The Lexus IS sedan is a rather well-assembled vehicle that goes head to head against the likes of the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. When it's not taking on the big German three, you’ll find it also fending off the Infiniti Q50 and to a lesser extent, the Mazda6, Honda Accord and new Volkswagen Passat. It’s a hotly contested segment and despite the positives of the Lexus IS, the wares of the German trio dominate the monthly new vehicle sales figures.
It may be a cliché, but variety is the spice of life and when it comes to model diversity, a comprehensive engine lineup is one of the many reasons why the Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz compact executive sedans sell so well. Lexus, by contrast, had this problem that the IS was only available with a petrol 3.5-litre V6 and for customers who list fuel economy as a priority, it was a drawback. Lest we forget the Lexus IS350 F-Sport, which costs more than R600 000, is expensive.
Enter the new Lexus engine. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that first debuted in the Lexus NX crossover. It has subsequently been rolled out into the IS sedan (tested here), the RC coupe as well as the GS executive sedan. The IS version has received a few tweaks in the exhaust and mapping departments and with engine outputs of 180 kW and 350 Nm on tap, this motor offers credible performance, at least on paper. Downsizing the powerplant has meant the fuel economy figure looks more reasonable and Lexus claims the IS 200t will consume just 7.5L/100km. The Lexus IS 200t is rear-wheel driven and its 8-speed automatic can be operated manually with shift paddles located behind the steering wheel.
Ride quality and on-road refinement are are two traits of Lexus products that we admire greatly. Toyota’s luxury arm clearly spends vast sums of money on product refinement, including build quality. As a result, the intrusion of engine noise into the IS's cabin is kept to a minimum and the cabin is a tranquil and relaxing space in which to enjoy the driving experience.
The engine responds urgently thanks to the twin-scroll turbocharger and the transmission delivers a smooth shift quality. There three driving modes: Sport, Eco and Comfort. Eco tones down the responsiveness of the motor and prioritises economy over power, whereas Sport does completely the opposite. The steering wheel feels pleasingly weighty in your hands and the Lexus IS200t certainly has a sporty edge. While it’s not designed for out and out performance, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a chassis and engine combination that’s willing to deliver some thrills in an otherwise quiet and staid market.
Lexus claims the IS200t will accelerate from standstill to 100 kph in just over 7 seconds and, in reality, it doesn’t feel far off. However, towards the top of the rev range, some of that refinement is lost as the engine sounds a little coarse. Still, despite a hint of performance, the overarching theme is still luxury and refinement, or as Lexus calls it, "business as usual". There are tweaks to the suspension and the revised damping does a great job of flattening the lumps and bumps of our roads.
Lexus traditionally equips its products liberally and the IS200t continues this strategy. Despite the IS200t being the entry-level model, you’re not being shortchanged in any way. There are two trim levels for the Lexus IS200t, E and EX (model tested here). The Lexus IS200t EX is well specced and there are very few options to choose from. Both vehicles ride on 17-inch alloy wheels and even the base model IS200t gets full leather upholstery, with the front seats both cooled and heated.
There’s a 7-inch infotainment screen which displays the satnav data (EX only) and the array of connectivity options is impressive. You get front and rear parking sensors as well. Go for broke and get the EX which includes rain-sensing wipers, a reverse camera and an electrochromatic rear-view mirror too. The list of standard equipment is near endless, best you check out the comparison between the Lexus IS200t and its rivals at the bottom of this article for a full breakdown.
There’s no skimping on safety either as the Lexus IS200t features 10 airbags, ABS with EBD and brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control.
So the IS200t looks rather sharp, with plenty of blade-like designs at the front, but my appreciation of the Lexus's exterior design is subjective. The sedan's nice to drive, its engine strikes a good balance between performance and efficiency and the specification is generous. The rest of the car is impressive in terms of premium finishes and accommodation, even though rear legroom is fair, rather than generous. The boot is capacious at 480L, which is on par with its rivals.
In this segment, however, Lexus's battlefront is not product quality, but brand perception. While there’s very little to fault the Lexus IS200t in terms of product offering and aftersales service/backup, not enough customers regard the Lexus nameplate with the same reverence as they do for those of its German rivals. It just doesn’t scream, “I’ve made it” loud enough.
But, for those that who have seen the light, the Lexus IS200t is a very accomplished product and the addition of a 2.0-litre turbocharged powerplant has undoubtedly broadened the appeal of the Japanese compact executive sedan. Given the market’s shift towards turbocharged downsizing, this vehicle makes a great deal of sense.
The Lexus IS200t range starts at R524 000 for the E, while this IS200t EX tested here retails for R576 000. All Lexus models gain a 4-year/100 000km service plan with intervals every 15 000km.
"The Lexus IS 200t is solidly built and offers a smooth and refined drive, even on poor road surfaces. The 2.0-litre turbo engine delivers good performance and I like the fact that the 200t caters for both conservative and spirited driving. This 200t is comfortable and well sorted to tackle those longer, out-of-town journeys with ease." - Gero Lilleike
We like: Excellent engine, superb ride and refinement, value for money, build quality, legendary Toyota aftersales and back up.
We don’t like: Thirsty when pushed, interior not as modern as rivals
Also consider: BMW 330i, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Honda Accord, Volkswagen Passat.