you’ll learn all about this vehicle’s qualities, features, finer points, and shortcomings. If you’re thinking about buying one of these, want some help maintaining or modifying one, or just want to deepen your knowledge for the next round of car trivia, you’ve come to the right place.
This is a living document that’s updated as we learn and confirm new valuable info. Got something to add? Drop a comment or send us an email! Don’t be shy; the more dialogue we have the better this Car Bible will get.
–Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles Editor-In-Chief
(Disclaimers; Disclosures: Some Car Bibles will have links to specific forums, groups, brands, shops, or vendors for parts shopping and such. We have no sponsorship deals or official affiliation with any of them unless explicitly stated. We also have to explicitly state that you should work on your own car and follow our advice at your own risk.)
There’s a lot of info packed into this Bible. If you’re looking for something specific, hit command/control-F, type one of these terms, and your browser should bring you straight in.
- The Short Story
- Fast Facts
- Spotter’s Guide
- Check This Car Out If…
- Important Trim Levels and Options
- Year-To-Year Changes
- General Reliability and Ownership Costs
- Red Flags and Known Issues
- Where To Buy Parts
- Aftermarket Support
- Popular Modifications
- Key Technical Details
- Fluids, Filters, and Capacities
- Factory Service Manuals
- Other References and Resources
- Professional Reviews
- Owner Reviews
- What They’re Worth Now
- Where To Find One For Sale
- What To Ask A Seller
- Competitors To Consider
- Photo Galleries
- Enthusiast Inquiries
- Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
- Comments Disclaimer
The Short Story
The 2001-2005 Lexus IS300 is the first sporty, small Lexus sold globally. It’s ubiquitous among young (and broke) car buyers looking for something classically styled, reliable, unbelievably well-built, and fun. Made somewhat famous by its use of the legendary non-turbo 2JZ-GE straight-six, the IS still had a soft cinnamon bun sort of character.
Featuring one of the most solid interiors ever made (with a cool chronograph gauge cluster backlit in amber) the IS300 is still a serenading Lexus at heart. The 2JZ still revs out nicely, makes every bit of the 225 HP it’s rated for, with somewhat slow hydraulic steering that feels more natural than walking.
Backed up by a soft ride but great sporting characteristics and natural weight transfer behavior, it isn’t hard to make the link between this car and chief test engineer and test driver Hiromu Naruse, known as the father of the LFA program. The chief engineer, Nobuaki Katayama, led the Corolla AE86 project. This car has serious engineering credentials, and is a great little luxury sport platform.
If you’re looking for more images, scroll on down to the Photo Galleries links toward the end of the Car Bible.
The IS300 was sold as the Toyota Altezza overseas, and the North American market is the only region to get the 2JZ in the IS300 sedan. The Altezza Gita wagon (SportCross) AS300 got the only 2JZ in a non-Lexus.
Like most other Lexus (Lexi?) of the era, it shared a platform with JDM-spec Toyota sedans, this car had a shrunk version of the same platform of the X100 Toyota Chaser/Cresta/Mark II, a much larger luxury sedan.
The IS300 features a newer style of dual-wishbone suspension up front, and a suspiciously similar rear subframe to a Toyota Supra.
The front suspension mounted its upper control arm above the wheel, one of the first cars to do so. It was for packaging reasons, saving space compared to an in-wheel dual wishbone.
Every IS300 was fitted with factory HID headlights that auto-level, in a reflector housing.
The E-Shift automatic transmission used the same gearbox and control methods as the Lexus GS400, the first semi-automatic gearbox ever put into mass production.
This car doesn’t have any flashy sort of brand identifier like a grill or face, and it’s just a sharply styled four-door sedan, or even a wagon when it was ordered as a SportCross. The distinct features of the car are the pronounced character line coming from the front fender, kicking up slightly at the rear fender, along with a slight power bulge in the hood. Most everyone will know this car for the famous clear “Altezza tails” (The car was known as the Toyota Altezza in Japan) which started a pretty terrible design trend in the 2000s.
