Car reviews - Lexus - IS - 200t Sports Luxury
Super-smooth new engine, traditional sports sedan feel, overall consistency and completeness, deceptively spacious, fuel-efficiency
Room for improvement
Lack of storage for rear occupants, interior becoming dated, foot-operated parking brake
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11 Feb 2016
Price and equipment
THE Lexus IS line-up kicks off at $57,500 plus on-road costs for the entry-level Luxury but our test car was the top-spec, $76,500 Sports Luxury variant. A uniquely purposeful-looking styling pack is applied to the $65,500 F Sport variant that sits between the two.
Few would be left wanting when faced with the Sports Luxury’s list of standard kit, which includes satellite navigation, heated, ventilated and electrically adjustable front seats, keyless entry and start, DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity, a 15-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio system, dual-zone climate control, and the Lexus Enform in-car internet and concierge portal.
There is also an electric rear sun-blind, 60/40 split-fold rear seats, soft-touch cabin materials, sports pedals, 18-inch alloy wheels, a moonroof and wood grain interior trim.
Convenience and safety tech comprises a reversing camera with front/rear parking sensors, hill-start assist, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and bi-Xenon headlights with auto high-beam.
A Drive Mode Select system features Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport S and Sport S+ settings, which alter the drivetrain, steering and chassis responses (the latter through the standard adaptive damping system).
Premium paint is a $1500 option.
The Lexus IS is a sports sedan from central casting. Occupants sit low with legs outstretched and a tall transmission tunnel dissects the interior space – all but eliminating legroom for the centre-rear seating position.
On the move, we found ourselves peering upwards at Camry and Commodore drivers while SUVs and dual-cab utes towered above. Ignoring the presence of space for two adults and plenty of luggage behind us, we felt for all the world like we were sitting in a sportscar. And it felt good.
Extremely comfortable and supportive seats, a sublime driving position and controls that mostly fell easily to hand all contributed to a ‘just right’ feel behind the wheel.
It’s not all good news. The lower door trims are cheap-feeling hard plastic that flex when placing larger items in the front door bins. Rear passengers get no door bins at all, with the only storage available to them being the airline-style map pockets and cupholders in the central armrest.
Up front, using the cupholders leaves the passenger with nowhere to rest their right arm, but things get better in the boot, which swallows a respectable 480 litres of luggage and accommodated everything we’d crammed into the back of the much larger RX plus room to spare.
Deceptively decent rear space and plush back seats (apart from the aforementioned central position) ensures comfortable four-up travel, although taller adults may find their heads brushing the ceiling in the back despite enjoying adequate leg and elbow room.
Like the striking exterior with its concept car tail-lights that occupy slashes in the bodywork emanating from the rear wheel-arches, the IS dashboard layout is a bit different and seems to be dating rapidly. It looks far better in photos.
We also found the clunky mouse-like method of navigating the rather small and old-fashioned looking infotainment screen less intuitive and effective than the German rotary dial systems and the touch-sensitive air-conditioning controls just don’t beat a proper rotary dial.
Also of annoyance is that the multi-function display between the clear and attractive instruments often gets hijacked by the adaptive cruise control and doesn’t display the right combinations of information at once. We’re looking forward to Lexus moving on from foot-operated parking brakes, too.
But niggles aside, the IS cabin just makes you want to drive. So let’s do it.
Engine and transmission
Lexus took its time in getting a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine to market, but it appears the long gestation process paid off. This powerplant really is sweet as a nut and a match made in heaven for the IS that works exceptionally well with its eight-speed automatic transmission companion.
Throttle response is delightfully crisp – even in Eco mode – and without a hint of turbo lag, it revs cleanly and smoothly to the redline, which comes up at a sooner-than-expected 6100rpm.
But with eight fast-changing gears to play with and the full 350Nm of torque on tap between 1650 and 4400rpm plus peak power of 180kW at 5800rpm, the only benefit of visiting the rev-limiter is to marvel at how quietly and silkily this force-fed four-banger gets there.
