Thursday, April 02, 2020

My Daily Driver: @kmccauley's Lexus IS300 Sportcross

1. How did you come to the decision of buying this car?

It took me years to convince my wife Laura that we needed a “daily driver.” She was unmoved when I argued that my vintage car was too unreliable and impractical to use every day, but she reluctantly caved when I framed it as ‘let’s get a “beater” car’ — a car that we could abuse, haul stuff with, and never put any money into.  So our first foray into daily driving was a 2007 Toyota Prius that I bought after doing zero due diligence. It went disastrously, which I’ve documented here. After an unending string of hybrid and non-hybrid repairs, I was ready to start fresh. 

Laura is patient with my truly terrible car-buying habits, but she held firm on three rules for our third car: 1) the daily driver must have an automatic transmission so she can drive it; 2) it must be reliable and relatively easy to maintain; and 3) it must have at least four doors, with the capability to carry her sister’s wheelchair without folding down the backseats. 

European cars were out (because maintenance), as were coupes and small sedans (because wheelchair). I earnestly considered a wide range of Japanese options — Lexus LS400 AND Toyota Celsior, Infiniti FX35, Infiniti M45, Civic Si, Lexus GS400 — but kept returning to the idea of a Lexus IS300 Sportcross. It just seemed like the perfect balance. The trunk of the IS300 sedan is too small to qualify, but the wagon variation has room for days. It’s a small, engaging, rear-wheel drive sports wagon, with the reliability of a Toyota. If I wasn’t permitted to buy a BMW E46, the straight-six-powered Lexus IS300 was the next best thing.

The only problem is they’re hard to find, since only about 3,000 Sportcrosses were sold in America between 2002-2005. A car this uncommon is not something you should buy impulsively. 

But that’s what I did anyway. 

I had sold the Prius nearly two months earlier, and as time went on, my bar for the ‘right’ Sportcross got lower, and the ‘acceptable mileage’ range crept higher. I PPI’d one in Ohio (too much rust) and test drove one in San Diego (drivetrain felt weird). Less than a week after driving the San Diego car, I was back in California signing the papers on a 2003 IS300 Sportcross in Orange County. It had 176,000 miles. 

2. What has your ownership experience been like?

Well. Roughly 24 hours after signing the paperwork, I pulled off at a rest stop by the Arizona/New Mexico border, where I noticed smoke trickling out from the underneath the car. It looked to be oil dripping on the catalytic converter or exhaust manifold. Did I mention I’m bad at buying cars?

I limped to a service station in El Paso, where they put it on the lift and gave me the bad news: the rear main seal was toast. 

I called Lexus of El Paso. “Oh wow, a first-gen IS300? We never see those!,” the service writer exclaimed. 

“Then get ready — this isn’t just any IS300, this is the Sportcross version,” I beamed. Despite the headaches this car had given me just 36 hours into ownership, I couldn't help but feel pride about my choice of having such a quirky, special car.

Lexus of El Paso pulled out all the stops to fix the car and get me back on my way. It was, honestly, a wonderful experience. I dropped it off on Thursday evening, and they had it ready on Saturday. During that time I tooled around El Paso in a 2019 Corolla loaner car. They removed the transmission, replaced the seal, and put it all back together for less than the cost of an oil pan gasket service on a BMW E90 3-series, and that isn’t hyperbole. 

In the three months since that little adventure, I’ve fixed, replaced, and tweaked a number of things to get the car more sorted, but it’s mostly been perfect. I’ve never owned a sports sedan (or wagon) before, and now I understand why it’s such a brilliant formula. The steering feel is light years better than nearly anything on sale today, the chassis is balanced and connected, but it’s still a quiet, comfortable car. I don’t have to crouch to get in, or step over a wide door-sill, and closing the door luxuriously seals off the outside world with a satisfying WHOMP. It’s the engagement of a driver’s car, without any of the punishment.

The only downside is the automatic transmission. I’m not completely opposed to automatics, but I had forgotten just how lazy and unhurried the automatics from the 1990s were. 

3. What is your fondest memory with this car?

The feeling of driving off from Orange County and starting on this 2,000 mile drive home to Houston, ill-fated as it was, was a great moment. I was so eager to spend three days behind the wheel, by myself, forming a bond with this car. Even better, I guess, that it ended up being five days. 

But just driving around town, now, I carry this satisfaction of knowing I’m driving something special, something unique. Even if no one else notices or cares, I know it, and that’s enough. I’ve been driving this car for three months, and I’ve never seen another one out on the road during that time. 

4. Why do you love cars?

I’m a glutton for punishment, obviously. 

If you would like to participate, just answer the above four questions and submit one to three photos of your daily driver to milhousevanh at geemail. Thanks and have fun!

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