This car invented the clear lens, chrome tail light surround look that was a cancerous cyst on early car modification. It got so bad that the Mk5 Volkswagen Jetta even had an appearance package with Altezza tails, and the contemporary Nissan Altima adopted them as well. It’s perhaps one of the most distinct design features of any car.
An easy way to tell between 2001-2002 models and 2003-2005 models is the tail light tint. Early cars had a fully clear tail light, and later models applied a very slight smoke to the tail lights. SportCrosses and sedans feature different front bumpers, the SportCross adopting a full-width lower grill that includes the yellow projector fog lights, and the sedan with a narrower lower grill with separate fog light units.
Both variants of IS300 had an optional limited-slip differential. An easy way to tell without checking VIN tags, is to see if the car has navigation. Every single IS300 equipped with navigation has an LSD. Some without Navigation also have an LSD, but it’s an exceedingly rare standalone option. SportCrosses also featured a staggered tire setup that sedans didn’t equip.
IS300s are not particularly rare, even if they’re priced as such. A manual IS is a rare-ish car, and definitely worth the premium. The best combo would be a manual with navigation, which is findable.
This may change quickly as these cars get scooped up and destroyed. As of 2021, these cars are definitely starting to dwindle in numbers. If you really want one, now is the time before the Bring-A-Trailer nerds scoop them up for profit.
Check This Car Out If…
You’re a Lexus or Toyota enthusiast looking for something smaller and sportier, but with the same legendary build quality and reliability.
Important Trim Levels and Options
Options are limited across all IS300s, but they did come in some cool colors. The rarest colors being Sonic Yellow, Imperial Jade Mica (2001 only), and Spectra Blue Mica (2001 only). Intensa Blue pearl replaced Spectra for the rest of production, Solar Yellow did the same to Sonic Yellow, and Electric Green displaced Imperial Jade.
Interiors came in full black leather, black leather and dark blue suede, grey cloth, or tan cloth/leather. There was an optional “Lexus Luxury Package” that trimmed the full black leather seats in grey deviating piping, and matched the gauge cluster to that color. The Luxury Package also includes HomeLink and memory seats.
The big option is navigation, which you’ll want to look for because it guarantees the presence of a factory-installed limited-slip differential. Look out for any IS with navigation as these are the most desirable IS300s out there, and carry a premium. It’s reasonably common among automatic IS’, but rare among manual ones.
The next option was SportCross, a wagon version of the normal IS sedan. These are very rare, came in automatic only, and carry a premium over normal sedans. The same rule with navigation applies to the SportCross.
Identifying the limited-slip differential option can be done two ways (besides navigation):
- On the differential housing, below the pinion there is a sticker with a three-digit alphanumeric designation.
- M96 = Open diff M98 = LSD with 3.9 final drive M85 = LSD with 3.7 final drive
- In the door jam, there is a code sticker with a four-digit alphanumeric designation
- B02A = Open diff B02B/Bo2C = LSD
Lastly, 2003-2005 cars had an optional Sport Design package that changed year to year. For 2003, it was just some specially tinted head and tail lights. In 2004, they added the 11-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels, “titanium” front and rear light housings, Sport Design emblems on the side moulding and carpet, a different exhaust tip, and black painted badges. That package carried into 2005 unchanged.
These changes reflect the U.S. market.
2001 Model Year:
- Sedan introduced without 5-speed manual
- All models come with chrome head and tail lights
- Launch colors: Auburn Sky Pearl, Black Onyx, Diamond White Pearl, Graphite Gray Pearl, Imperial Jade Mica, Millennium Silver Metallic, Spectra Blue Mica, Solar Yellow
- Grey four bar grill with molded “L” emblem
- Lexus Luxury Package introduced with 8-way power adjustable seats, seat memory, and HomeLink
- Torsen limited-slip offered as $390 option
- No navigation option
2002 Model Year:
- Five-speed manual introduced for sedan
- SportCross wagon introduced
- L-Tuned edition offered in late-2002
- New Colors for 2002: Absolutely Red, Cibola Gold Metallic, Crystal White, Electric Green Mica, Intensa Blue Pearl
- Colors Discontinued for 2002: Auburn Sky Pearl, Diamond White Pearl, Imperial Jade Mica, Spectra Blue Mica
- Tail lights smoked for the following colors: Absolutely Red, Black Onyx, Electric Mica Green, Graphite Gray Pearl, Intensa Blue Pearl
- Black three bar grill with detachable emblem
- Rear spoiler added as option for sedans
2003 Model Year:
- Navigation introduced as option
- Lexus Luxury Package discontinued
- Steering ratio reduced for 2003, 14.5:1 is the new ratio. (Old ratio is 15.7:1)
- Tool tray material changed to vacuformed plastic, used to be foam.
