Stop calling a compact luxury sports sedan that isn’t a BMW a “3 Series fighter.” There really are such things as sports sedans that aren’t from Bavaria, and the current Lexus IS is one of them. Here’s why it’s more than just an also-ran, and why its new-for-2017 turbo four-cylinder engine makes it worthy of your attention.
(Full disclosure: Lexus Canada wanted me to drive the IS 200T in the snow so badly, they fitted the car with a fresh set of Blizzak WS80’s, thick winter carpets, and a Canadian Tire snow brush the size of Conan’s sword.)
There used to be a time when Lexus was all about copying the Germans and very content at stealing a slice from their annual sales pie. But Lexus is all grown up now, and has somehow mutated into the Predator. Ever since Toyota’s luxury division hatched a thing called the LFA, one of the best supercars of all time, Lexus has decided that it’s done running after its European competition. Well, possibly because they realized they’ll never win the sales war, but also because they no longer feel like they have anything to prove anymore.
It’s more than fair to say Lexus now has its own image, and it’s with this very red, and very tail-happy 2017 Lexus IS 200T F-Sport (or IS Turbo) that I’m about to prove it.
Embrace The Face
The Predator face has been around long enough that it shouldn’t shock anyone, but it still took me a while to find the right words to properly express why I’m attracted to the IS. I think I’ve finally found them: Lexus was never intended to be attractive for its design, but rather for build quality.
Instead, we’ve been impressed by its tight panel gaps, exquisite paint job finish, and fanatical attention to detail. And for this model, the 2017 Lexus IS 200T, particularly painted in that seriously stunning Redline Red paint job, Lexus has created quite the masterpiece.
At last, proof that a face only a mother could love, grafted onto a very well put together automobile, can actually come through as attractive. That, and the way a car is stanced. I must say, I love the IS’ tightly wrapped proportions and how it sits on those downright gorgeous F-Sport gunmetal wheels.
What’s more, for 2017, Lexus has carefully tweaked the front fascia with squintier headlights, a revised front grille, added air intakes from the F-Sport package and a cleaned-up tail light treatment to make the entire car look sharper all around. I know, that’s like putting makeup on an alien hunter killer from another planet, but it works.
More importantly for Lexus this is bold, distinct, and instantly recognizable. It has actually grown on me! And it no longer feels like just a really nice Toyota. Isn’t that what we’ve always asked from them?
Another 2.0-Liter Turbo Four
The biggest news for the 2017 Lexus IS 200T is what lies under its hood. Where previous IS’ were powered by either a 2.5-liter or 3.5-liter V6, the smaller six has now been ditched in favor of the more efficient, and significantly more potent four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbo – the same unit found in the NX crossover.
In this application, it powers the rear-wheels only. Here in Canada, this makes the IS Turbo the only two-wheel drive car of the IS lineup. Only in the United States can customers choose between RWD or AWD on the top flight IS 350. I’m suddenly jealous.
Power is rated at 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, a significant upgrade over the outgoing small V6's 204 HP and 184 lb-ft of torque, placing this new IS in a better position against its entry-level competitors, notably the Audi A4 2.0T, Cadillac ATS, Mercedes-Benz C300 and yes, the BMW 330i (I didn’t say you couldn’t compare it to a 3 Series.)
The first impression from this four-pop is its alien-spaceship like induction drone. There’s no hiding the fact that this is a digitally enhanced melody that’s further amplified when the car is set to Sport mode. That engine sound, it’s odd, but never unpleasant. It just never feels natural but does help add character to a power plant that’s otherwise quite muffled. That’s an inevitable result of using forced-induction.
But it’s a rev-happy little mill, something usually not typical of turbo engines. There’s a hint of turbo lag, where not much is happening in the low rev range (even if the torque numbers say different), but once that tach needle passes the 3000 RPM mark, power delivery is smooth, urgent, and constant all the way close to the 6000 RPM redline.
Smoothness is the word to remember here, and I’ll get back to it later.
The 0 to 60 mph dash, according to Lexus, is achieved in a respectable 6.5 seconds. But sadly this compact luxury sports sedan is outgunned by its main German rivals (yes, them again.) Especially the BMW 330i, which pulls the same stunt one full second quicker.
I do wish the IS would come with a six-speed manual, but you and I both know none of Lexus’ target clientele would bother buying them. A stick would have definitely help get the most out of that turbo engine’s rev-happy character, at least as far as I’m concerned
Sadly, the IS 200T’s sole transmission option is an eight-speed automatic with available paddle shifters. It’s just so damn clumsy. More often than not, the transmission fumbled to find the right gear, hesitated, upshifted too early. And there’s an infuriating delay between the moment you hit the accelerator, and when the car actually gets going.
This has been my main complaint lately with these new transmissions that are fitted with way too many gears. The problem is, most of the time their computers spend more time figuring out rev range, instead of, well shifting.
Also, now that new cars are almost all turbocharged and equipped with throttle-by-wire systems, the delay is amplified, further disconnecting the driver from the car’s drivetrain, and seriously impairing one of the last freedoms we have left: driving.
