Swapping out a V6 for a four-cylinder in the Lexus IS is a heart transplant free from burn.
For: Excellent powertrain, stylish looks, strong value.
Against: Remote Touch controller infuriates.
DOWNSIZING: Like it or not, everyone’s doing it – even serious sports car makers - invariably for irrefutably good reason.
The delivery in the latest edition of the Lexus IS, the compact sports sedan cast in the mould of a certain Munich machine, of a turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder petrol in place of the previous 2.5-litre V6 is a logical progression.
Compensation for losing two cylinders is not difficult to locate: the new mill pays out in all ways with improved economy without giving anything away on the dyno. In fact, the power and torque output are way up and the 0-100kmh time comes down commensurately. So, yeah, at face value it seems a painless heart transplant.
There’s also positive play on the pricing side. Positioned as the entry Lexus sedan, the I200t is offered as a standard model for $73,900, as a more athletic F Sport for $83,900, and as a more luxurious Limited, as tested, for $86,400. They are all competitive prices if they are compared to the likes of the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, all of which were among the Lexus brand's prime targets when the very first IS was developed.
Perhaps it’s ironic that a brand known from day dot for hushed refinement has latterly determined to draw attention with emphatically loud looking products, but the credibility of the IS design is truly starting to reveal now that we’re viewing halfway through its design life.
You’d have to agree a car that has previously suffered from being labelled ‘derivative’ has finally found its own feet.
While the IS has a particular stance, really it’s the details make the difference. Most obvious is the spindle grille. This brand trademark works better on some models that others. I’d suggest it’s a more attractive sight on the larger GS than on the entry sedan, but is certainly aggressive and makes for an instantly recognizable signature.
The IS also enlivens with LED headlight mascara to abet the standard high-intensity discharge lamps but the better light set is at the opposite end of the car – the taillights are highly detailed with an incredibly sharp-pointed side strake whose seamless integration with the metalwork says everything you need to know about the exacting level of workmanship Lexus asks of its designers and fabricators. Consider how the tip of the tail-light point meets perfectly with an impressive upsweep line running from the doorsill: That’s the work of an artisan.
There’s more design drama within, including an electronic instrument display rendered something like that in the LFA supercar. Great gizmo or just a gimmick? I can’t decide. And maybe tastes also change over time: Back when this car was fresh out of the box, I was impressed by how the ventilation and heating controls were altered by running your fingertips up and down a pair of short, narrow, vertical dull-finished metal strips on the lower part of the centre console. It was a great illustration of how touch-sensitive electrostatic/capacitive-switchgear might be the way of the future. Or so I thought then. Now it just seems a bit silly and, since it is an idea I’ve never seen on any other Lexus (or Toyota), maybe the maker concurs.
No second thoughts about the computer mouse-style Remote Touch controller. This take on BMW’s i-Drive has always been too sensitive and clumsily-shaped for my liking.
Despite the usual feeling of high quality and class, Lexus also lets the side down with some oddly-placed switches while the use of a standard Toyota cruise control stalk on the steering wheel is an all-too-obvious cost saving. I’m no fan of the foot-operated parking brake, either.
The IS 200t safety includes 10 airbags and the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System which combines anti-lock brake, electronic brake force distribution and electronic brake control systems to help avoid emergency situations.
The distributor has now also been reacting to rivals’ specification upgrades. Satellite navigation and reversing camera, 60:40 split folding rear seats and power adjustable front seats are standard on all IS 200t models but it’s great that Lexus Pre-crash safety system and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control are now implemented across the range, while the Limited (and F-Sport) also now has an electronic steering column adjustment with memory.
Though this is a new engine for IS, it’s actually already been in one other Lexus product, having debuted under the bonnet of the NX crossover. I so much enjoyed it in that application that there and then had determined that, as good as it was in a basically front-drive crossover implementation, it surely would have to be all the better, still, in a sporty, rear-drive sedan. Was that hope fulfilled?
Before answering that one, a quick reprise about what we’re dealing with. First of all, this powerplant has a key role with Lexus, albeit moreso overseas than here. It has also been introduced as an entry powerplant into the RC coupe, the GS sedan and the RX SUV, though none of those derivatives have yet shown here.
Is that because we might be put off by the modest capacity? It’s true that there is always some potential for a negative public reaction to seeing a small engine in marriage to a large vehicle – Ford learned as much with the EcoBoost Falcon, a short-lived experiment in this market – and, yet, by and large the reality of such a hook-up is far more positive than perception might allow.
Certainly that’s the case here. The V6 that has been ousted in this process certainly couldn’t be faulted for being a suave smoothie, but it was never fully on pace for power and had something of a drinking problem.
