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Car reviews - Lexus - IS - 200t F Sport

Our Opinion

We like
Encapsulates sports sedan feel, efficient and super-smooth four-cylinder engine, ride comfort, numerous small interior improvements make a big difference
Room for improvement
Infotainment off the pace, rear occupants struggle for storage, foot-operated parking brake, road noise, dynamic edge lost

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Lexus logo22 Mar 2017

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Price and equipment

THE facelifted Lexus IS line-up has received a few price rises in return for additional standard kit, opening $690 higher than before at $59,340 plus on-road costs for the entry-level IS200t Luxury and topping out at $84,160 plus on-roads for the V6-powered IS350 Sports Luxury (up $290).

Our test car was a four-cylinder IS200t variant, the aggressive-looking $67,480 F Sport that represents middle ground in the equipment stakes but cops the biggest price hike at $950.

The same three spec levels are available in the IS300h that uses a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain, priced from $61,890 (up $490) to $81,160 (up $620).

On top of the range-wide standard fitment of adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning with sway warning system automatic high-beam, pre-collision safety system and a bigger 10.3-inch infotainment screen as standard across the IS range, the F Sport grade is packed with satellite navigation, heated, ventilated and electrically adjustable front seats with memory (including exterior mirror position), keyless entry and start, DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity, a 10-speaker audio system and dual-zone climate control.

There is also a reversing camera with front/rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, LED headlights and Drive Mode Select with Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport S and Sport S+ settings that alter drivetrain, steering and chassis calibration (from F Sport spec upwards the IS has adaptive dampers as standard).

Unique to the F Sport cabin is an 8.0-inch digital instrument pack inspired by the Lexus LFA supercar, along with bolstered F Sports front bucket seats, chunky F Sport steering wheel and sporty trim items such as metal pedals and scuff plates. The F Sport also has its own, more purposeful front and rear bumper design plus a mesh version of the trademark Lexus ‘spindle grille’.

Behind the F Sport-exclusive smoke finish 18-inch alloy wheels are high-friction front brake pads and a specific suspension tune.

The $4000 Enhancement Pack 1 available on IS250 and IS200t F Sport variants was fitted to our car comprising an 835W, 15-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio upgrade plus a tilt and slide sunroof. Premium paint is $1500.

Interior

While everyone reaches for the skies in their SUV or dual-cab ute, the Lexus IS requires something of a mental recalibration due to its low-slung stance.

Stepping down into this car after a week piloting a LandCruiser 70 Series had us squinting over the curvaceous IS bonnet with legs outstretched in a coupe-like driving position.

Once we had overcome our transition from ox cart to go-kart, we quickly noticed how much more pleasant and modern the updated IS interior was, the 15 or so minor changes adding up to more than the sum of their parts.

Most of all, the big 10.3-inch infotainment screen feels much more at home than its predecessor that seemed distant and much smaller than its 7.0 inch on-paper size would suggest. The F Sport’s LFA-inspired digital instrument cluster – for all its gimmickry – also lifts the ambience with a bespoke feel compared with the too-Toyota-like standard effort.

All the other changes, as minor as updated steering wheel buttons, revised analogue dashboard clock and interior door handles prove that a little attention to detail goes a long way. No longer does it feel dated in here.

Everything we enjoyed from the pre-facelift IS is still present and correct, including the super-comfortable, beautifully supportive and almost infinitely adjustable seats that provide a just-right driving position behind the similarly comfortable and multi-adjustable steering wheel, while major controls are all within easy reach.

We even continued to forgive the huge transmission tunnel that makes the central rear seating position pretty much unusable by robbing room from legs and feet, because it combines with the low hip point to make the front cabin feel so sportscar-like.

Meanwhile rear passengers in the IS had better be of the minimalist mindset, with almost nowhere to put anything apart from cup-holders in the central armrest and map pockets in the seats in front of them.

That said, there is a deceptive amount of room for those in the beautifully plush outboard positions and tall folk can sit in tandem without getting claustrophobic. Headroom in the back of our test car was a bit limited due to the presence of an optional sunroof but it was not unacceptable.

