19
Mar 13

Cool used car #4: 2001-2005 Lexus IS300

When Toyota launched Lexus in 1990, they had their flagship LS and a tarted up Camry called the ES. Nonetheless, for the low, low price of $35K ($62K in today’s dollars) you had a luxury sedan that was paradoxically both technically ambitious and conceptually conservative. It turns out there was a huge market for a luxury car that combined Japanese reliability and technology with German luxury.

By 2000, Lexus had the GS, LS, RX, ES, SC, and LX lines. It had virtually the entire luxury market mapped out, but they didn’t have a 3 series competitor, right when the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series were snapping up australianviagra.com coveted young professionals. Toyota looked at their product portfolio and decided to rebrand the Japanese market Altezza as a Lexus. But where Lexus had a reputation for restrained luxury and comfort, the Altezza was an altogether different beast.

You see, the Altezza’s chief engineer was none other than Nobuaki Katayama, who was also the mastermind behind the RWD Corolla GT-S, also known as the AE86. The AE86 became legendary for its combination of light weight and handling, and was immortalized by the Initial-D manga and anime. With a higher budget than with the Corolla, the Altezza had double wishbones all around, just like the Supra. It also was available with the legendary 2JZ-GE inline six from the Supra. With lots of room in the engine bay any powertrain from the Supra will also fit in an IS.

Unlike other Lexus models, the IS300 was not designed with North America in mind, but instead for Japanese enthusiasts. As a result, the car’s design reflects much of the home market’s tastes in the late 1990’s. The stereo is a straightforward 2DIN design, easily replaced with an aftermarket unit. The pedals are drilled aluminum. The taillights are dipped in chrome and spawned many imitations in the aftermarket. The shifter is a giant chrome ball. And most noticeably, the instrument cluster looks like a Breitling chronometer.

Unlike the E46 BMW, the Lexus IS is a Toyota, and therefore extremely reliable. The engine is overbuilt at the modest 215hp power level. Also unlike any BMW short of an M3, an LSD is available on all model years except for 2005. While the reviews of the time place the IS slightly behind its contemporary BMW, the suspension has more potential and takes well to aftermarket dampers, springs, and sway bars.

If you want an IS, the 2002-2004 models are best, since they have side curtain airbags, and an available five speed manual. 2005 models lost the optional LSD, which was a bargain at $600. Also, from 2002 there is a rare wagon variant, the Sportcross, which was only available with a 5 speed automatic. Automatics drive fine and many well kept examples are easy to find. The LSD option is rare- look in the driver’s door jamb at the sticker with the VIN and manufacturer’s date. If it says B02A, it doesn’t have an LSD. The B02B and B02C variants have LSD. Also, all models with VSC have LSD, but VSC is non defeatable and only available on automatics.

Most of the manual transmission IS300’s I’ve seen have the LSD option, but they also seem more likely to be modified and/or abused. In general I don’t put a lot of value in “never tracked” because my experience tells me that many track drivers are meticulous about maintenance, and you can wear out your car plenty by thrashing your car on public roads without proper care. Still, a 5 speed IS300 with the LSD is the one to get. Navigation is primitive and not worth paying extra for. There are also two optional interiors, a Leather/Alcantara (Ecsaine) combo and a full leather option. The former is much grippier than the latter.

As for pricing in March 2013, good cars seem to range from $10-$15K with the top end getting low mileage cars with all the options. These cars are also modern enough to get the full complement of contemporary safety features and would make for fine daily drivers, so an excellent choice for an enthusiast contemplating the purchase of a Nissan Versa.

In 2006 the IS was updated as a proper Lexus. It gained all the refinement and luxury that it predecessor lacked, but lost the edginess of the original car. It was a huge success. If you’re a fan of small sedans with sports car suspensions, the Lexus IS300 is an unusual example of a Japanese home market car coming to the US with very little lost in translation.


06
Jul 11

Cool Used Car #3: 1990-1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata

My 1996 Mazda MX-5 Miata

In the 1980’s, a few employees of Mazda of North America convinced their Japanese overlords that there was a market for a small convertible sports car that combined British and Italian panache with Japanese reliability.  This was no small feat, especially since Mazda would have to invest nearly a decade of development into designing and building a rear wheel drive sports car when most of their models were front wheel drive econoboxes.  Making things even harder was their price target: $13,800.

