2016 Lexus IS 200t
2.0-liter turbocharged, DOHC I-4, direct injection, CVVT, (241 horsepower @ 5,800 rpm; 258 lbs-ft @ 1,650-4,400 rpm)
22 city/32 highway/26 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
24.6 (Observed, MPG)
Base Price: $38,275*
As Tested: $45,065*
* Prices include $950 destination charge.
Lexus has tended to prefer conservative design in almost every aspect of product development. Words like reliable and dependable usually spring to mind before sporty or exciting.
Yet, the brand has been trying to change that over the last few years with love-it-or-hate-it designs; in particular, Lexus’ new “Predator mouth.” The changes aren’t simply skin deep. The current-generation IS sedan also stepped outside the luxury brand’s comfort zone with sharp handling and a focus on dynamics. Of course, this is Lexus we’re talking about, so this change in a more aggressive direction is happening at, you guessed it, a conservative pace.
Now in its third year of production, the third-generation IS isn’t getting a refresh like we’d typically see in from ze Germans. Instead, Lexus has decided to focus its attention under the hood with a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a de-tuned V-6 for mid-level shoppers.
Can a refreshed drivetrain help the IS stand out in a crowded segment? Let’s find out.
With a swoopy side profile and the ginormous (and thankfully optional) F-sport grille, the IS continues to be the most expressive option in the small luxury segment. Although the style isn’t my cup of tea, I have to admit that polarizing designs elicit more emotion from those that love the look. (Believe it or not, there are some that love it.) For me, the Cadillac ATS’ angular design is the most attractive in the segment, followed by the new Mercedes C-Class at number two. I just haven’t warmed up to the Lexus daytime running lamps, which are now divorced from the headlamps and have their own cut-out in the bumper cover. Lexus says they are styled after the Lexus “L” but they just look like Nike “Swooshes” to my eye.
Front seat comfort proved excellent during my week, easily besting the base seats in the Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac and BMW. However, the Infiniti Q50 and Volvo S60 are more more comfy in base models. When it comes to upper-level trims, the IS lags the Germans: Lexus still doesn’t offer four-way lumbar support, articulating seat backs or extending thigh cushions. Rear legroom had been a long-time IS shortcoming and, although the IS was stretched considerably back in 2013, the Q50, A4 and 3-Series all provide more room for folks in the rear.
The interior styling of the IS is a departure from the sedate dashboards seen in the European sedans. Parts quality is largely comparable to the big players in the segment, but the bulky dashboard and heavily styled interior panels produce a more cockpit-like feel versus an open and airy cabin. The 7-inch LCD instrument cluster in F-Sport models is an interesting touch in this segment, but it’s not as exciting as the 12-inch units that are becoming more common.
Although I couldn’t find a single example on a dealer’s lot, the base IS 200t with no options is the only way you can escape the infamous Lexus Remote Touch joystick. All other models use a small controller with haptic feedback to control a software interface originally designed for use with a touchscreen LCD. I find the controller requires far more concentration and “eyes-off-the-road” time when compared to a rotary controller a la Audi MMI. Regardless of the input method, all IS models get a 7-inch color LCD positioned far away from the driver. The distance from the driver and the large plastic bezel conspire to make the screen look much smaller than it is. The problem is further compounded by the screen actually being smaller than the up-level systems in the competition.
Twenty-fourteen brought mild software updates to infotainment software: HD Radio support and traffic information via HD radio so you don’t need an XM subscription to get a color-coded traffic map. Despite the updates, however, the software’s interface seems behind the times in terms of style and method of input. On the bright side, the Lexus touchpad interface we see in the NX has not made a cameo in this cabin.
Obviously, the reason we borrowed the IS was to sample the all-new 2-liter turbo. This is essentially the same engine we first saw in the NX 200t, but rotated 90 degrees and mated to an eight-speed transmission. The rotation and freer breathing bumps power to 241 horsepower while torque remains the same at 258 lbs-ft. Lexus uses a variable valve timing system that allows the engine to switch between Otto and Atkinson cycles in order to maximize efficiency. A unique injection system that combines port and direct injection and is also featured on the 200t. According to the EPA, the new drivetrain delivers 26 combined mpg, which is two better than the IS 250, but still two shy of the BMW 320i and three behind the Volvo S60.
The new turbo engine and all-wheel drive are mutually exclusive for reasons I don’t quite understand. Instead of a turbo AWD model with an 8-speed auto like we had hoped for, Lexus created a new, mid-level model called the IS 300 AWD using a de-tuned 3.5-liter V-6 making 255 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. The IS 300 makes do with ye olde six-speed, but Lexus will sell you an IS 300 AWD F-Sport to soften the blow.
