When we set afoot in the redesigned Lexus IS compact sedan three years ago, we were generally amazed at how close the Japanese brand came to rivalling the sportiness and refinement of the segment benchmark BMW 3 Series. Especially the IS 350, which had the performance and the handling to match its zesty looks.
Customers responded, and sales almost doubled during the next two years. For 2016, the automaker is trying to keep things fresh and interesting by replacing the IS 250 by a base and a mid-grade trim, the IS 200t and the IS 300.
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By following the naming convention introduced on the NX subcompact crossover, the little “t” in the IS 200t’s name means we’re treated to a turbocharged engine. For the first time, the sedan gets four-cylinder power; this 2.0-litre mill develops 241 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, numbers that line up pretty closely with what most of the competition can muster with similar engines. Sending that muscle to the rear wheels is an eight-speed automatic transmission that emphasises fuel economy above everything else. That is, until we twist the drive mode selector to Sport.
Once that step is accomplished, the 2016 Lexus IS 200t’s throttle response is sharpened and the car becomes more amusing to drive. The 2.0-litre engine is smooth and surprisingly refined for a four-banger, perfectly suited to Lexus’ character. We miss the punch of the IS 350’s extra 65 ponies as well as its soundtrack, but during the daily commute, stuck in traffic, the four-cylinder engine is a rational—if not logical—choice.
It also consumes two litres less fuel every 100 kilometres, and we’re talking super unleaded here, so it isn’t negligible savings. Over the course of our test, we averaged 9.0 L/100 km, which is exactly what Lexus estimated as the combined city/highway rating.
Spicing up the IS 200t’s exterior and interior appearance is an available F SPORT package. The car gets a more aggressive front grille treatment, side skirts and 18-inch alloy wheels (17s are standard), while the cockpit is dressed up for a night on the town with F SPORT steering wheel and shift knob and well as heated and ventilated sport front seats. Lexus also throws in a power sunroof, a TFT driver instrument cluster and rain-sensing wipers. The F SPORT package is definitely worth the $4,000 investment.
Interior fit and finish is what exactly what we expect to find in a Lexus product, and the automaker didn’t cut corners just because it’s one of its entry-level models. There is one exception, though, and that’s the infotainment multifunction knob, which feels unusually plasticky. The system itself isn’t the easiest to use, as browsing through menus is time-consuming and distracting while driving. The system in some other Lexus models is even worse, so let’s not complain too much here.
On the other hand, the grippy, perforated steering wheel and alloy pedals are a nice touch. In the driver instrument panel, the giant tachometer can shift from its centre position to the right side of the cluster in order to leave room for a more comprehensive trip computer. Cool, but ultimately not an essential feature.
The 2016 Lexus IS 200t F SPORT’s front seats are both comfortable and supportive, despite a snugness that’s typical in a compact luxury sedan. Also typical is a cramped back seat, which can accommodate three passengers but is clearly designed for only two. At least the trunk offers a decent volume.
There’s a lot to like about the IS. It feels solid and the brand’s reputation for reliability generally means this car won’t cost a fortune to service and maintain, unlike some of its German competitors. On the other hand, BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer free-of-charge service during the first few years of ownership, so Lexus’ advantage will be felt more in the long term than during a three-year lease period.
At $43,450 as tested before freight and delivery charges, the 2016 Lexus IS 200t F SPORT is a fun to drive little sedan. And yet, it still can’t match that all-so-important prestige factor that’s present many of its rivals. We’ll be a little harsh here, but a loaded Mazda3 GT with all the bells and whistles feels almost as substantial and upscale, straight-line performance notwithstanding.
Sales of the IS are cooling down as the competition is redesigning their models and adding constant improvements and innovations to them. Still, the Lexus IS looks good, it’s built to last and its resale value is very high. Those attributes could be enough to please the average compact luxury sedan buyer, even though it may not be the most exciting car in its segment.