Lexus IS200 Sport
Conservatively styled IS200 is a surprisingly good driver's car
- High level of mechanical refinement
- Understated styling unlikely to attract unwanted attention
- Chassis' rear-drive layout makes for an enjoyable drive
- Build quality and long-term durability first rate
- Some rear legroom is sacrificed for increased bootspace
- Positioning of off-centre handbrake could be better
- Audible reverse gear warning can be distracting
- Steering wheel's lack of reach adjustment contrasts with generous range of seat adjustment
Conceived as an alternative to traditional German compact executive saloons, Lexus' IS200 followed in the footsteps of the company's illustrious LS model by setting new standards in refinement. Conservatively styled, the IS200 appeals to a more mature demographic and one that doesn't feel the need to behave in a bold or brash manner to seek attention.
It may not have the brand heritage of a BMW 3 Series or the snob appeal of a Mercedes C-Class, but there's a lot to like about Lexus' IS200. As far as compact executive saloons go, the IS200 is something of an underdog. Possessing neither of the aforementioned attributes, class-conscious types find it all to easy to dismiss the car before even turning the key.
To do so is a big mistake, though. By virtue of its conservative looks and critically acclaimed reliability it appeals mainly to buyers of a sensible disposition - but there's more to the IS200 than meets the eye.
On paper the IS200's 153bhp engine lacks the thrust of its Germanic rivals - especially given the absence of a diesel in the range. In reality the unit's willingness to rev and the car's classic rear-wheel drive layout makes the IS200 a surprisingly entertaining car. Especially so in Sport specification, where the car's limited slip differential - a component more likely to be found in a conventional sportscar - affords keen drivers more scope when negotiating corners in an enthusiastic manner.
Even if you don't want to take the IS200 by the scruff of its neck there's much to like about the car. Build quality is up to Lexus' usual high standards, ditto equipment levels. The former should be a given across the executive sector but sadly it is not, making the IS200 feel extra special. As for the latter, the Lexus shows how it should be done. Positively brimming with kit from electric everything to leather on all but the base model, numerous airbags and a superb multi-CD sound system, the asking price is anything but daylight robbery.
Our verdict on the Lexus IS200 Sport
Dig deep beneath the IS200's conservative veneer and you'll find a car that's more than willing to show you a good time on a twisty B-road. The 'baby' Lexus may not boast the most powerful engine range - in fact, the only one is 2.0-litre petrol unit - but the motor is deliciously smooth and eager to spin to its rev limiter. Like any other Lexus the IS200's cabin is a lesson in understatement and build quality, while equipment levels and overall value for money shame its many rivals.
Standard equipment is generous compared to most rivals, making Lexus' smallest offering good value for money if the toy count is important to you. Being a petrol-only fleet, the IS200 can't compete with rivals and their diesel engines, though. Fuel economy and, if you're a company car driver, CO2 emissions could be better, but balanced against the purchase price the overall cost is not that great. Given the company's reputation for building reliable cars, unscheduled trips to the dealership are likely to be a thing of the past. All of which adds up to an attractive package, especially if you're going to be the one paying the servicing bills.
Space and practicality
As far as compact executive saloons go the IS200 is a solid performer. Space up front is good, with there being enough head and shoulder room for two adults to feel comfortable. Rear seat passengers will, predictably, find that there's less room to play with, although anyone of average height and build will still find long trips pleasant enough. The IS200's boot will easily swallow a week's shopping, but odd-shaped items might prove difficult to load through the boot aperture. Elsewhere, the car boasts a decent size glovebox, centre console covered storage box and door bins. Conveniently, the dash-top space for the optional sat-nav also doubles as a covered cubbyhole if you don't opt for the guidance system.
Controls and display
Despite its reserved image, the IS200 hides a secret: a rather outlandish instrument cluster. Modelled on those fancy analogue sports watches with the intricate rotating bezels, the design of the IS200's speedometer, rev counter and assorted minor gauges is the car's one and only nod to the youth market. Normal service resumes with the very sensible rotary controls for ventilation and the driver's door console housing the master electric window switches. Quality-wise everything works with an almost Germanic feel. There are a few minor niggles though, such as the handbrake, which is positioned closer to the front passenger than the driver, and the electric mirror switch, which is partly obscured by the steering wheel.
For a car that's pitched at the sportier end of the compact executive market, the IS200 is surprisingly supple and delivers a measured ride on less than perfect road surfaces. Even the more focussed Sport variant does a good job of dealing with patchy Tarmac. Inside, the car's front seats offer good levels of general support, although more lateral support would be appreciated when driving enthusiastically on twisty roads. That said, on long journeys it's hard to find fault with either the seats, the range of adjustment available or the overall amount of space in the cabin. And it's on long trips that the car's underlying level of mechanical refinement is most apparent; engine noise at motorway cruise speeds is low, ditto tyre noise.
