1 Mar 1999
THERE is little doubt that the first-generation IS 200 was Toyota’s reply to the 1991-1998 BMW E36 320i.
Both were three-box four-door sedans with a 2.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels with particular attention focussed to a near 50:50 weight distribution.
As a result, at its introduction some described the IS as a four-door Mazda MX-5/Miata sedan, so positive was the reaction to what became the first youth-orientated Lexus.
But, like the derided ES 300, the IS 200 wasn’t actually a ‘true’ Lexus in that it was developed as a compact Toyota for the Japanese home-market (known as the Altezza), until Lexus got into the act and ‘Lexus-fied’ it.
At least the IS was as driver-orientated as the ES was just plain bloated. The company honed the car’s dynamics at Germany’s famed Nürburgring racetrack, and fitted double wishbone all-independent suspension and a quick rack-and-pinion steering rack.
Its 114kW 1988cc six-cylinder engine produced 195Nm, and relied on plenty of revs to reach that top. Luckily then it was a smooth and fuss-free spinner.
The manual gearbox was a lovely metallic-feeling close-ratio six-speed manual, although a less-satisfying four-speed automatic was also made available.
Two equipment grades were introduced – the base and Sport Luxury.
Besides having the former’s dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, climate control air-conditioning, alarm, alloy wheels, body kit, cruise control, fog lights and powered steering/windows and mirrors, the Sport Luxury added side-front airbags, a limited-slip differential on manual cars, larger alloys, sportier trim, velour-like fabric and sports and heated front seats.
Critics cheered and sales soared as the IS 200 showed up the BMW 3 Series/Mercedes C-class and Audi A4 triumvirate up as poor value for money.
About the only criticism levelled at the littlest Lexus was its cabin, which seemed to lack the high levels of quality-feel fittings that higher-echelon models enjoyed.
And it’s no coincidence either that – although the IS was so obviously a Japan copy of a brilliant BMW – the others soon learned from the Lexus by offering palpably better base-model engines and more standard kit.
In August ’01 Lexus released a revised IS line-up, with minor visual changes and more standard equipment, including side-front airbags.
Body rigidity improved, as did the suspension and brakes. New colours, higher-quality trim and better noise and dust sealing were implemented.
The Sports Luxury became the IS 200 Luxury Option, while a 157kW/288Nm 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine model – the IS 300 – also joined the range. The latter only came in a five-speed automatic guise.
The IS 200 became increasingly dated as all rivals switched to newer-generation models in the course of its life, resulting in a gradual sales drop.
But Lexus didn’t rest on its laurels, beginning with a clean sheet of paper and developing a non-Toyota-based IS Mk2 range for release, initially in IS 250 only guise, in November 2005.