The 2016 Lexus IS200t is the latest version of the company’s entry-level sports sedan, and it received a heart transplant in the form of an all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine.
It competes in a tough segment with the perennial sports-sedan benchmark, the BMW 3-series, and it also has stiff competition from the likes of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Audi A4 and the Cadillac ATS. So how does the cheapest Lexus compare?
The IS200t’s styling is quite Japanese. It doesn’t look at all buttoned down and conservative like its German competitors. From the familial waterfall grille flanked by arrow-shaped LED daytime running lights to the deep lower side sills to the elongated taillights, the IS has an aggressive stance in that origami-like fashion that seems to come from the Land of the Rising Sun. Add to that the bright red paint and the lowered stance and wide wheels from the F Sport package and this is one Lexus that doesn’t belong cruising the boulevard.
The IS also has a pinched greenhouse, especially around the A-pillars, to add to the wide, broad-shouldered stance. It’s definitely sporting, but it’s not exactly handsome. It’s a bit too boy-racer for Lexus, like they tried too hard to shed their staid image.
The same can be said inside, where the dash looks like it was pulled directly from an LFA supercar. It wasn’t, of course, as it’s not exactly the same, but the influence is there, from the shape of the dash to the high center console to the chronograph-like electric instrument cluster that slides to the right at the push of a button. The steering wheel is also reminiscent of the LFA, with a flatter front surface and a smaller radius than other Lexus models.
It’s also quite black inside. There’s not much for colorful accents in the IS. In fact, the only non-black surfaces are some silver accents and the carbon fiber accents on the dash and doors.
Another problem is that some of the controls, especially the HVAC controls, don’t feel like they belong in a high-end vehicle. They seem a bit cheap, a bit too Corolla. The HVAC buttons are small and anonymous, and the touch sliders on each side that control the temperature for driver and passenger are answers to a question that no one asked. They aren’t accurate, they aren’t easy to use, and either knobs or buttons would have fit just fine in the same space and would have been a better solution.
Under the hood of the IS is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger that makes 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That max torque figure is available from 1,650 rpm to 4,400 rpm. Power is routed to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
The problem with the engine is not what happens between 1,650 and 4,400 rpm, but what happens before that, which is to say nothing. For an engine with such an early torque peak and a twin-scroll turbocharger, it sure does have turbo lag. Tromping on the gas at a stoplight is met with a profound delay before the turbo scrolls up enough power to thrust the car forward. Unless maximum thrust is requested, the transmission will shift early and everything starts again. So acceleration is a series of jerky movements that don’t produce the expected forward momentum.
The eight-speed tranny shifts for fuel economy unless in sport mode, so it shifts early and often and uses all eight gears all the time. It shifts crisply, often feeling like a dual-clutch transmission. This is not always a good thing, as downshifts are sometimes completed with a jolt. The paddle shifters are merely adequate.
Ride and Handling
The test car came with the F Sport package, which includes more than just fancy badges. It also includes 18-inch wheels with summer tires and a sport-tuned suspension. This makes the ride stiff, as expected, but not unpleasant. With the F Sport package, though, the IS is a handler. Cornering is flat and the grip of those performance tires are enough for any everyday maneuvers. I could coax nary a squeak out of them. The steering is direct and accurate, but too numb to be in a sports sedan. It’s not bad, but there are better steering cars.
The stiffly-sprung IS is not a car that most people would take across the country. It’s more of a weekend getaway car, not a long-distance car.
For a car that is considered a compact luxury car, it feels as tight as a subcompact inside. The blame is shared with the pinched greenhouse, the intruding transmission tunnel and the high console, but the result is that it’s not a car to fit all sizes of drivers.
The front seats are comfortable, but are the definition of a bucket seat with a very low seat bottom. The upside is that the seats are snug and keep occupants from moving around during sporting driving. There are also a multitude of adjustments so that almost any driver can get comfortable, provided they fit the narrow width of the cockpit.
The back seats aren’t as bolstered as the fronts but are comfortable enough for short trips. Rear legroom is adequate for two people of average height, but with the intruding center hump, the middle passenger should either have very short legs or not mind having their feet either splayed to the sides or on the hump.
For such a large center console, it doesn’t have much storage space. The armrest lifts up to reveal a tight, L-shaped storage bin, which is just large enough for a cell phone and sunglasses. The L shape is necessitated by the two small cupholders that wouldn’t fit anything larger than a standard aluminum soda can.
The console also houses the Remote Touch controller for the infotainment system. As in other Lexus models, it’s not accurate or easy to use and takes up too much real estate. The infotainment system, too, is in need of an upgrade, as in all Toyota products.
Trunk space is 13.8 cubic feet (10.8 cubic feet using SAE standards), which is enough for a typical shopping trip but would be tight for a family’s luggage. The opening is wide and low, but the lack of trunk space compared to, say, a Lexus ES350 further cements the IS’s stance as a weekend car and not a long-distance runner.
One of the reasons Lexus went with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine – much like a lot of their competitors – is fuel economy. The IS200t is rated at 22 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined, but in the week I had it, it managed only 22.5 mpg. Most of it was city driving, but it did include one highway trip. I think it’s because I spent a lot of the time at full throttle to try to overcome the annoying turbo lag. Give me real low-end torque with a linear torque curve any day.
Competition and Value
As stated above, the IS plays in the same league as cars like the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 and Cadillac ATS. Unfortunately, all those cars are better cars than the IS, at least in entry-level 200t guise. Compared to the C300 I tested, the IS doesn’t come close in terms of styling, performance, or fuel economy.
The test car’s base price is $37,325 before destination, but after the F Sport package, the navigation package and a few other options, the final MSRP with destination is $44,235. The IS’s base price is a little higher than the others save the Benz, so it does have some value over the C300, but for my money I’d pay a little more for the three-pointed star.
Another issue is the ES350 that’s been mentioned here a few times. Sure, it might skew more towards luxury than sport, but it’s about the same price (maybe a little more expensive) and has more passenger space, more cargo space, and a more luxurious interior, plus it’s more powerful, faster and gets better gas mileage. Unless canyon carving is a prerequisite, the ES is a better car than the IS.
The problem with the IS200t is that it’s not comfortable with every day driving. Sure, it can do it, but it’s not happy. The annoying turbo lag, the too-quick upshifts and the stiff suspension make it a chore for daily commuting. It’s much happier when it’s being flogged, but the problem is that unlike cars like the Mini Clubman and Scion iA that also like being flogged, the IS’s limits are well out of the range of legal driving. The only way to enjoy it would be if your daily commute included a twisty mountain pass, or if your weekend getaway included a stop at a road course.
- Buy It,
- Lease It,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It,
The 2016 Lexus IS200t gets a Lease It!
The IS200t is a relatively fun car to drive, but there are better options in the entry-level luxury car class, not the least of which is its cousin, the ES350. Luxury cars are very personal purchases, though, so those who love the looks or the feel of the IS will buy it, despite how it stacks up against the competition. At least they will get a well-sorted, well-made car with decent performance and Lexus’s famous build quality.