- Overall height raised 0.6 inches, stiffer spring rates for 5-speed manual cars
- Retention hooks added to drivers side floor mat
- Compass mirror standard for non-navigation cars
- Chrome ring added to speaker grills
- Sport Design package added
2004 Model Year:
- Updated Sport Design package with wheels, emblems, and other accents (see above)
- Sport Design gets “Euro-tuned” suspension
- Front cupholders redesigned
- Window switch, gauge cluster, climate control surrounds, and steering wheel stitching. switched to bright silver, instead of dark silver
- Radio surround made black instead of silver
- Smoked lights available on all models
- New misting windshield washer nozzles
2005 Model Year:
- Limited-slip discontinued with manual transmission
- Bluestone metallic added as exterior color
- End of production
General Reliability and Ownership Cost
It’s extremely reliable. The only big cost in your ownership would be the fuel bill. These cars are thirsty! You would be lucky to get 23 mpg highway.
Expect maintenance cost for basic stuff like oil changes, and keep a nice budget aside for the gas pump.
There was a matching set of Men’s and Women’s watches to the IS300’s chronograph inspired gauge cluster.
The W55 manual gearbox has its roots in Toyota truck transmissions. It feels better in the IS, but sometimes you can just about feel the truck in its DNA.
Red Flags and Known Issues
The IS300 doesn’t suffer from many issues. It’s generally considered to be one of the more reliable used cars out there, and only suffers from mostly trivial issues. Here’s what to look for:
Front main seal leak. All 2JZ engines suffer from an infamously weak front main seal, thanks to the oil pump sitting directly behind it. It’s easy to spot this leak with a flashlight from the top, but best to confirm from the bottom of the car.
Sticky dash. A lot of IS’ suffer from a literally sticky dashboard. There was a TSB campaign from Lexus to remedy the issue, but that has long expired. It’s easy to feel it in any prospective purchase, just feel the dash.
Front lower ball joint failure. Make sure the ball joints have been done or will be done. They are prone to collapsing at high miles, due to the design of the joint.
Bad owners. For some reason, this car suffers from the same effect of the Acura RSX. Tons of people buy them, beat them, and dump them. Look out for an unkempt car. It will likely be mechanically fine, but these cars are much nicer when they’re clean.
The Lexus IS300 only has two minor open recalls, both for potential lighting defects. NHTSA Campaign Numbers are 09E012000 and 06E026000; you can look into them on the NHTSA website. This car has no recalls fundamental to its functionality. Impressive.
Key Technical Details
Engine: 2JZ-GE, 24 shim-over-bucket direct actuated valves, inline-6 with VVT-i variable valve timing on the intake camshaft, longitudinally mounted. 10.5:1 compression ratio run by Denso/Toyota engine management. Iron block with aluminum head. Wasted-spark ignition, three ignition coils.
Transmission: Aisin A650E five-speed automatic transmission with E-Shift or Aisin W55 five-speed manual transmission.
Drivetrain: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, with open differential or torsen limited-slip.
Curb weight: 3,255 pounds (sedan); 3,410 pounds (SportCross)
Suspension: Front high-mount dual wishbone suspension, cast steel arms and uprights. Similar to Japanese market Chaser/Cresta/Mark II sedans. Rear multi-link suspension with stamped steel arms, similar to Supra.
