When Toyota realised that it needed to change its image slightly from the hum-drum and old-reliable if they were going to get into the luxury market, the Lexus brand was the result. While BMW and Mercedes Benz had been the leaders in the market, they had been resting on their laurels, quality was slacking, and they were simply no match for the appeal of a Japanese luxury vehicle backed by legendary reliability.
Of course, if Lexus was to gain any ground, they couldn't do it with just one model. They started attacking on all fronts, from the flagship LS aiming at the Mercedes Benz S-Class to the IS, which was almost a perfect match for the BMW 3-Series. The Lexus IS200 has an athletic stance and lines that never go out of style. It's unique enough to be noticed and fun to drive, but it doesn't come with that bloated price tag.
While the exterior was befitting a conservative take on what a luxury sport sedan could look like, the interior is completely opposite. The cluster is compact and, some say, cramped, which makes it somewhat hard to read, but you'll be paying attention to the curves in the road anyways. The Lexus IS200 compact luxury sedan isn't nearly as cushy as other models in the Lexus line-up. Some may not find the hard plastics in the cabin appealing. The seats are comfortable enough and well-bolstered to keep you from sliding around.
Of course, you need to stay in your seat if you're going to maintain control, so this is an important consideration. The suspension setup is twitchier than a typical sedan, but it doesn't go so far as to be difficult to drive around town. Lexus was smart to put an inline 6-cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission, which did keep things interesting for such a small rear-wheel drive sedan.
If there are any faults to the IS200 design, it was to stick with only 2 litres displacement, which kept fuel consumption average but robbed the vehicle of performance. In this way, the Lexus IS200 is somewhat conflicted, with the twitchiness of a sports car, but lacking the power to put behind it.
The Lexus IS200 is powered by a 2.0L i6 engine with dual overhead cams and variable valve timing, generating 119kW and 200Nm. The small engine did leave a lot to be desired in acceleration, requiring 9.3 seconds in the 0-100km/h rush, and fuel consumption was rated at 9.9L/100km.
The standard 4-speed automatic transmission is nearly as advanced as some today, smooth-shifting and actually more fun to drive than the specifications let on. Sport manual mode is easy to use and kept things interesting on the automatic. The optional 6-speed manual is the more-preferred mode of transportation as it does result in better management of the limited power output of the undersized engine.
The Lexus IS200 came with a host of standard features, including basic climate control, power windows, cruise control, tilt steering, and a 6-disc in-dash changer. In addition, 16-inch alloy wheels and fog lamps were standard. Four-wheel disc brakes were augmented by traction control, brakeforce distribution, and anti-lock brakes. A full set of airbags – front, side, and curtain – also comes standard. Satnav was optionally available, which was unique in that it popped up from the centre console when powered on.
Upgrading to the IS200 SE gave you 17-inch alloy wheels, leather trim, an upgraded speaker system, power and heated front seats, and a power moonroof. The IS200 Sport further added a limited-slip rear differential, sport pedals, a rear spoiler, and tinted rear and second-row glass. The IS200 Sport suspension is also lowered by 15mm when compared to the IS200 or SE.
The BMW 318i isn't quite as sophisticated as the Lexus IS200; the power from the 4-cylinder actually doesn't serve the BMW poorly. The Lexus always outshines on price and reliability though.
The Mercedez Benz C180 is designed well enough but doesn't seem to deliver on all its visual promises. The Lexus IS200 has similar faults but doesn't suffer from the same quality issues as the Mercedes.