Lexus IS 200t Review 13

It’s a rare sight. The third-generation Lexus IS has been with us since 2013, but is still very much a novelty in these parts due to a combination of factors.

Launched locally in June 2013, the IS came in as a high cost Japanese CBU import with a 2.5 litre naturally-aspirated V6 engine, attracting high road tax. Its task against the German heavyweights is monumental on an equal footing; encumbered with such price/cost disadvantages, the Lexus never stood a chance.

Ever since the second-gen, the IS has been crying out for a downsized turbo engine to at least have both hands in the fight. They took awhile, but Lexus finally has one, and the blown 2.0L has in a short period gone into the whole range – NX, RX, RC, GS and this IS 200t. Is the IS finally in with a shout?

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Replacing the IS 250, the IS 200t is powered by the 8AR-FTS 2.0 litre turbocharged engine also found locally in the NX and RX SUVs. The in-house designed twin-scroll turbo engine with Dual VVT-iW (Variable Valve Timing-intelligent Wide) pushes out 241 hp at 5,800 rpm and 350 Nm from 1,650 to 4,400 rpm here, six horses more than in the 200t NX and RX, although the SUVs produce peak power from 4,800 to 5,600 rpm.

The figures are healthy, and are good for a 0-100 km/h time of seven seconds flat and a top speed of 230 km/h. Unlike the six-speed auto NX/RX, an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission sends drive to the rear axle here, as in the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. RWD is of course a class norm that only the Audi A4 dares to defy.

Speaking of the Germans, the IS 200t does not go up against the 320i and C200 despite the badge similarities. In power terms, and in Malaysia, the 200t is shoulder to shoulder with the facelifted BMW 330i M Sport (252 hp, 350 Nm, 5.8 seconds) and the C250 AMG Line (211 hp, 350 Nm, 6.6 seconds). The C300 available elsewhere has 248 hp and 370 Nm.

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Now that they’ve decoupled engine size with variant names, both 330i and C250 are also powered by four-cylinder 2.0 litre turbos despite the bigger ’30’ and ‘250’ designations. Both are significantly faster than the IS 200t F Sport, even the Mercedes with 30 hp less, which could be down to the Lexus’ 1,620 kg kerb weight and tuning (330i 1,545 kg, C250 1,480 kg).

What’s undoubted is the IS 200t’s higher level of performance compared to the old 2.5 litre naturally-aspirated V6. With 205 hp at 6,400 rpm and 252 Nm at 4,800 rpm, the IS 250 did the benchmark sprint in 8.1 seconds and a top whack of 225 km/h – for RM500 more in annual road tax. The gulf between 2.0T and 2.5 V6 is even bigger in practice, as we found out over a weekend.

The IS has looked sharp since the second generation, but the IS 250’s V6 drivetrain never quite lived up to expectations that the sporting looks promised. It was smooth revving, but one had to work hard to squeeze out the juice. I personally like NAs, but effortless performance counts for a lot in this class.

Five minutes in the IS 200t is all one needs to banish the memory of the IS 250’s delivery – this thing builds up speed very fast, and the turbo effect is pronounced. The fact that my bum was a lot closer to the ground could be a factor, but the IS feels more rapid than what I remember of the NX. It’s very smooth revving and refined too, certainly more cultured than BMW’s direct-injection turbo units in the 3 Series.

Similarly quick and smooth are the gearchanges, but the transmission is culpable for the partnership’s less than perfect response.

There’s noticeable lag during take off, and when coming back on the throttle. The hesitance isn’t a big issue when you’re driving fast in a progressive manner, but can be annoying during quick overtaking moves or when driving spiritedly. A trait also detected in the NX, it’s a blot on the copybook of an otherwise decent powertrain showing.

The ride comfort was a pleasant surprise, more so with this F Sport variant’s gorgeous 18-inch alloys with 225/40 tyres in front and 255/35 rubber at the back. I feared the worse driving around Petaling Jaya (does the MBPJ mayor commute via chopper?) but the low profile-tyred IS soaked up the blacktop mounds and craters pretty well, and quietly too.

The firm but not uncomfortable adaptive suspension had good control over body movements and roll was well contained. Even the steering is improved over the previous gen IS – tight and safe at high speeds but not too cloying at low speeds, surprisingly hefty with some lock on. The fat Bridgestones (Turanza not Potenza, a curious choice) aren’t the quietest during high speed cruising, though.