It is one thing to design a sports car with a high price point, because buyers of expensive sports cars do not expect their sports cars to have any sort of practicality, economy, or reliability.  It is another thing entirely to design a desirable sports car at a price that is comparable to a family sedan.  Mazda achieved their goal with flying colors, and management in Japan was more than relieved when the car turned out to be a success.  With the exception of the heavily revised engine, virtually every other component, from the exterior door handles to the double-wishbone suspension, were unique to the MX-5 Miata.

There’s a reason that the Mazda Miata is the most raced production car in the world.   While it is straightforward to add power to any car, it is much harder to create a world class chassis with a sophisticated independent suspension at all four corners.  With the Miata, Mazda engineered a double wishbone suspension at all four corners of the car, which is the optimal layout for race cars but is expensive and complex to implement in a production car.  Combined with the bespoke powerplant frame adding rigidity to the car, the Miata’s chassis is essentially that of a small race car.  Thousands of Miatas are raced in various club races all over the world, and they make fantastic race cars with minor modifications.

Miatas are simple to maintain and parts are inexpensive.  The first generation is the most desirable, as it was a clean sheet design with many charming details that were lost in subsequent generations, like the one finger door handles and headrest mounted speakers for better top-down audio.  The 1999-2004 model is essentially the same car with minor improvements, but most purists prefer the first generation model.  I say that both are fine cars, but at the end of the day, I bought a first generation 1996 Miata.

When shopping for your Miata, try to find a 1994-1997 model.  The 1994 models are the first year for the more powerful 1.8L engine, and there are a host of improvements, including dual airbags and additional chassis stiffening.  Manual transmission is the way to go, and for better traction in all conditions, you want the optional Torsen differential.  All manual transmission Miatas in this era with power windows have the Torsen diff.  ABS is also an option, and is hard to find, so make a decision on whether you want it before you go shopping.  ABS cars can be identified by the control module on the passenger side of the firewall replacing the stock washer fluid bottle location.

All Miatas have a VIN sticker on every body panel that indicates whether or not the panel is original.  These are located on the hood and trunk lid, both front fenders in the rain channel on the top, and on the rear fenders on the door jamb.  A car with original stickers all around has never had any major bodywork done.  Hardtops are very desirable and are worth $900-$1000.  Replacement softtops can run from $500-$1000 installed.  If you want to track your car, a roll bar is required, and cost around $500.  Clean cars that require nothing start at around $4000, depending on options.

If you have any interest in learning to be a better driver, buy a Miata.  It is the quintessential “momentum car” that can go very fast as long as you don’t slow down too much.  The car has a weak engine by modern standards but despite this, they are very fast in the right hands.  Since I’ve become an amateur endurance racer, I bought myself a Miata to improve my driving.  It also turns out that it’s a sweet car to drive to work every day with the top down.  I didn’t really fully grok why Miata owners loved their cars so much, but now I do.


27
Apr 11

Cool Used Car #2: 1995-1998 Honda Odyssey

In the early 1990’s, minivans were everywhere.  However most Japanese minivans were adapted from commercial vans in Japan, which happened to be smaller than their American counterparts.  These vans were oddly configured, with the driver’s front legs hanging awkwardly and precariously in the front of the car, and the engines tended to be under the front seats.

Honda, having long marched to the beat of their own drummer, did what they did best- a front wheel drive van based on the Accord parts bin.  This van, known as the Odyssey, was originally built for the Japanese market.  As a result, it was barely longer and wider than an Accord, yet incredibly space efficient with room for up to seven passengers.  The car also had conventional rear doors with power windows at a time when a single sliding door on the right side of the car was the norm.  Second-row captains chairs were standard on the EX and the third row retracted easily into the floor, which had never been done before.  When the third row was up, a handy compartment was available for valuables under the seat.  All models sold in the US had a standard rear AC unit, so everyone traveled in comfort.  Not only was the Odyssey versatile, but it was a fun car to drive.

