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Rumble Seat 

In 1996, the United States Bureau of Engraving began redesigning paper currency to incorporate anti-counterfeiting measures such as color-shifting ink, micro-printing and a security thread woven into the paper. These days it's nearly impossible to duplicate American money. Now if we could just get used to the size of Jefferson's forehead.

It is likewise difficult to reproduce the exact mechanical alchemy that gives certain cars their living, breathing spirit. Lexus, though, has given it the old college try. In the IS 300, new for the model year 2001, Lexus has rendered a car that is nearly identical to the BMW 328i sport sedan in all the critical dimensions. The IS 300, also a front-engine, rear-drive four-door, is poised over a 105.1-inch wheelbase, only a couple of inches shorter than the BMW's. In height, width and length the cars are within an inch of each other. Like the BMW's, the Lexus profile is what horse-trainers would call short-coupled, with compact, athletic dimensions. Both cars are handsome and wedgy, with low noses and high rear decks, and on each, contour lines sweep along the car's shoulder like the flight of a breeze-driven scarf.

Both are motivated by in-line six-cylinder engines ventilated with exotic variable valve timing. Both wear outsized, ABS-assisted disc brakes behind performance wheels and low-profile tires. Both interiors are richly appointed with leather and brightwork, both dashboards barnacled with avionics-style dials and displays. Such fidelity is worthy of RCA.

But the essential atman that makes the 3-series legendary is its performance handling, the surreal quality of being almost an anatomical adjunct to the driver. Once seated in the Bimmer's deeply bolstered driver's seat, with the contoured leather wheel in your hands, it seems your nerve endings stretch out to each wheel, so that car control becomes less a matter of speculation--Can I get this car to stick in this corner?--than a matter of limbic certainty.

How, exactly, BMW designers achieve such a lyric quality is something even they might find difficult to explain, but if they could bottle it, other companies, including Lexus, would buy it. In vigorous cornering, the Bimmer's rear tires slide in a controlled and progressive way, allowing the car to change directions like a skier schussing his way through a slalom. The ability of a car to behave in this way, called oversteer, is designed in. In the Bimmer, you feel it in the seat of your pants (the car's 50/50 weight distribution, front to rear, helps a lot).

The IS 300, while it has the mechanical credentials to challenge the 3-series (in fact, with 215 horsepower and slightly lower curb weight, the Lexus has a better power-to-weight ratio than the 193-hp BMW) ultimately fails to Xerox the soul of the German car. In aggressive driving the Lexus tends to plow--"push," as they say in NASCAR--through tight corners and hairpins, scrubbing the shoulders of its 17-inch Goodyear Eagle GS-Ds. It is possible to get the tail to pitch around by chopping the throttle, but the IS 300 never seems as comfortable and controllable being tossed around as the Bimmer.

Meanwhile, the Lexus's speed-sensitive steering feels a little leaden to me, accurate but immoderately heavy, particularly at slow speeds. Nothing like the joystick quickness of the 3-series. BMW remains the gold standard of vehicle dynamics.

Which isn't to say the Lexus is a slug. Not by a long shot. Even saddled with a five-speed automatic, which would dampen the flame of any performance car, the IS 300 is gloriously quick and very agile. Our fully loaded, charcoal-metallic test model had more than 3,000 miles on it and seemed, by benefit of those break-in miles, quicker than the cars the buff books tested. Motor Trend paced the IS 300 to 60 mph at 7.4 seconds. I saw 7.1 seconds on my handheld stopwatch.

And the brakes are fabulous, stout and fade-free, the calipers seizing the ventilated discs with the grip of an Amway salesman long after the pads began to stink from the effort. Sitting on a well-damped and sprung suspension of double wishbones at all four wheels, the IS 300 exhibits excellent control of body roll, and the ride, I think, is first-rate, cloudlike and supple in that Hovercraft way Lexus really perfected. It's entirely possible that when Lexus rolls out a manual transmission for the IS 300 next year, the suspension will get a more performance-minded tweak, and the ride will become a little more crisp. Such a car, I think, will be a more pointed attack on the 3-series, but by that time, the BMW target will have moved, too.

In the meantime, the anticipated 25,000 U.S. buyers a year can console themselves with the IS 300's high design quotient. The signature piece of the IS 300 is its instrument panel styled like a Breitling chronograph, with the mpg, ammeter and temperature gauges set in the face of the larger, analog speedometer with kph and mph increments set in the bezel. That breathless description only hints at the busyness of this display. Combined with the multiplicity of climate and audio buttons, the drilled-out aluminum foot pedals and threshold (a la Celica GT-S) and a hefty globe of polished aluminum serving as a shift knob, the IS 300 certainly gives you plenty to look at. Ultimately, however, it seems to lack the maturity and seriousness of the Bimmer, a quality political pundits might call "gravitas."

If the Lexus yields to the BMW in pure driving pleasure, it surrenders nothing in value. Our test car, complete with cut-leather interior, moonroof, limited-slip differential, heated front seats and more, came in at $34,635--roughly $3,000 less than a comparably equipped 3-series. And even with the siren call of the BMW's delightful handling, three grand is to most buyers a lot of money. Unless they print their own.

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