Published on November 14th, 2015 | by Daniel Sherman Fernandez0
No longer playing catch-up: Lexus IS 200t F SPORT review
For this segment, there are usually two ways that manufacturers can go about designing their cars. They can try to take on BMW in terms of aggression and sportiness, or they can attempt to emulate Mercedes’ level of comfort and luxury. Most attempts to balance these two aspects have led to product failure- something Mercedes learned quite recently, as they have reverted back to the luxury that they know well.
And then there’s Lexus. If you talked to a chassis engineer at Lexus (or Toyota) a decade or so ago, they would have grudgingly admitted that the Germans could still do a better job when it comes to handling and ride quality. The Japanese had a clear edge over their rivals in terms of reliability and production efficiency, but they had not figured out how to design a chassis that could deliver fun-to-drive characteristics, while maintaining comfort in day-to-day operation.
It seemed that all but a generation ago, Lexus was content with leaning towards luxury; after all, their LS 460 L was regarded as one of the best luxury sedans at the time, beating out the S-Class and 7 Series in terms of comfort and noise insulation (if perhaps lacking in outright obvious luxury). The IS and GS models of the time felt more like afterthoughts that were forced into production for the sake of completing a model range, while the RX continued on as the quintessential soccer-mom car.
But no longer is this the case. Akio Toyoda came to helm Toyota Motor Corporation in 2009, and with him came a very radical change in direction for the Japanese powerhouse. He was, at heart, a racer- he loved and appreciated fast, fun to drive cars. He himself took part in the odd endurance race at the Nurburgring, piloting a race-prepped LF-A. But more than being the president of Toyota, he could look beyond brand and appreciate cars for what they were, which gave him a more holistic view of car design.
When the new IS was announced in 2013, there were plenty of high hopes for it- and in quite nearly every aspect, Lexus met the expectations of the automotive world. It was hot on the heels of the 2011 Lexus GS, which was a major rework for the model line that helped to change Lexus’ brand image for the better. The design of the IS had a more muscular emphasis: curves swept up from the door sill to the C pillars, and the tail lights bled down towards the wheel arch in an almost concept-car like shape. The interior was second to none- clearly inspired by the LF-A, and yet emulated properly for use in a sedan.
So perhaps the only complaint would be on the subject of power. By the launch of the IS, BMW had already employed modern turbocharged motors for 3 years- and Lexus was stuck with their same old naturally-aspirated V6 motors in various states of displacement. With only 204 hp and 250 Nm, the IS 250 of the time was punching far below it’s weight. Thankfully, the new IS 200t addresses this problem with it’s turbocharged 2.0-litre motor.
It’s an engine that we first saw in the Lexus NX 200t that was launched just a few months ago, but in a higher state of tune. The engine itself is highly advanced, though like we’ve discussed before it’s likely that Toyota had it hidden away in their R&D centre for half a decade. It has direct injection and a water-to-air intercooler to optimize performance with forced induction; power outputs stand at 241 hp and 350 Nm of torque – a substantial increase over the 2.5-litre V6 of old, and exactly on par with it’s rivals.
Also new is an 8-speed automatic transmission, although it isn’t as quick or sharp as the competition. Still though, it manages to execute shifts promptly and consistently, and the extra two ratios help to keep the revs down during high speed cruising. On the whole, not much has changed with this updated IS sedan- and that’s a good thing, because a lot of the elements that made the IS a great car have been retained.
Ride and handling is one area where Lexus has shown massive improvement, beginning with this generation’s Lexus GS. The balance of the IS is superb, although the F SPORT variant tends towards mild understeer and is slightly resistant to rotation. This may be a result of the F SPORT’s wider rear tyres- something that may not be necessary with this amount of power. What is surprising is the Active Variable Suspension system that automatically adjusts the damping force; while the ride may be a little bumpy by virtue of low profile tyres, the car easily soaks up bumps and camber changes with little protest. A BMW it is not, but it’s damn near close.
Opting for the full-fat F SPORT version, as shown here, will get you a little more kit than the standard variant. Bumper designs are slightly different to reflect the aggressive nature, there’s a Mark Levinson audio system, and of course the LF-A inspired performance display is included as well. The system has been tweaked for this new turbocharged motor, offering new readouts for boost pressure and oil pressure as well. It’s such a slick unit that to have the IS 200t without it would feel like a major letdown.
The IS has certainly become more than just a left-field alternative to the German establishment, ticking all the right boxes and delivering more than what you’d expect from a car in this class. But perhaps the toughest bit of this to swallow is the price: RM 384,900.00 for the F SPORT variant, with all the bells and whistles. Even if you were to opt for the IS 200t Premium model, it would set you back RM 297,800.00- which is already a fair premium over any immediate rivals, and can make the IS 200t a tough proposition. If, however, you want a car that stands out from the crowd- something unique and uncompromised in the same breath- then the IS 200t may be worth some serious consideration.