The new Lexus IS 200t F-Sport finally gives Lexus a compelling offering in the entry-level midsize sports sedan market. This car features Lexus’s new turbocharged 2.0L 4-cylinder engine which replaces the dreadful 2.5L V6 of the previous generation. Although this new engine is a huge improvement for the base IS, it still faces tough competition in this highly contested market segment. After spending a week with the new IS200t F-Sport it proved to be a capable entry-level sports sedan with a lot of potential.
The entry level sports sedan market is not about all out performance but focuses on offering a sporty package with an emphasis on style and brand imagine. On this front, the IS200t F-Sport package succeeds against competitors who may offer better performance but lack the style of Lexus’s baby sports sedan. The Lexus IS is a good looking car and the F-sport package adds to its visual appeal with more aggressive front and rear fascia, larger wheels, and other interior accents. The aggressive lines and massive front grill help it stand out from the subdued competition from Germany and America, getting the Lexus more attention from bystanders. The complete F-Sport package gives this IS a perfect low stance without bottoming out or rubbing during normal driving.
The polarizing exterior may divide consumers who dislike the aggressive angels, but when combined with the handsome interior, the Lexus IS 200t F-Sport is the perfect choice for someone looking for a stylish sedan with sporty aspirations. Our test car featured red leather seats which complemented the Silver exterior without overwhelming the eye. These seats were supportive and featured ample bolstering while remaining comfortable for long journeys. The rear seats can fit two full sized adults but the middle seat is unusable due to the high transmission tunnel, which takes up a lot of valuable rear leg room.
Moving on to the second most important touch point. The optional heated F-Sport Steering wheel is a great value at only $150. The thick leather wrapped wheel is a pleasure to use and features controls for all the displays as well as paddle shifters, which work with varying success. Beyond the steering wheel lies some of the best digital gauges I’ve experienced in a car at this price point. These crisp gauges offer ample information without being overwhelming. With the push of a button, the digital tach moves revealing: more screen space, which can show information like GPS instructions, the song you’re listening to, or fuel economy data. The hidden gem of this display lies is a sub menu of the digital display which, exposes of the best stock boost gauges on the market. In an age where automakers try to hide the boosted truth of their new engines, it’s refreshing to see Lexus embracing its new turbo engine.
The interior is not all good news for the IS as the car’s biggest weakness lies right next to the automatic shifter and drive mode selector knob. The 10-inch infotainment screen and its numerous menus are controlled by an awkward joystick which is dangerous to operate while driving making it impossible to access the car’s features. The IS now offers a ton of great digital features but the user interface makes it very difficult to access or enjoy them. Over time you could probably learn how to operate this system, but you could also learn how to like instant coffee and both are pretty terrible.
The new 8AR-FTS 4-cylinder engine is more powerful than the outgoing 2.5L V6 while providing better fuel economy. This engine not only takes the IS into the modern age of sports sedans but it also makes even the base IS a fun car to drive. The responsive 4-cylidner may not have the peak power output of its rivals but its smooth power delivery and willingness to rev make it a pleasure to live with. I found it very difficult to achieve the advertised fuel economy ratings of 32 highway and 25 city but this engine is still a welcome addition to the Lexus family. The engine switches between the Otto and Atkinson combustion cycles and features both port and direct injection to maximize performance and fuel economy. This clever piece of tech didn’t translate into the desired fuel economy but it does make this a very interesting engine with a lot of potential. This engine would do really well in a small lightweight rear wheel drive coupe, if only Toyota made one of those.
The new engine is mated to Lexus’s familiar direct shift 8-speed automatic transmission and only come in rear wheel drive at the moment. If customers would prefer all wheel drive they can opt for the IS350 or the new IS300 which features a detuned version of the IS350’s V6. The 8-speed torque converter is actually quite good and reminds me of the ZF units use throughout the industry. It can easily manage shifts under acceleration and even downshifts freely in “Sport Mode”. This transmission won’t compete with the lightning fast shifts of a dual clutch; however, it is very easy to live with and has proven its reliability in the past.
In an effort to make the IS200t F-Sport feel more like a sports sedan Lexus had to turn to a few digital rouses to evoke the desired feeling. One of the most obvious enhancements lies with the sound of the engine which is enhanced by the sound system. In “Normal” mode, the engine can be heard at all revs but the sound is never intrusive and feels fairly natural. Switch the drive mode to “Sport” and the engine gets noticeably louder and sings all the way to redline with a hint of turbo hiss. I’ve been in numerous cars with electronic sound enhancement and even though I hate the idea of fake engine noises this one sounds quite good. My biggest gripe with the system was revealed when switching to “Eco” mode. Once the car is in “Eco” the sound enhancement system is turned off, clearly letting any owner who pays attention know that this is 100% fake. Luxury sports sedans have always battled with the refinement of a quiet ride, and the addition of pleasing engine noises. The electronic enhancement fixes this but I wish it wasn’t so obvious.
When you add all of these features up you get a very capable sports sedan that is surprisingly fun to drive. The IS200t may not be the choice for enthusiasts who would prefer the more powerful IS350 or faster competitors, but this sports sedan will surprise you. The IS200t offers a great driving experience that wills you to take corners faster and accelerate hard onto highway merges. It may not have show stopping horsepower, but this composed sedan gives you the confidence to drive quickly and have fun while doing it. Although I miss the engagement of a manual gearbox and the immediacy of a naturally aspirated engine, the powertrain in the IS200t is surprisingly good. With the combination of style and a new superb drivetrain, the new IS200t is finally the entry level IS you don’t need to apologize for.