With its sports-car like double wishbones at all four corners, the Odyssey had great handling for a van.  Then again, it wasn’t really a van, but a tall wagon, and had the handling and fuel economy to match.  With standard ABS and dual airbags, this tall wagon had a full complement of safety features.

The one to get is any 1998 model year Odyssey.  The 1998 model got the updated engine from the 1998 Accord, and a revised instrument panel with a tach.  Get an EX if you want Captain’s Chairs and can live with room for six, the LX if you need more human carrying capacity. Prices range from $2-5K, a bargain given the reliability and versatility of these cars.

For the 1999 model year, the Odyssey was redesigned and forked for the North American market.  It was a conventional minivan, not charming in any way, and a runaway success.


22
Dec 10

Cool Used Car #1: Mark II Toyota Supra

There have been four Toyota Supras in the annals of automotive history, ending with the vaunted 4th generation (Mark IV) Supra of 1993-2002.  This car is recognized as a legend for its performance and durability and today pristine examples fetch upwards of $50K.  But that’s not the car I’m going to write about.  Instead, I’m going to write about its little known antecedent, the Mark II Supra of 1982-1986.

In the early 1980’s, there was a full-on war between Toyota and Nissan for near luxury sports cars with inline six cylinder engines and a wealth of luxury features.  Toyota brought all their guns to bear with the second generation Supra, with a fully independent suspension and a distinct body from the Celica, which continued with an anemic four cylinder engine and a solid rear axle.  If you’re a fan of the 80’s, the Supra’s crisp and creased lines are a great example of the mores of the era, with pop up headlights, fender flares, and that fastback design that we all loved back then.

Back then, Japan had a booming economy and cheap currency that resulted in an unbeatable level of engineering and craftsmanship in their cars for your USD.  The Supra is no exception with a powerful and smooth 160 hp 2.8L inline six engine in a sub 3000 pound chassis.  By today’s standards, a featherweight, but a bloated luxo cruiser in the 1980’s.  These cars had the best technology, from a digital dashboard to 14-way adjustable sport seats, and the later models had a suspension tuned by Lotus, who had started a partnership with Toyota for parts in exchange for some engineering expertise.

The Supra makes my list because it’s a rear wheel drive car with plenty of power, a sophisticated-enough chassis, and enough creature comforts to be usable as an everyday car.  This was a car designed to be the best Japan could offer, and corners that are cut in today’s cars were left on in the Supra.  Lifting the carpet in the cargo compartment reveals a full size spare on an alloy wheel, something few cars have today.  Interior plastics, while blessed with the sheen of the 1980’s, are not susceptible to the cracking of European contemporaries like the Porsche 944.

There are two models, the L-Type and the P-Type.  The L-Type has a digital dashboard, while the P-Type has fender flares and a limited slip differential.  The P-Types are more desirable, especially since the digital displays on the dashboards can fail after almost 30 years and are expensive to replace.  From 1984 onwards, the engines produced 160 hp, and the best models are the 1985-1986 P-Types.  Of course, manual transmission is the way to go; automatic transmissions still had a way to go in the early 1980’s.  Forget about airbags and ABS in cars of this era, they were simply not available.

The cars are not perfect- because these cars are light and torquey, they can have tricky handling, especially with the stock 14 inch tires.  Power-off oversteer is something to be aware of, and my Supra had an unfortunate encounter with a tree in the hands of a friend.  Be extra careful, especially in the wet.  Cars with updated wheels and tires (up to 16″) are potentially safer.

Thanks to Initial-D, the AE86 Corolla GT-S has become a cult classic for its rwd handling and drifting prowess, but I think the less loved Supra is the car to have, with more power, a similar size, and an independent rear suspension.  A good example should be between $2,000 and $3,000 with extra special examples with more powerful engines approaching $5,000, or a little bit more than half the price of a similar Corolla GT-S with less power.

Of the four generations of Supras out there, the Mark II is unloved and yet deserving of love.  Therefore, it is worthy of my Cool Used Car list, as a car that is both special and inexpensive to buy.