The skinny: Other than now having a turbo 2.0-litre four under the bonnet, and a new eight-speed automatic shuffling power to the rear wheels, not much has changed with the new Lexus IS 200t.
Except for the way it drives. This is a far better Lexus IS; that 2.0-litre turbo transforms its performance... and without killing fuel consumption.
The interior, typically Lexus, is as serene as a church, richly comfortable and fastidiously trimmed and finished. Not so good is the mapping of the selectable drive modes - 'Normal' is a tad conservative - but gripes are few. The new entry-level IS, might now be the best in the range.
Vehicle Style: Medium luxury sedan
Price: $57,500 (IS 200t Luxury) to $76,500 (IS 200t Sports Luxury)
Engine/trans: 180kW/350Nm 2.0 turbo petrol 4cyl | 8sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 7.5 l/100km | tested: 8.0 l/100km
Lexus Australia continues its foray into turbo technology with the arrival of its first turbocharged RWD model, the IS 200t.
Packing 27kW more power and 98Nm more torque than the naturally-aspirated IS 250 that it replaces, the new Lexus IS turbo four-door is intended to go head-to-head with mid-range variants of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, both of which now feature an all-turbocharged engine line-up.
But it’s more than just power and torque that have improved. Fuel economy and refinement are better than they’ve ever been, and the transition to turbo power makes the IS feel thoroughly modern.
- Standard equipment: Adaptive cruise control, dual-zone climate control, power front seats, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, keyless entry and ignition, trip computer.
- Infotainment: Lexus Remote Touch interface with colour display, Bluetooth audio and phone integration, Siri Eyes Free compatibility, and voice controls.
- Cargo volume: 480 litres minimum
From the driver’s seat, there are only a handful of hints that there’s a different engine on the other side of the firewall.
Look behind the drive selector knob and you’ll see a button to disable the start-stop system. And cycling through the pages on the Multi Information Display (MID) in the instrument panel reveals a boost gauge.
There are differences that you can’t see as well, like the incredible smoothness and quietness of this engine. Compared to the relatively vocal 2.5 litre V6 that powered the IS 250, the IS 200t is blissfully silent.
Combine that with the IS’s already well-insulated cabin, and you have a car that’s almost church-like in its serenity. Lexus certainly shows the Germans a thing or two about how to isolate passengers from noise, vibration and harshness.
There are five attractive hues for the standard leather upholstery, build quality is superb and comfort - at least in the front seats - is superb.
Tall backseaters will still find knee and headroom to be limited, but that complaint could be levelled at every other RWD medium luxury sedan.
For 2016, the entire IS range will feature ten airbags as standard.
Previously only the range-topping Sports Luxury grade got a full complement of ten ‘bags (dual front, front side, rear side, full-length curtain and dual front knee), with other models receiving eight.
Active cruise control and an anti-collision system are also standard for all IS models, further boosting the safety credentials of Lexus’ midsize sedan. Lane departure warning is standard on the Sports Luxury, and blind spot monitoring is standard on F Sport and up.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 180kW/350Nm 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol inline four
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters, rear-wheel drive
- Suspension: Double-wishbone front, multi-link rear. Adjustable dampers on F Sport and Sports Luxury
- Brakes: 334mm ventilated front, 310mm ventilated rear discs
- Steering: Electrically-assisted, variable ratio on F Sport and Sports Luxury. 10.4m turning circle
Less is more, right? Though the IS 200t’s 2.0 litre four-pot has half-a-litre less displacement and two fewer cylinders, it’s easily a far, far better motor for the IS than the 2.5 litre V6 it replaces.
And while that antiquated V6 was a bit of a dinosaur, this new four-cylinder is comprehensively up-to-date.
It’s equipped with a twin-scroll turbo, a close-coupled water-to-air intercooler, is port-injected and direct-injected and the wide range of its variable valve-timing allows it to run either on the conventional Otto cycle, or the more efficient Atkinson cycle.