More work needs to be done on the cheap-feeling, bendy plastic lower door trims and their flexy door bins. There are one or two too many textures going on around the centre console area and we’re not sold on the fish-scale-like metallic trim or the poorly matched fake leather surfaces on non-contact areas of the seats that were already showing signs of wear on the bright red upholstery of our young test vehicle.

The new conjoined cup-holders can accommodate mug handles for the tea drinkers out there, or the slot between them can be used to secure a phone. Neat, but with drinks vessels in place, the front passenger struggles for anywhere to rest their elbow. The glovebox is small, too, and there is no sunglasses holder.

While the new screen looks great, if anything the extra real estate exacerbates the unintuitive and clunky mouse-like method of navigating that Lexus insists on, compared with the more effective rotary dial systems used by the German competition. Top tip: In the options screen, turn the controller force feedback to max and the additional resistance makes it much easier to use.

And we’re very much in the rotary club when using the technology for technology’s sake that is touch-sensitive air-conditioning controls. The mushy, unintuitive indicator stalk action is almost impossible to master as well.

Lexus, please spend your development dollars on removing foot-operated parking brakes instead.

The aforementioned digital instrument panel delivers a lot more information at once than non-F Sport variants and has two viewing modes that cause part of the display to physically move and reveal an additional screen behind. It’s a novelty, a gimmick and something to go expensively wrong at some point in the future.

And still, despite all the extra room, when the adaptive cruise control detects a car in front, a graphic notifying the driver of this obscures actual useful information on the display.

Yes the new instruments are an improvement but please see Audi’s ‘virtual cockpit’ for properly effective digital dashboards.

Also inferior to Audi (and Mercedes) is the lane-keeping assistance, which in conjunction with the thankfully much-improved adaptive cruise control provides semi-autonomous motoring but with an inebriated and easily confused robot behind the wheel rather than an Autobahn-trained and cool-headed German.

Sometimes its tugging at the wheel was more distracting than relaxing.

One more area in which the Lexus disappointed was road noise on coarse-chip surfaces. A luxury car should be far more isolated and the IS was almost as bad as the notoriously noisy Mazda3 on the country road section of our test route.

Engine and transmission

Lexus has thankfully not messed with the formula that makes its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol such a sweet engine.

It’s so quiet that the cylinder count is hard to determine and it is so smooth, linear, free-revving, crisply responsive and lacking in turbo lag that it could be a particularly good straight-six.

The biggest giveaway is the feeling that 350Nm of torque, spread between 1650 and 4400rpm provides. It’s much more flexible than an atmo six. The 5800rpm power peak (at which 180kW is developed) delivers another clue, but unlike many force-fed four-cylinders, the engine barely runs out of puff as it spins cleanly and quietly toward its admittedly conservative 6100rpm redline.

Such is the smoothness and quietness of this engine, combined with the slick up-changes from the transmission that the absent sensation of speed meant we regularly found ourselves over the posted limit after exiting fast-road roundabouts or when going up motorway on-ramps to name a couple of examples.

But, and perhaps it was an anomaly affecting only our test car, but compared with the pre-facelift IS200t we found the eight-speed transmission often exhibited low-speed and kick-down hesitancy that blunted the engine’s otherwise sweet throttle response and spoiled the car’s otherwise smooth-as-silk personality.

Possibly related was the less impressive fuel efficiency than previously, leading us to suspect that something might have been awry with the transmission logic that caused the aforementioned hesitancy.

The official combined figure remains unchanged at 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres but compared with our pre-facelift test average of 8.2L/100km a year ago, we achieved an average of 10.2L/100km this time in similarly hot Queensland conditions with the air-conditioning blasting away.

Ride and handling

For the IS facelift, Lexus saw fit to fiddle with its suspension settings, recalibrating the spring and damper rates, tweaking the anti-roll bars, fitting redesigned lower wishbones at the front and revising the bushings.

We understand this all comes under the brand’s ‘pursuit of perfection’ slogan but sometimes if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And the pre-facelift IS was a lovely thing to steer along a twisty road, especially with the turbo engine, even giving the famously nimble BMW 3 Series some serious food for thought.