For us, this engine nails a traditional Lexus hallmark forged with the original LS400 of 1990: smoothness and silence.
We were also impressed with the unit’s efficiency. The official combined figure is 7.5L per 100 kilometres and we achieved an average of 8.2L/100km in our week of mixed driving in hot Queensland summer conditions that placed large demands on the air-conditioning.
Our best result in that time was 7.2L/100km, no doubt helped by the quick-acting idle-stop system valiantly operating in high outside temperatures that would disable the fuel-saving tech in most vehicles.
Ride and handling
The IS always handled sweetly and the 200t is no exception. Flowing on from the just-right feel of the interior, the steering effort and pedal weights are brilliantly judged and let intuition take over as the driver quickly gets into their zone.
Feel through the good-to-grasp wheel may not be telepathic but it is uncorrupted and involving. It turns in sharply but never feels nervous or darty and settles nicely for long-distance cruising while keeping the driver feeling pleasantly engaged at all times, so even lane-changes feel good.
In contrast to the likes of BMW, Lexus has made the IS feel so pleasant to drive in Eco and Normal mode that it’s easy to forget the three Sport modes exist, at least until the stability control intervenes to quell even the slightest bit of exuberance.
The feeling of rear-drive is delightfully ever-present but utterly benign, with a fun and balanced cornering attitude that gets adjustable in the more hardcore Sport modes in fast driving where Eco or Normal start to become frustrating.
Best of all, the ride quality is astounding. Yes this is a low, firmly sprung car on 18-inch wheels but the adaptive dampers really soak up the road exceptionally, meaning the condition of the surface is always communicated with the driver but rarely in an uncomfortable way.
The steering also remains unflappable when faced with poor corner surfaces.
All that aside, the way the IS200t rides, handles and steers makes it a thoroughly pleasant way to travel whether it be a suburban run to the shops, a motorway commute or a weekend back-road blast.
Safety and servicing
Standard safety kit on all IS variants includes 10 airbags, active head restraints and seatbelt pre-tensioners with load limiters. Crash-prevention tech includes ESC, ABS brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, brake and hill-start assist.
Also standard is Lexus Safety System comprising pre-collision preparation, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. There is also blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert.
Safety watchdog ANCAP awarded the 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 considered ‘good’.
Lexus provides a four year, 100,000km warranty and roadside assistance pack and the first years’ servicing – intervals are six months or 10,000km – is free.
The new engine in the IS200t is not only a huge improvement over the old IS250’s V6 but the best engine in the IS range and – dare we say it – turns the IS into the best car Lexus makes.
It feels every bit the luxury car drivetrain and its muscular feel combined with admirable efficiency and smooth, quiet character taps another nail into the coffin of naturally aspirated six- and eight-cylinder drivetrains – as well as the notion that the world will be boring without them.
We are impressed with the IS200t, the new beating heart of which makes the Lexus brand’s smallest sedan a commendably complete and compellingly competitive package.
Mercedes-Benz C250 from $68,900 plus on-road costs
A benchmark interior, serious on-board tech and sweet dynamics, but a little down on power compared with the Lexus, not that you’d notice. Equipment-wise it is a bit give-and-take against the Japanese rival, making the Benz tough to beat. No wonder it outsells mainstream mid-sizers.
BMW 330i from $69,900 plus on-road costs
Like the Lexus, the high-po 2.0-litre turbo-petrol is the 3 Series range sweet-spot. Unlike the Lexus, consulting the options list is almost mandatory.
However, you can come close spec-wise for the money with judicious application of BMW’s various add-on packs.
Jaguar XE 25t Portfolio from $70,400 plus on-road costs
Funnily enough the dynamically delightful XE is probably the closest rival to an IS in that it’s a left-field choice and has a slightly disappointing interior. The Portfolio probably has the best cabin design of the XE range though, and with around $6000 of options it can compete with the Lexus on both price and equipment. But until the new Ingenium engine arrives, the XE’s Ford-derived powerplant can’t quite live up to Lexus standards.
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