Despite the dynamic upgrades, the lack of ultimate finesse when pushed is still present – the IS wont’t allow you to feel your way to the limit, and while it’s agile enough, it’s not the most confidence inspiring drive when pushed. The VSC safety net is just a short leash away, something we’ve previously noticed in Lexus cars. Not quite sheer driving pleasure.

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It’s no surprise to discover that the IS isn’t the best to drive in its class, turbo engine or not, but that does not mean that it’s without merits. Far from it, because the Lexus is a rather fascinating entry in a safe segment.

For a challenger brand, there’s no point in being a me too, and yours truly is a supporter of the bold design direction taken by Toyota’s luxury brand. Kudos to Lexus for having the balls to go bold; and by sticking to its guns, a signature look has been established. It’s easy to flip-flop your way around design, just ask Mitsubishi and Subaru.

The difference between this IS and its predecessor isn’t as big as that of the current GS versus the third-gen S190, but that’s because the previous IS was already an athletic-looking sedan.

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The blend of sharp details and flowing lines seen here, while very Lexus, isn’t as extreme as on the NX and RX. However, befitting its position as the youngest Lexus sedan, the IS appears significantly bolder than the GS. For this writer, it’s the prettiest example of modern Lexus design, amped up by the more aggressive F Sport styling. I love it, but you could hate it – the IS is that polarising.

Likewise the cabin, which like before, offers a cocooning cockpit environment for the driver. The high centre console makes the working area nicely cozy, or annoying tight, depending on your preferences. Slightly more room than before though, if memory serves right. The F Sport specific seats are wonderful – firm and supportive for thighs and torso, but lined with soft leather.

Supple cowhide can also be found on all touch-points, and you’ll feel guilty soiling the brand’s typical deep pile carpets. The materials look and feel good, but I’m curious as to why Lexus is not into metal or metal-like trim – the IS’ gear knob and other silver dashboard bits could do with the cold touch.

Everything is solidly put together, but I did encounter one misaligned panel/sharp edge on the driver’s side of the air con control panel. Uncharacteristic and an isolated case, I’m pretty sure.

The overall feel from behind the wheel is one part sporty, one part high-tech. Elements that contribute to the latter include touch-drag air con temp strips and the mouse-style Lexus Remote Touch Interface that has been improved from earlier iterations. One can get used to both, but they’re not necessarily the most intuitive forms of control. Despite having a centralised control system, there are still plenty of physical buttons to add to the “cockpit feel” that previous-gen Audis had.

The centrepiece of our F Sport tester is the “LFA-inspired” digital instrument panel, which consists of a central rev meter housing a digital speedo. It’s cool as it is, but the party trick is the physical dial’s ability to slide to the right, revealing a colour multi-info display. The MID’s pages show everything from audio and navi info to gear position and a boost meter with oil pressure/temp gauge. A little gimmicky but cool nonetheless.

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Less attention was paid to the more mundane things. There aren’t enough storage space for oddments, just the two cupholders and door bin in addition to the armrest box, which is difficult to access. No place for coins and keys if the cupholders are used for what they were designed for.

As premium compact execs go, the IS is a pretty selfish option. While the exterior dimensions track the F30 3 Series closely (at 4,665 mm by 1,810 mm, the Lexus is as wide as the BMW and 32 mm longer; 2,800 mm wheelbase is 10 mm shy), the cabin packaging doesn’t – the IS’ rear quarters are almost as cosy as the front section.

Rear headroom is at a premium – no room to spare for this 175 cm occupant – and while knee room is adequate, there’s no gap under the front seats for feet to tuck under, creating an uncomfortable position for longer distances. The rear bench is highly sculpted with a high and hard centre section – this, coupled with the high centre tunnel, means the Lexus is effectively a four-seater.

While others in the class have grown in size and scope (B9 Audi A4 and Infiniti Q50 are on the opposite end of the scale, pushing class boundaries), the Lexus keeps it true to the compact sport sedan template. Positive or negative depends on where you’re coming from, but the IS is probably the least suitable as an occasional family hauler.

Also unsuitable for many will be the price of this Japanese-made saloon. Our top of the range IS 200t F Sport has a sticker price of RM384,900 OTR excluding insurance, and the range starts from RM297,800 for the IS 200t Premium. Sure, it’s packed to the gills with kit, including the above-mentioned F Sport exclusive items plus a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, but one can get a 5 Series from slightly over RM350k.

Luck is not on Lexus Malaysia’s side. Just when the IS finally receives the downsized turbo engine it needs to compete, the current forex situation nullifies whatever advantage gained. Already a left-field option, such high prices compared to CKD locally-assembled Germans could render it a non-starter. That will be a shame, because there’s plenty about the IS to marvel over.