Good news first. The ride is still beautifully compliant and expertly damped, even more so than before, which still comes as a surprise from such a low-riding car on 18-inch wheels. There is also a lot of grip and a pleasantly pointy initial steering response.

The deft direction changes, neutrality and balance we love about the IS are all present and correct but beyond that the steering, which was never telepathic in feel or feedback, seems to have deteriorated with this facelift and now feels pretty artificial and vague with self-centring that is too strong. On poor surfaces there is also some vibration felt through the wheel.

As a result the IS has gone from an intuitive handler that was easy yet rewarding to flow through a series of quick corners, to a car that seems to need learning to get the best out of it. That’s a shame.

Better news comes from how pleasant the IS feels to drive in Eco and Normal mode, compared with the borderline unusable Eco modes of, say, a BMW.

It would also be fair to point out that for most purposes the suspension tweaks do make the facelifted IS even better to live with than before, but at the expense of back-road bliss. If tearing up tarmac is not your thing, this vehicle still deserves your attention.

Safety and servicing

In addition to the new adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning with sway warning system, automatic high-beam and a pre-collision safety system, standard safety kit on all IS variants comprises 10 airbags, active head restraints and seatbelt pre-tensioners with load limiters. Crash-prevention measures include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, brake and hill-start assist.

ANCAP awarded the pre-facelift IS a maximum five-star crash-test rating, scoring 35 out of a maximum 37 points with 14 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a perfect 16 in the side impact test and the full two points in the pole test. Whiplash and pedestrian protection were deemed ‘good’.

Lexus provides a four-year, 100,000km warranty and roadside assistance pack for the same duration. Service intervals are 12 months or 15,000km. No capped-price maintenance scheme is in place, but Lexus provides the first annual service free of charge.

Verdict

Lexus has risen to the challenge of increasingly stiff competition in the luxury mid-size sedan segment with the updated IS that cleverly combines numerous minor changes that deliver more than the sum of their parts.

It offers something a bit different, without being annoyingly quirky, and the interior refresh goes a long way towards addressing probably our biggest bugbear – a cabin that dated a little too quickly.

We were disappointed by the reduced fun-factor brought about by the suspension change and despite the level of additional standard driver assistance and safety tech, it does not quite deliver the slick sense of semi-autonomy enjoyed by the C-Class or A4 driver.

But what is slick is the overall driving experience and a sheer level of standard equipment that goes a long way towards making a case for the IS. Even if it just makes the purchasing process smoother by eliminating the minefield of options lists.

We wanted for nothing specification-wise, and that, surely is the definition of luxury.

Rivals

Mercedes-Benz C250 from $69,400 plus on-road costs
Its interior provides genuine sense of occasion, there is some serious on-board tech and a sweet dose of dynamics cap it all off nicely. Sensible standard kit selection and plenty of change for options to get the Benz closer to the typical full-house Lexus spec. The C-Class outsells mainstream mid-sizers for good reason.

Audi A4 2.0 TFSI Quattro Sport from $69,900 plus on-road costs
Gutsy but frugal engine and all-wheel-drive, plus the best blend of ride and handling achieved by Audi to date. A typically lovely interior, but one that requires a visit to the tantalising options list to get the best out of it.

BMW 330i from $69,900 plus on-road costs
Getting on a bit but BMW has kept the 3er relevant and delivered a sweet, high-powered 2.0-litre turbo-petrol to propel the 330i. Like Audi, the options list is almost mandatory but there’s value to had by carefully picking the bundled add-on packs.

Jaguar XE 25t R-Sport from $68,900 plus on-road costs
Arguably the dynamic benchmark these days and in some aspects the XE is probably the closest rival to an IS in that it is a worthy but non-obvious contender. Jag doesn’t hold back on options pricing but believe it or not, judicial box-ticking can have it close to competing with the Lexus on value. If the big cat is your bag, we recommend you hold off until the new Ingenium engines arrive in mid-2017.

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