Tire Sizes: Sedan: 215/45R17 (front and rear). SportCross: 215/45R17 (front); 225/45R17 (rear)
Wheelbase: 105.1 in, 2669 mm
Overall length: 173.2 in, 4399 mm (sedan); 173.8 in, 4414 mm (SportCross)
Overall width: 67.7 in, 1720 mm (sedan); 67.9 in, 1725 mm (SportCross)
Height: 55.5in, 1410mm
Fluids, Filters, and Capacities
Fuel: 91 RON (premium fuel)
Battery Size: Group 24
Engine Oil: 5W-30 weight full-synthetic oil. Genuine Toyota oil is formulated by Mobil, though any full synthetic 5W-30 will work. 7,500 mile interval.
Oil Filter: Lexus part number 08922-02011, U.S. made filter. 7,500 interval. Genuine is inexpensive and great quality. 7,500 mile interval.
Air Filter: Lexus part number 17801-46080, these work best as an all around balance. 30,000 mile interval.
Cabin Air Filter: Lexus part number 87139-48020-83. 30,000 mile interval, Toyota claims 10,000 miles for extreme weather or air quality.
Transmission Oil: The A650E automatic calls for Toyota Genuine Type-IV exclusively, doctor’s orders. For the W55 manual: 75W-90 or 80W-90 GL-4 transmission fluid will work, no particular recommendation. 60,000 mile interval.
Transmission Filter: Lexus part number 35330-30070, though note that it is not a normal service item. Usually these are replaced when the transmission pan gets dropped. No clear interval.
Differential Oil: Redline 75W-90NS (non-slip) formulated for Toyota limited-slip differentials. Any 75W-90 with limited slip additive will work. Open diff cars: 75W-90 gear oil. 60,000 mile interval.
Coolant: Toyota genuine super long-life “pink” (actually red) coolant. Use no alternatives, only genuine. 100,000 mile interval.
Power Steering Fluid: Automatic transmission fluid DEXTRON type IV. No interval, service as needed.
Brake Fluid: DOT3 brake fluid is recommended by the factory. You can upgrade to DOT4 for something like Motul RBF600. DOT3 will have longer intervals, and DOT4 will have shorter intervals. Expect 50,000 mile intervals, heavily dependent on usage.
Clutch Fluid: DOT3 brake fluid is also recommended. You can also upgrade to a DOT4.
Spark Plugs: Denso SK16R-P11, 100,000 mile interval.
Where to Buy Parts
We highly recommend Lexus genuine parts for any replacement parts. Toyota-built parts have some of the highest quality standards anywhere in the industry.
Otherwise, your local auto parts store will work well, nothing too special here.
For such a dependable car, the aftermarket still took well to it. Or rather, there’s strong aftermarket, but not a totally comprehensive IS300-specific aftermarket.
A lot of stuff you find will be generally for 2JZs, or even stuff from Japan that fits Altezzas or other Toyota sedans. The bottom line is, you won’t have trouble finding suspension, interior, exterior, or engine mods for your IS300.
The first thing everyone does to these cars is put them on coilovers. This ruins the excellent ride quality, but does solve most of the issues the car has in performance driving, getting rid of a lot of body motion.
The LS400 big brake kit is a good one too, a cheap front brake kit from a 95-00 Lexus LS400 that requires some minor mods to make fit, but works well as a cheap BBK option.
Factory Service Manuals
2jzgarage has organized the Lexus FSM into a few different links, found here.
Others I’ve searched around for are mostly dead links.
Other References and Resources
Figs Engineering has a great resource of suspension knowledge on the IS and other Lexus’ (Lexi?} on its blog.
“2001 Lexus IS300 First Drive: A hot rod from Japan that aims to challenge BMW’s supremacy in the small luxury sports-sedan sector, where the 3 Series has ruled for so long.” (Car & Driver – July, 2000)
Tony Swan of C&D thought the road noise was a little higher than he’d like, and that the small Lexus left him dynamically wanting.
