Lexus IS 200t — An engaging experience

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The redesigned Lexus IS sports sedan — updated in 2014 — has a contemporary exterior, a new stiffer structure making it easier to tune for performance while maintaining a comfortable Lexus-like ride, a longer wheelbase resulting in additional and much-needed passenger space, and a spacious trunk measuring 13.8 cubic feet. Also in the mix is an interior upgrade that blows away most of the competition in the segment. And new feature content for 2016 is impressive.

We have no qualms with the IS 350, which continues with the excellent 3.5-liter V-6 making 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque mated to a very good eight-speed automatic transmission. With the new updated stiffer chassis and a sport-tuned suspension, the compact Lexus sedan can carve up twisting back-roads with the best of them including the BMW 3-Series while at the same time affording the kind of go-fast performance expected of a sports sedan. The IS 350 has been measured from 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds with a quarter mile time of 13.9 seconds at 102 mph.

Our problem with the 2014 and 2015 editions involves the base engine and transmission on the IS 250. Lexus decided with the car's remake to keep the rather meager 2.5-liter 204-horsepower V-6 that makes just 185 pound-feet of torque mated to an old and outdated six-speed automatic — no match for the base engines in such competitors as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Cadillac ATS.

Lexus has finally made things right for 2016. The big news is the old IS 250 is history, replaced with a new and modern direct-injection turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder making 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque at just 1,650 rpm, mated to an eight-speed automatic. Note, it’s the same engine used in the NX 200t crossover. It can accelerate from 0-to-60 in 6.8 seconds and finish off a quarter mile 15.3 seconds at 91 mph. At the same time it will return 22 mpg city, 33 highway and 26 overall.

The 200t may not be a rocketship, but it's a true road carving warrior, immensely fun to drive on the winding back roads, with great balance and road-holding ability while displaying nice heft and feel in the power steering. The IS 200t is one of those cars where you manufacture excuses to drive just to get the chance to jump back in for another jaunt.

There's also good news for people particularly in cold-weather climates who want the IS experience, but need all-wheel drive. Lexus has created a new AWD model labeled the IS 300 motivated by a 3.5-liter V-6 making 255 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. The downside is that it only comes with the six-speed transmission.

The IS 200t with the F Sport package — consisting mostly of exterior styling upgrades and added interior features, but including some performance items such as a sport-tuned suspension, staggered width 18-inch wheels with summer tires if desired, and upgraded brake pads — costs an additional $3,545. The F Sport gets a full-mesh treatment for the spindle grille, a revised front bumper, LED headlights, heated and ventilated front sport seats with enhanced bolstering, a black headliner, perforated leather trim and a special sport-oriented gauge cluster.

We found the interior of the IS 200t one of the most attractive in the luxury ranks with top-notch materials, very comfortable seats, a contemporary dashboard, easy-to-use buttons and knobs, and a neat motorized circular gauge cluster. What we don't like is the touchpad that controls a cursor for various operations including the audio system. It is built-in distracted driving.

Standard safety equipment includes the usual things — a full complement of airbags, antilock brakes with brake assist and traction and stability control. What we have a problem with is making the blind spot monitoring system and rearview camera a $600 option. Those items should be standard in a luxury vehicle.

The IS 200t starts at $38,265 including destination charge with loads of standard equipment including 17-inch wheels, xenon headlights, sunroof, keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone climate control, eight-way power front driver's seat, NuLuxe premium vinyl upholstery, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, eight-inch color display with console-mounted control dial, Siri Eyes Free and an eight-speaker sound system with CD player, HD radio, satellite radio and dual USB ports.

Note that options are desirable, but can be expensive. We've already mentioned the F Sport package. Equally enticing is the navigation system which can be purchased bundled with the ear-pleasing 835-watt, 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system for $2,645. Our test car with options carried a bottom line of $45,195.

Base price: $38,265; as driven, $45195
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 241 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 258 foot-pounds @ 1,650 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Length: 183.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,583 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.4 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 22 city, 26 combined
0-60: 6.8 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW 328, Audi A4, Cadillac ATS

The Good
• Precise steering, excellent handling
• Attractive interior
• Good fuel economy

The Bad
• Blind spot, rearview camera optional

The Ugly
• Remote touchpad distracting