The switch to this new plant is following a trend; the Euro makers especially started to head toward turbo four-cylinder engines some time ago; BMW, Audi and Mercedes now get good business and hear little complaint about their own efforts. Even Porsche has followed suit, with its latest Boxster.
The Lexus unit comes with the right kind of figures. In producing 180kW at 5800rpm and 350Nm at 1650-4400rpm, it shames its predecessor with an extra 27kW/97Nm and yet offers potential for an optimum burn of 7.5 litres per 100km; not as thrifty as some of the best Euros but a whole lot better than the IS250's 9.2L/100km.
The new unit is matched with an eight-speed sports automatic transmission that features an auto blip on downshifts and full torque-converter lock-up from second to eight gears for clutchless manual shifting. It’s another gearbox with a sweet attitude toward refinement but also expectation that drivers will expect quick reactivity. Lexus cites this car as having a 0-100kmh potential of 7.0 seconds’ flat. That means it reaches the legal highway pace a full 1.1s faster than its predecessor.
No question, this is certainly the ‘right’ engine for this car. Whether the Limited is the ‘right’ version to exploit the mill’s full potential is a more pressing question.
There’s also no doubt that Lexus wants the IS to be considered a bone fide sports sedan. They expect this car to be the equal of anything out of Stuttgart, Munich and Ingolstadt on a challenging roadscape.
Ultimately, though, there is one IS edition that is somewhat better at that kind of performance drive. The F-Sport benefits from having stiffer suspension, adaptive dampening, better brakes, bigger and sticker tyres and an extra transmission mode: In addition to the Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport S modes on offer, the raciest edition has a Sport S Plus setting which further alters the steering and chassis response. Accordingly, then, if you’re looking for a baby Lexus sedan to chase down M-Sport, S and AMG-Line product then the F-Sport will make a better fist than the Limited.
Still, the test car was not without dynamic talent. The steering isn't honed to carve curves like a scalpel but it delivers decent feedback, albeit with the occasional kickback if the front hits bumps too hard and with too much lock during cornering.
The car’s dynamic feel is also pleasing, insofar that the chassis has a sweet balance. The use of high-tensile steel and aluminium in the body construction has enhanced body stiffness, and while a performance damper fitted to the front of the chassis is primarily there to ensure noise and vibration is kept to a minimum, Lexus assures it also has positive effect on handling. The double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension set-up is also obviously designed for a high degree of feedback and fun, plus it runs with grippy Dunlop rubber.
Yet, all in all, the invitation to attack bends is not delivered with quite enough authority. The car feels just a bit soft and laidback for hard-charging. This, time turn, has effect on how much of the engine’s goodness can be used to full effect. There’s plenty of speed but it’s not always easy to completely carry that pace through bends. You also tend to give thought to what influence the car’s weight is having; at 1620kg-plus it is lardier than the newer competition.
Even though the Limited’s dance moves err toward the conservative, that’s not to say it is to be avoided. There are many reasons to take this derivative seriously, starting with a ride quality that really reflects that the suspension tuning phase of this car’s development was truly global, rather than being restricted to some closed-off domestic test ground. The normal mode is actually preferable for general driving; it has enough cushioning to allow the car to simply roll over most obstacles.
However, as much as the car proper is laidback, the engine itself has different ideas. It’s a playful wee tike of a thing, deliciously revvy when allowed its head and offering an increasing load of thrust as it is worked. It’s a shame that Lexus doesn’t allow it to sound as sporty as it feels but, again, maybe the muted note has a lot to do with its particular location in this instance. Perhaps the F-Sport is rortier but I fear not, noting that it doesn’t come with the in-cabin engine-noise “sound generator” that the IS350 F Sport gets as standard equipment.
On that note, even though the auto’s manual-mode shift paddles offer a relatively crisp response and some tactile reward, it’s still a shame there isn’t a manual transmission option. There’s a sense that of all the Lexus powerplants, this DOHC 16-valver is the one that deserves to be excused from the auto-or-nothing credo the most.
As is, you get a car that nonetheless is nonetheless a heart-warmingly communicative device, all things considered. The driving position is well-sorted and passengers will be pretty happy with the comfort and interior space.
The old IS was impossibly tight in the back. This one is still too snug to make a good taxi, but thanks to a 70mm longer wheelbase and some severely sculpted front seat backs, there’s far better rear knee- and head space than before. Luggage capacity increases by a substantial 82 litres; shame, though, about those intrusive hinges.
The IS 200t positions as a well-sorted alternate to the existing two hybrid IS 300h variants and the IS 350 F Sport and It merits comparison with the likes of the BMW 320i and Mercedes Benz C250 in terms of performance. The Limited has style and substance; if you’re chasing a bit more in the way of driving fun, then the F-Sport is the way to go.