“…we were surprised at the volume of road noise finding its way into the cabin. It was far from deafening, but noise is a word one just doesn’t associate with a Lexus.” “…we were surprised at the IS300’s pronounced understeer, as well as a tendency to wallow slightly in abrupt transitions.”
“2001-2005 Lexus IS300.” (Automobile – Dec 2, 2001)
David E. Davis of Automobile found the IS to be more impressive than a comparable 3 Series.
“One thing is definite: The steering is more direct, accurate, and responsive than our 328. After driving the IS300, the 328 feels almost large. The IS is far more nimble.”
Andrew Burns (Feb 11, 2021)
2002, 2002, and 2003 IS300 SportCrosses; stock; owned nine years plus
“The IS300 SportCross is a good car. Straight-six, RWD, LSD, and wagon is timeless. I’ve stacked hundreds of thousands of miles on three of them so far, and one saved my life. MPG and overall speed are the only drawbacks, but it’s made it up in reliability.”
Kevin McCauley (Feb 10, 2021)
2003 IS300 SportCross; stock; owned two years plus
“In December 2019, I bought this car in Southern California, because that’s where they all seem to be. Within 24 hours of ownership, the rear main seal started to fail in central Arizona — this is more about my own ineptitude to buy cars properly, and less about the IS300, which has been otherwise stellar. I had that fixed at a Lexus dealer, and then replaced a lot of suspension a month after I got it home, since it was time. I’ve had no issues since, except for the AC compressor which went out last month.
The front lower ball joints are a known failure point as these cars age, so I replaced those with new OEM ones while I upgraded the shocks and springs to Koni Yellow/Eibach springs. The dashboard on all IS300s after MY2001 is prone to the infamous ‘sticky dash’ issue, which is just what it sounds like: the parts by the knobs and radio are fine, but the main dash top is kinda gross, especially when it’s hot out.
But I love this car so much that it’s easy to look past any faults. It’s a really nicely-sized sports sedan with fantastic steering and a stout RWD platform. The steering wheel — a small, minimal three-spoke — wouldn’t look out of place in a sporty Lexus sold today. This car was a bargain Lexus when it was new, but Toyota didn’t scrimp on building a chassis and suspension setup that could go head to head with the BMW E36 (it launched during E46 era, but was developed with the E36 in mind). It has double-wishbones in front and multi-link rear, which, combined with superb feel, gives you a tremendous sense of roadholding over uneven urban roads. Around town, its 215 horsepower generally isn’t enough to get the chassis into situations that might faze it.
The naturally aspirated inline-six is superbly smooth, but the lazy five-speed auto in my SportCross lets it down. Automatic gearboxes from the turn of the millennium just didn’t do urgency very well, and response from the electronic throttle tends to compound this. So it’s not the perfect car, but it handles very well, feels special, and doesn’t cost as much to run as a 20 year old BMW. It’s everything I need in a daily driver.”
Most of McCauley’s Instagram is pictures of Porsches, but the SportCross does make the occasional appearance in his feed. Check him out over there at @capturingthemachine.
Mike Ballaban (Feb 1, 2021)
2002 SportCross; stock; owned two years plus
Mike Ballaban was too lazy to wax poetic about his IS300 unprompted, so here’s a paraphrase what our EIC Andrew Collins could get out of him over Slack messages:
AC: What’s your favorite thing about the IS?
MB: The steering, by far. It’s pre-electric steering, so it’s got the best steering feel this side of a 911. It feels insane to say that but it’s true. Constant chatter from the road (note: people who are not Automotive Enthusi-asts often say my car’s steering is “too stiff” but that’s the way I like it).
AC: Has it been more or less as reliable/expensive to run as you expected?
MB: Way less reliable, [to be honest]. But a lot of that is probably just down to age. It’s in the shop for lower ball joints to get replaced right now, which tend to go after about 20 years. And my car is 20 years old.
Other things it’s been in the shop for not related to pot hole incidents and whatnot: timing belt service (mandatory every eight years or 90,000 miles, whichever comes first), EVAP system failure which was eventually traced to a fuel overflow check valve, busted radiator, busted tie rod, O2 sensor replacement (I did the O2 sensor myself because it was a lovely day and not 10 fucking degrees outside).
