As you all know, I’m a huge car fanatic. It doesn’t take much to get me started yapping about cars when someone asks, “What you think about *insert brand/make here*?” Also, as you may have found out (you didn’t know? Catch up here) I’ve been without a car for a weeks now due to the negligence of distracted driver. My plan was to keep my personal car for a few more years before getting a car I really wanted but due to these circumstances, I’ve had to alter my plans a bit and go for a somewhat temporary stand-in. But what to buy?
My price cap was $10k and for that, the main focus (other than practicality and performance) was reliability. This car has to hold up for at least two years (more or less) to the rigors of my travels and beast-of-burden gigs while being relatively easy to work on myself. The 6 was virtually pain free for the DIY guy I am as most oil/fluid changes and tuneups were, though a bit arduous, mostly trouble free. I wasn’t looking at SUVs/crossovers as most in my price range weren’t my kind (I’m a wagon/hatchback lover). Sedans weren’t frowned upon though they weren’t my first choice either and even though I could’ve gotten another Mazda 6 (familiarity is a helluva thing), things needed to be shaken up a bit. I found myself glued to websites such as Cars.com, cargurus.com and Truecar and overtime, I narrowed my search down to two vehicles, the Ford Focus and Mazda3.
Let’s look at the Focus. From 2012, Ford’s compact runabout has been thoroughly redesigned and now is a virtual clone of it’s Euro version. The styling is a hit and after reviewing one a few years ago, the fun to drive nature catapulted it to one of my favorites. The infotainment system may be a bit infuriating (read: MyFord Touch) but over time, I could get used to it. The hatchback was definitely the better looking version versus the sedan which just has a frumpy look. The only point of concern was Ford’s new 6 speed, dual clutch auto. Initial response to this was lukewarm when the Focus debuted and since my purchase would be first-second year (before Ford’s mid-cycle refresh of 2015) I wasn’t sure I’d be up to dealing with its quirks and potential bugs. Searches turned up quite a few and there was one potential that I seriously considered. However, there were a few items the dealer was not willing to compromise on. Without going into detail, let’s just say some items you expect to be common sense when a car is reconditioned for sale were not important enough for the dealer to do. As a result, that deal fell through. Plus, I really didn’t want to deal with potentially crippling issues with a brand new transmission. Other things such as cars showing for sale online but mysteriously being sold hours later when I showed up for a test drive (a dealer trick I later learned) dried up my enthusiasm.
The other potential, the Mazda3 was also an early contender. Say what you want about Mazda’s goofy design language from 2009-2013 but underneath all those lines was a solid vehicle. I’ve always extolled the virtues of Mazda vehicles for their almost singular focus on driving excitement while never losing sight of other important aspects such as efficiency, practicality and ease of ownership. While the fire breathing Mazdaspeed3 did tempt me, I decided to cool it and get something less toasty. A few Mazdas nearby were either high in mileage or weren’t priced competitively. Towards the end of my search I started factoring in ease of maintenance and revised the list a bit. One night while doing a search, this off-the-wall option popped up.
I couldn’t believe it.
2004 Lexus IS 300 Sportcross
This has to be a joke. Can’t be real. Not only was the first generation IS 300 a hallmark in Lexus history, being the first legitimate Lexus product sent to do battle with the BMW 3 Series in the early 2000s, it was also a car that I had really, REALLY wanted to drive. Despite not being turbocharged, the IS300 packed the 2J-GZE 3.0L inline six of the vaunted Toyota Supra sports car. This legendary motor has, over the years, demonstrated its reliability, toughness and durability (some of these have been boosted to over 600hp on just the stock internals!). But despite all that, what really captured my attention was that this particular car is a rarity, being one of only 3,000 Sportcross wagon models sold in the U.S. A quick check of Autocheck and CarFax brought up no issues and confirmed this being a one-owner car, pretty much stamp on the originality of those low miles. Here, I thought, was my chance to actually test Toyota’s vaunted reliability claims and have some fun while doing so. First off though, I had to see the vehicle in person.
The following Saturday, after testing yet another overpriced Ford Focus, I went down to the small dealership to see the Lexus. Normally I pause at visiting small dealerships, but I figured, if this car is the real deal I at least had to verify it. According to one website, the Lexus had been on the lot for around 6 months, the price falling to its current number, a good indicator that the dealer really wanted it off the lot. Walking through the tightly packed lot (I swear the little parking lot behind my office is twice as big) I spotted the black wagon sitting next to a late model Altima and an also-rare Chevy Malibu SS sedan. Pictures didn’t do it justice. While time has had its way with it, the wagon still sports a surprisingly athletic stance. The body showed no physical damage, a few small micro dents here and there but nothing outwardly visible as prior damage. Opening up the interior really tells the age of the first gen IS300. The dash looked worn and the plastic trim separating the upper and lower portions was heavily weathered with small scratches sprinkled around. The plastic trim surrounding the 5 speed automatic transmission’s gear leaver was even more weathered and the characteristic ball on top of the lever was missing (apparently these shiny balls are prime pieces). The leather on the steering wheel had portions peeled away but the seats were in surprisingly good condition despite the leather being polished to a smooth finish. Overall the interior was, despite its age, in very good condition. Even the Lexus branded first aid kit was still velcroed to its position in the cargo area, seemingly untouched. Early 2000s designs stood out: a cigarette lighter sat prominently in front of the gear shift lever, the small diameter 3 spoke steering wheel emphasized tastes of the time, the A pillars were thin and visibility was excellent front and rear. Compared to the GMC Terrain I had stepped out of minutes before, I had basically taken a trip back into time.