There’s also an engine start-stop feature, which saves fuel by shutting down the engine when stationary at traffic lights. The IS 300h also has stop-start, but the IS 200t is the first non-hybrid RWD Lexus to get such a system.
Behind that four-cylinder motor (which is largely identical to the transversely-mounted 2.0 turbo in the NX 200t), is an eight-speed automatic. That alone is a worthy upgrade in itself, given the outgoing IS 250 had an ageing six-speed to work with.
Out on the road, the new powertrain completely transforms the IS. Suddenly, it’s the base-model engine that exhibits the best manners on the road, with ample low-end thrust courtesy of the turbo engine’s much broader torque band.
Give it the beans from standstill, and it’ll zip to 100km/h in 7.0 seconds.
And with the maximum 350Nm of torque available between 1650rpm to 4400rpm, it’s endowed with excellent flexibility. So, even though there are eight gears to play with, the IS 200t has little need to shuffle through them.
However, its habit of immediately shifting into the highest possible gear in 'Normal' mode does become a little wearisome if you live in a hilly area.
Not because it then has to shift down accordingly, but because it takes its time figuring out which is the most appropriate gear to shift down to.
Once it’s found that gear it doesn’t hunt, but its preference in Normal for the highest gear possible diminishes its driveability and takes the edge off performance. The shift programming isn’t quite as intelligent as that of, say, the BMW 3 Series’ eight-speeder.
Switch it into Sport or Sport+ and it becomes much more agreeable. Keeping revs higher, holding on to gears longer, these modes really allow the turbo four to shine.
It neatly blips the throttle on downchanges, manually-actuated shifts are fast and crisp, and it can detect when you’re driving hard and keeps to lower gears accordingly - even pre-emptively downshifting when braking hard into a corner.
It won’t hold gears against the redline when in manual mode, but that’s our only performance-related complaint.
There are no changes to suspension settings or steering calibration between the IS 200t and IS 250, but the IS wasn’t really deficient in that area in the first place.
The experience behind the wheel is pretty similar as a result: nicely-weighted steering that firms up progressively the more you turn it, coupled with a well-damped suspension.
There’s excellent grip on F Sport and Sports Luxury too, in part due to the electronically adjustable dampers that tighten up the ride in Sport and Sport+ mode, but also thanks to the adoption of grippier Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber on those grades.
The Bridgestone Turanzas that the Dunlops replace were good for suppressing road noise, but they weren’t the sportiest tyre around. The Sport Maxxs cure that.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 35 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Ten airbags, frontal collision warning, auto emergency braking, stability control, traction control, ABS, EBD and brake assist are standard across the IS range.
Blind spot monitoring is standard on the F Sport and Sports Luxury, while the Sports Luxury flagship gets Lane Departure warning as standard.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The arrival of the IS 200t finally allows Lexus to fight its German rivals on an even field, given most made the transition to turbo-four power years ago.
With the IS 200t’s 180kW/350Nm output, it’s line-ball with the current BMW 328i for power and torque (though that model will be replaced with the slightly more powerful 330i soon), and has 30kW more power than the Mercedes-Benz C250.
The Audi A4 is down by 20kW against the IS 200t, but an all-new replacement is coming shortly. Jaguar’s new XE 25t is also a worthy competitor, but as far as value for money is concerned the Lexus has all of them beat.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Lexus is quietly confident that the IS 200t will lift its fortunes in the competitive mid-size luxury segment, and it has good reason to be.
The value equation has always been strong with the IS, and has consistently been a unique selling point for the Lexus brand as a whole.
Where it lagged behind its Euro competitors was in the driving experience it delivered - and that was especially true for the IS 250.
But now Lexus has a refined, powerful and technologically-sophisticated contender in its arsenal.
While we don’t expect it to steal market share from the dominant C-Class or 3 Series, it’s bound to find favour with plenty of other aspirational shoppers - especially those looking to step up from mainstream brands.
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