Also did the fuel overflow check valve myself by taking a Sawzall to the floor pan… shop wanted to drop the diff and charge me $1,200 for the pleasure.
Collins and Ballaban worked together at Jalopnik for years. They’re still buds; Ballaban is now Transportation Editor at CNN. He doesn’t tweet about his Lexus nearly enough but you might be able to find some pics of it in his feed.
Own or owned one of these and want to share your thoughts? Hit up in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
What They’re Worth Now
The prime example: You’re looking at about $10,000-$11,000. This is for a primo color combo, low miles, one-owner, full service history, and no issues whatsoever.
A very clean driver: Budget about $8,000-$9,000. These cars have decent miles, but are serviced well, cosmetically 9/10, and well cared for with some road grime. This is what I call the “goldilocks zone” where the car has been driven and sorted, but well loved.
An honest car: Budget $6,000-$7,000. These cars will have driver miles, 150k+. Service history will be mostly there, and ideally it’ll be a two-owner car. It will still be well loved and driven..
The budget option: $4,000-$5,000 will get you a reasonable IS300, most of them land right in this range. Expect 180k miles plus, these cars get driven a lot. Most will have over 150k in general, anything under that is a unicorn.
A roach: Anywhere from $1,500-$3,000 will get you a pretty rough IS300. 200k+ miles, ratty, and maybe needing some attention. Even then, the IS300 is so durable you could find a driving car in this range.
Where to find one for sale
These cars are old enough that Craigslist or Facebook is the best option. These are cheaper cars, a lot of them owned by non-enthusiasts.
If you’re looking for pristine examples, Bring-A-Trailer and Cars and Bids will be your best options; they cater to an enthusiast demographic.
Generally, you won’t find any reasonably priced ones on the larger search engines like KBB, AutoTrader, or Autotempest. Dealer lots seem to ask exorbitant amounts for these cars, and they do not have the best examples. Steer clear.
What to Ask a Seller
Go-to questions include:
“Any oil leaks?”
“Is the dash sticky?”
And… that’s really it.
Competitors to Consider
From an enthusiast perspective, direct competitors now realistically include the E46 3-series, Acura TSX, and the early Infiniti G. The Acuras might be easier to find with a manual transmission, but of course they’re not rear-drive.
You’ll find a nice grip of IS pictures in various trims and poses on FavCars.
Pop Culture References
The Lexus IS300 has a strong showing in video games, and even stronger showings as the JDM-spec Toyota Altezza RS200. Forza Motorsport 1-4 plays host to both models. Gran Turismo 1-6 are the only video games to have the IS300 SportCross, specifically a 2001 model.
The IS300’s face appears in Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V as the Sultan RS.
No big-screen appearances for the early IS that we could find. Know about one? Put it in the comments!
Every car has a collection of common questions that pop up in forums and Facebook groups whenever new blood joins in. We hope a lot of those have been answered above, but here are some IS300 FAQs we wanted to dig into.
“Is it fast?” No.
“Can you mod it to handle well?” Yes, and the most reputable spot for that is Figs Engineering. They have full engineered solution for many of the shortcomings of the XE10 chassis, including heavy duty ball joints.
“Can you mod it to make it fast?” Not easily. Engine swaps are common, and the GTE swap is well documented, being the twin-turbo version of the 2JZ. Basically, you’ll have to really mod the IS300 to get any more power out of it.
Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
If you’re old school and like to keep reference notes on paper, or you’re just a completionist and want a free accessory for your IS300, download this paperback Car Bible. Well, you have to also print it to put it on paper. But you knew what we meant.
Think of it like an owner’s manual supplement. Keep it in your car and your days of waiting for slow internet on your phone at the auto parts store are over!
You’ve reached the end of the IS300 Car Bible and are about to scroll into the comment section. If any questions were left unanswered in the text above, try posing it in the space below! Unsolicited Lexus tips are also welcome.