Finally, Some Snow
You’ve heard me rant about the weird winter we’ve been having in Québec this year, how each time I review a Subaru the snow suddenly disappears, and how it starts raining in the middle of January when I’m handed the keys to two full size SUVs. Things were equally weird with this Lexus, thanks to a massive ice storm followed by a healthy dose of the white stuff, all during the same week.
So yeah, my time in this RWD Lexus IS 200T was quite a ride.
Hardcore climate-change weather conditions aside, this was ideal weather to sample the IS’ chassis dynamics, which, I must say, are pretty outstanding in this class. The abundance of snowfall also meant that I could go see my friends over at Sanair and try out their all-new winter driving circuit, where I was able to hoon this Lexus to my liking in total safety.
And boy was that rewarding. It’s stiff, yet it remains smooth. Agile, yet compliant. On the slippery stuff, with all traction systems turned off (and yes, they can be fully disengaged), this IS will wiggle its tail graciously, but never so much to scare you. That’s the beauty of having a four-cylinder under the hood. Not only does it provide just enough power to have fun, it adds lightness to the front of the car, making it that much easier to put it where you want it.
Sport mode is definitely where you want this car to be, where throttle response (still somewhat laggy) is considerably enhanced, the steering wheel stiffens up, and the transmission suddenly decides to shift. And in manual mode, I was able to hold on to second gear; arguably the best cog for drifting around on a mini snow track like Sanair’s. Also, thanks to the engine’s wide range of available power at my disposal, I never felt like I needed to grab another gear.
Yes, yes! That’s how all cars should behave in snow.
And my god, the IS 200T is so easy to control. You can just put it exactly where you want it. All the time. Feel like you’ve overdone it? Just lift off, and the car straightens back instantly into a straight line. And don’t worry if you mess up, the brakes on the IS 200T proved to be excellent.
The last car that made me feel this way behind the wheel was the Subaru BRZ, probably the most driver-focused sports car I’ve driven lately. But for a full-fat luxury sports sedan that’s one hell of a compliment, isn’t it?
It’s Still A Lexus
That’s really what shines through at the end of the day though; the fact that the IS 200T is still very much, a Lexus. The interior is among one of the most attractive and comfortable cabins I’ve ever sat in. The seats are supportive, snug, and insanely comfortable. Everything is impeccably well laid out and beautifully crafted.
I love the T-shaped layout of the dashboard. It’s different and modern. From the machined volume controls that are conveniently placed just aft of the shifter, where you can rest your arm, to the chunky, leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels like pure liquid vanilla in your hands, the attention to detail in this car is simply mind-blowing.
I’m personally a huge fan of the IS’ gauge pod which, although it seems to be fully digital, actually moves sideways to unveil additional information such as fuel consumption, turbo boost, and other tech-savvy shenanigans. The thing even emits a robotic-style wiz sound as it moves about. Seriously, I could have sat there fiddling with that gauge cluster all day long. It’s just that cool.
There are a few faults. Everyone complains about the Toyota/Lexus infotainment system, and rightfully so. It’s showing its age, and frankly, it’s not very quick in operation. Click a menu and there’s actually a loading time, like you’re firing up disc three of Final Fantasy VIII on your Playstation.
Thankfully, my tester was not fitted with Lexus’ infamously infuriating mouse-like controller. Instead, I had a conventional knob, which actually works better to get around the menus.
Also, blinker and wiper stalks. This seems to be the trend in luxury cars these days, where they over engineer the shit out of the stalks. Why? I mean, they’re just wipers. Why do their commands have to be so complicated and confusing to operate?
Out the rear and in the trunk, the IS sadly suffers from being the smallest sedan in this segment. As much as I love how its tidy dimensions make this car look, rear leg room is unfortunately compromised. Still, I give massive respect to Lexus for focusing on styling and performance instead of convenience. This is a sporty sedan. And please, leave it that way.
Prices for a 2017 Lexus IS Turbo start at $37,825 for a base, rear-wheel drive IS 200T. All IS’ now come standard with the Lexus Safety System + package, which includes a collision-mitigation and lane-departure-warning system, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beams.
Opt for the F-Sport package, like the one you see here, which mostly adds cosmetic add-ons, except maybe a stiffer suspension, and you’re at $41,370—a still substantially more affordable price than anything European.
The bottom line is that this proves Lexus knows how to make an attainable compact luxury sports sedan that’s well put together, looks different, handles great, and is great fun to drive. Yes, I agree, it won’t boast as impressive numbers on the drag strip or at the track as a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Audi. But so what? What this thing lacks in raw performance, it makes up in balance, comfort, and exquisite build quality.
And perhaps most importantly, it just might outlast the other three.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four
Power: 241 HP at 5,800 RPM / 258 lb-ft at 1,650 RPM
Transmission: 8-speed automatic with manual mode
0-60 Time: 6.5 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 139 MPH (governor limited)
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 3,798 pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 22 City / 33 Highway (from EPA)
MSRP: $37,825 base, $41,370 as tested with the F-Sport Package
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com, and does some collaborative writing over at rightfootdown.com.