Everyone loves the bragging rights of high-horsepower cars, but a satisfying ride can be more than that. In some cases, a lesser-engined version can feel better-balanced and more rounded out, along with a lower price tag. And that’s what I found with Lexus’ IS entry-level sports sedan.
The IS is a nimble and well-balanced package.
You can get the IS 300 that makes 241 horsepower and costs $42,950, or the IS 350 with 306 ponies on tap and a tag of $53,350. I’ve driven them both, and they certainly earn their keep in the stable, but I prefer the baby of the bunch: the 2017 Lexus IS 200t, which starts at $40,150.
In addition to more power, the 300 and 350 also give you all-wheel drive, while the 200t is strictly rear-wheel. The all-wheelers may hook a little tighter around the corners, and Canadians love that configuration for our nastier-weather months, but the rear-wheel version tips the scales at 70 kilos lighter than its beefier brothers.
The 2017 version is advertised as “new”, but it’s just a facelift over last year’s model, with new front and rear lamps, some tweaked body panels, new bumper, and some interior changes. Pretty it ain’t: Lexus’ fascination with this so-called “spindle” grille still escapes me, and the only thing I can say is that it’s not as bad as on the sport-utes such as the RX, but only because the gaping black hole isn’t as big. Beauty, eye, and beholder, I guess.
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My tester’s sticker was goosed with a $4,800 F Sport Series 1 package, which sounds like it would enhance the greasy bits but is primarily just trim. It adds such items as staggered 18-inch wheels, LFA-style instrument cluster – more on that later, because it’s cool – a skirt package, heated and cooled seats, back-up camera, and blind-spot monitoring. It also adds Active Sound Control, which broadcasts engine sounds into the cabin when activated.
While the 300 and 350 use a naturally aspirated 3.5L V6, the 200t is powered by a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Part of the fun is that it delivers its strength sooner that its siblings. Its 241 horses peak at 5,800 rpm (the V6 needs 6,400 rpm), while its 258 lb-ft of torque kicks in at 4,400 rpm. The V6 models use a six-speed automatic, while the turbo four is hooked to an eight-speed autobox. There are paddles for manual-shift mode, but a true manual transmission isn’t available.
The eight cogs shift a little lazily in Eco or Normal mode, and so I kept it almost exclusively in Sport, which tightens it up. It defaults to Normal mode each time you shut off the ignition, but switching it back shows off the car’s cool function: when you dial in Sport mode, the speedometer moves over to reveal a display that can be toggled to such items as a boost gauge. It’s not a digital trick, but a real analogue gauge that physically slides across the panel.
Lexus has done a great job on the chassis, and the precise handling makes this a slick performer on twisty roads. The steering is a little light on centre, but stiffens progressively on turns, and provides much more feedback than I’ve experienced in some of Lexus’ sportier-style models in the past. The turning circle is extremely tight, too. The ride isn’t quite as taut as in its German competitors, but that also means a smoother and more comfortable trip across nastier pavement. All in all, the IS is a nimble and well-balanced package.
Lexus officially calls this a five-passenger model, and there is a seatbelt for the rear seat’s middle position, but thanks to a tall transmission tunnel that almost reaches to the level of the seat cushions, this is realistically a four-seater. The cabin is tight, and taller occupants will feel a bit cramped inside.
As with the exterior styling, the interior won’t be to all tastes, with a dash that looks built out of curved boxes stacked together. There’s also more hard, plain plastic than you’d expect for the price and the Lexus badge. The controls are generally easy to use, although I’d prefer a temperature dial to the plastic strips that you tap or slide your finger along for hot or cold.
Lexus has packaged the various IS very oddly. Navigation is standard on the IS 350 and can be added to the 300, but it simply isn’t available on the 200t. When I can get an electronic map on a Camry, why can’t I get it on a Lexus? And why do I have to add the F Sport package to the IS 200t before I even get a back-up camera, which is standard equipment on a $15,390 Toyota Yaris?
On the other hand, the 200t isn’t saddled with the premium infotainment system’s accompanying control system, a mouse-like contraption on the centre console that can be infuriatingly hard to use as you try to pinpoint a cursor on the screen in a moving vehicle. Instead, there’s a dial controller. It’s not as quick and simple as a touchscreen, and the whole interface is clunky and cumbersome compared to many, but it beats that awful mouse.
Although you don’t get the fancier stuff, the base model comes with Siri (but not Apple CarPlay or Android Auto), satellite radio, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beams, auto-levelling headlights, and rain-sensing wipers, which can default to regular or variable intermittent if you prefer, as I do.
Overall, though, the IS 200t provides some decent driving fun and a viable alternative to the competition. And don’t automatically go to the high end of the scale; try the bigger-engine models, but give the 200t some time behind the wheel too.
|2017 Lexus IS 200t|
|Engine Displacement: 2.0L|
|Engine Cylinders: I4|
|Peak Horsepower: 241 hp @ 5,800 rpm|
|Peak Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|Fuel Economy: 10.6/7.3/9.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space: 306 L|
|2017 Lexus IS 200t|
|Base Price $40,150|
|A/C Tax $100|
|Destination Fee $2,045|
|Price as Tested $47,745|
|Optional Equipment $5,450 – F Sport Series 1 Package $4,800; Premium Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint $650|