Mechanically, the car was sound (or so I thought, more on this later). The engine started right up and idled quietly and I could hear no untoward noises or indications of repairs needed. However, after idling for roughly 10 minutes one thing was apparent: the AC was not working, hot air spewing out the vents, Hmm, a major issue this being Florida and all, but a minor one the dealer was happy to sort out. A few of the things besides the AC not working: the radio antenna was broken (an expensive OEM repair I found out later), the radiator had a leak (also revealed later and repaired by the dealer), the brake rotors were warped, the clip that held the hood prop in place was broken and the 6 disc CD player didn’t work (the cassette player, surprisingly, did). Oh, and apparently the dealer only had 1 key available. Hmm, almost a deal breaker but not enough to sway me. Test driving the car revealed the structure to be taut and rigid, no squeaks and rattles permeating the cabin and the transmission shifting comfortably and precisely. Sure, the 5 speed isn’t as responsive as modern 6 and 8 speeds but at least it didn’t fall all over itself and was one of the better transmissions of the day. It offered a manual shift function with buttons located on the front and rear steering wheel spokes. A “PWR” button sat next to the gearshift lever, a sort of Sport button that when pressed, switched the transmission’s programming to change gears at higher rpms. The inline six still sounded turbine-smooth and as balanced as any BMW six-pot. The ride was certainly firm, a tad firmer in fact than my departed Mazda but straight-line stability was even better. With the front wheels unloaded of the engine’s output, steering was sharper and more immediate. Plus, being hydraulically actuated (instead of the electro-steering of today), the wheel was rife with information, the texture and irregularities of the road feeding their way from the front tires to the driver’s hands.
Back at the dealer, I analyzed the car again. The cargo space appeared to be roomy enough to haul all my gear for gigs and be comfortable enough for the long daily commutes I have. Plus, this being essentially a Toyota, with regular maintenance I’d be assured a relatively trouble-free ownership. Seeing this as an opportunity (and the dealer willing to repair the issues I brought up while offering a decent warranty) I put down on the car and within a few days, it was mine. Let’s point out some of the things I’ve learned after just a few short weeks of ownership, plus some other things I’ve noticed:
1) Before any used car purchase, please, PLEASE have a certified mechanic do a thorough check on ANY car you’re seriously interested in. I neglected this very important part of the purchase and I paid for it with a missed day of work and tow truck drive to a mechanic to have the radiator replaced (dealer warranty).
2) Newer cars are complicated and aren’t as DIY friendly as older ones. Hence, I’d like to do as much DIY maintenance as I can and save some money. The 2J-GZE motor is a well known engine and, despite Lexus branding, parts are plentiful and affordable. Plus there’s a solid knowledge base in the online IS community ready and willing to help with various information regarding maintenance, upkeep and possible upgrades (don’t worry, I aim to keep the car stock where it counts). Oil changes may be a bit difficult (the oil filter is situated in a hard to reach area, meaning spills could be inevitable), spark plug changes will be a fight (just as they were in the Mazda) and this being a timing belt as opposed to a timing chain (look out 90k miles!) but at least this is stuff that’s not outside my mechanical ability.
3) As my brother has said, it’s the little things that add up and it is certainly the truth here. While not everything has to be fixed up front, I’ve found little odd things that could be either fixed or upgraded overtime. One example is the interior lighting that, after owning the Mazda for the better part of 6 years along with stints in the Ram and Terrain, looks very austere and dim. Even at it’s brightest setting, the interior still appears dark and the dome/map lights cast very poor lighting. An LED conversion will cure this and is currently in the works.
4) I’m a bit torn regarding the current stock radio. While the CD player isn’t working and I’m about to put the cassette player to good use with an AUX cassette to play music from my phone (I at least have a dedicated 12V charger besides the cigarette lighter, praise Jah!) I’d like to upgrade it in some way. Having navigation isn’t really an essential (that’s what my phone is for) so that lowers the price point considerably and, of course, I’d be doing the installation myself.
Writing this marks a month since I’ve been driving around in the Lexus and I’ve gotta say, it’s been fun. Some negatives? The inline six drinks premium gas and, while a strong motor, good gas mileage isn’t its forte. It’s going to take some getting used to seeing 18 mpg rather than the 24 mpg I’d regularly get in the Mazda. And the cabin is definitely a more, er, intimate space than the relatively spacious 6. But again, this serves as a test of Toyota’s reliability and ownership experience I’ll have with this rare car. Sure it might not have a manual transmission, but at least it’s a hatchback and one I’m looking forward to many good memories with. Sorry tuners, no turbos or coilovers or beer-can exhaust systems here. This 2004 Lexus IS300 Sportcross is going to remain mostly stock.