Lexus has a knack for building desirable cars but also ones that are very good at resisting unauthorised access, as numerous consumer reports have proven. The IS200 comes with a Thatcham-approved alarm to compliment the factory fitted immobiliser and remote central locking. As you would expect, the car's alloy wheels come with locking nuts and the audio unit is unique to the IS200 and won't work in a different car.
Just like with the IS200's long list of standard equipment, Lexus has chosen not to scrimp with the safety kit. Across the range, twin front, side and curtain airbags come as standard. And while not exactly the perfect family car, Isofix child seat mounting points are also present. Active safety measures run to the expected ABS plus electronic brakeforce distribution (EBA) and brake assist (BA). There's also a switchable traction control system, which proves its worth in slippery conditions but never feels abrupt - a good thing if you're keen driver.
Although boasting the same layout as the all-conquering 3 Series (front, longitudinal engine and rear-wheel drive), the IS200 boasts a more forgiving ride and a better gearshift - the Sport specification includes a racecar-like short-throw shift. On the road the IS200 is a willing performer; the steering is accurate and responsive and the car changes direction with a surprising eagerness. Opt for the Sport variant and grip and cornering is enhanced by a limited slip differential plus lowered rear suspension. And despite only being available with a modest 2.0-litre petrol engine, performance can be more than brisk if you're willing to rev the unit hard and change gear regularly - no chore when mechanical refinement is so good.
Family car appeal
While not a car that you'd immediately think was suitable for a growing family, the IS200 is a capable and accommodating saloon. Granted, a compact MPV is more appropriate, but young children will easily fit in the back of the Lexus and its boot will easily swallow shopping or pushchairs. Lanky teenagers will probably complain about the car's modest rear legroom, and the cubbyhole count is modest compared to a people carrier. Also, you might want to protect the leather upholstery on selected models from unsympathetic toddlers.
First car appeal
The IS200 is hardly an ideal car for the first time driver; running costs for a novice are unlikely to be cheap - especially insurance. Performance-wise the IS200 is a brisk car, and its rear-wheel drive layout could surprise a few lead-footed drivers. That said, it's an easy car to park and drive at sensible speeds - if you've got the money to purchase and run it.
Quality and image
As a brand - it's the luxury arm of Toyota - Lexus has achieved more than certain long established car makers in a fraction of the time. Consistently winning customer satisfaction awards, Lexus products also do well in security tests and boast high levels of mechanical and interior build quality. In an environment where BMW's 3 Series is the dominant car, people who don't subscribe to BMW's overtly driver-centric brand values often view the IS200 as the intelligent alternative.
Front seat occupants fare reasonably well with the IS200; access is good but it's worth noting that the car's doors don't open as wide as you'd expect. Given the Lexus' compact nature, rear seat passengers inevitably have to pass through a smaller aperture to gain access to the cabin. Old or infirm passengers will feel the pinch the most, however most people shouldn't find it a significant inconvenience. Access to the IS200's boot is via a remote release lever in the cabin or a button on the keyfob. The overall loadspace is surprisingly practical and spacious for a car of this size, with little in the way of wheel arch intrusion.
Stereo and ICE (In car entertainment)
Lexus has never been known to skimp on audio equipment, and the IS200 is no different. All models get an impressive sounding combined radio and six-CD in-dash changer. Located centrally in the fascia, the unit sports a clear display, large buttons and rotary controllers. Only steering wheel-mounted controls are missing from an otherwise comprehensive range of features. And although a sizeable cost option, Lexus' 'Navigator' satellite navigation system is worth considering if you cover a lot of unfamiliar miles. The DVD-based unit includes a centrally mounted display that pops up out of the fascia - ideal when you want to keep your eyes on the road.
Colours and trim
Predictably for a car in the executive, image-conscious sector, metallic paint is a must to insure solid future residual values and create a heightened level of desirability. Dark colours reflect the car's reserved personality. Of the three trim levels only the base models comes with cloth seats, with the SE and Sport trimmed in leather. Anyone with an eye on future durability should pick the black option over beige. Choosing the former will make the cabin feel a little dark, though, as the beige package includes an attractive dual-tone fascia design.
Slotting the IS200 into a parking space is relatively straightforward, although the inclusion of parking sensors as standard would make life considerably easier. As it is, once you're familiar with the car's high boot line, reversing isn't that difficult. The power steering's considerable assistance helps, as does the smooth throttle and easy to modulate clutch. The only tiresome aspect of parking is a rather vocal and distracting alarm, which serves only to inform you that you've just selected reverse gear.
Regular size spare fitted as standard.
One engine option - 2.0-litre, six-cylinder (153bhp) petrol. Standard fit is a six-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed auto is a cost option. Three trim levels make up the range; IS200, IS200 SE and IS200 Sport. Latter adds a short-throw gearlever, lowered rear suspension and a limited slip differential.
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Saab 9-3 Sports Saloon Left-field alternative is good value, but lacks the competition's prestige aura