The last time I sampled the old IS 250, I noted that it was by far the smoothest entry level powerplant in America, even while the engine didn’t have the same level of grunt found in the competition. As I said then: Sadly refinement isn’t what propels you to 60, so when the light turns green you’ll have a whisper quiet view of the competition’s rear bumper. This is in theory why the IS 200t was created. But there is a problem.
On paper, 241 horsepower sent through an 8-speed automatic to the rear wheels and pitted against 3,583 pounds of curb weight shouldn’t be much slower than the 240 horsepower, 3,370 pound BMW 328i. Unfortunately, we don’t drive cars on paper. In the real world, the IS 200t is a full 1.1 seconds slower to 60. We lose the first 7/10ths before either car hits 30 miles per hour. This is due to a few factors.
The effective first gear ratio of 14.8:1 in the IS 200t is essentially the same as the 14.4:1 in the 328i, but BMW’s 2-liter turbo produces maximum torque across a rev range 30-percent broader than the Lexus turbo mill, and ZF’s eight-speed has a lower second gear. Between 30 and 60 mph, the BMW gains an additional 4/10ths on the Lexus thanks to the broader powerband and the fact that BMW’s small engine likely puts out more than 240 ponies.
While the IS 200t’s acceleration is a notable improvement over the IS 250, it’s a very conservative improvement. These numbers also mean that the 200t more directly competes with the 180 horsepower BMW 320i, which accomplished the same task 3/10ths of a second slower than the Lexus yet withdraws four-thousand fewer dollars from your bank account.
Fuel economy is another area where paper and reality are at odds. According to the EPA, the 2016 IS 200t scores two miles per gallon better than the 2015 IS 250 on the combined cycle. In my tests, though, the two were essentially the same. The 2014 IS 250 beat the EPA score by two miles per gallon while the IS 200t fell just shy of the 26 mpg total.
Throw the IS 200t into a corner and it starts to redeem itself. Every system in the small sedan feels like a team player. The eight-speed auto is a willing dance partner and has been programmed to hold gears in manual mode even if you apply full throttle. While the IS still isn’t the hardcore, corner-carving machine you’ll find in the ATS 2.0T, the Lexus simply feels more harmonious and balanced on the road. The suspension tune in the F-Sport is firm but not punishing, the steering is precise and well weighted. On the down side, Lexus doesn’t give the F-Sport version of the 200t the variable ratio steering or the adaptive suspension that the F-Sport package includes with the 350. The variable steering can be an acquired taste, but it allows the IS to feel more responsive at low speeds while eliminating the “twitchy” feeling that some sport sedans have on the highway.
Push the Lexus hard in a corner and the tires give way in a predictable and neutral manner. Do the same in the current 3-series and you’ll be surprised with more understeer and body roll than in the Lexus. While the previous 3-Series was precise and engaging, BMW has lately realized that a softer ride and bigger back seat help move more metal. Meanwhile, the Audi A4 and Volvo S60 plow like a John Deere when they encounter a kink in the road.
As acceleration, precision and poise don’t always get you around a track faster, and because most of the competition’s 2-liter turbos accelerate notably faster, they are likely to beat the IS 200t on anything but a very small, tight track.
The handling ability and Lexus’ well-deserved reputation for dependability, reliability and low maintenance costs are strong selling points, regardless of the slow acceleration. In the past, another strong selling point of the IS sedan was a low MSRP with the old IS 250 undercutting the BMW 320i by nearly $2,000.
Pricing in the 2016 IS is a complicated affair. Things start at $37,325 for a base 200t and $40,870 for a base 200t F-Sport. While Lexus does include $3,300 more standard equipment than you’ll find in a base 3-Series, the optics are that the BMW starts $4,175 lower. Since the Lexus is faster than the 320i, the approximately $900 delta between similarly configured models is a reasonable amount to pay, but Lexus should know that low MSRPs get more feet in the door. The other problem with the pricing scheme is that the BMW 328i is just $1,000 more than the IS 200t despite performing more like the IS 300.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Lexus (I credit a 1993 Lexus LS 400 for sparking my interest in cars) but the IS 200t failed to stand out in this crowded segment. Handling dynamics — like reliability and safety — just don’t seem to excite the shopping public anymore, making the trouble spots in the IS like infotainment and acceleration more glaring. While I have little doubt that the conservative design ethos at Lexus will make the IS 200t one of the most reliable and lowest cost-to-own turbo luxury sedans, that restraint leaves me longing for the turbo IS that could have been. (Note to Lexus: please, please, please twin-turbo the 3.5-liter V-6, pronto.) Until Lexus injects some of the passion that spawned the enormous F-Sport grille in the picture above into their drivetrain R&D department, even this new IS is destined to play third fiddle.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested:
0-30 mph: 2.8 seconds
0-60 mpg: 6.8 seconds
1/4 mile: 14.9 seconds @ 96 mph