Lexus IS200

TURIN - What the new Lexus IS200 needs is another 50 hp. That's not Ward's road testers talking but the official view of Toyota in the USA.

Soon after Toyota Motor Corp. began development of the IS200/Toyota Altezza in 1995, the new model was offered to Toyota's American subsidiary, which quickly excluded it from future plans.

The idea of a compact 150-hp 2.0L sports sedan held little appeal. At the time, the Lexus range included the ES300, then nothing more than a tarted-up 3.0L Camry V-6. Who, the Americans argued, would want a smaller, less-powerful and more expensive sedan from the same stable?

It wasn't until the engineers, rather than the marketing people, explained that their new baby was Toyota's direct rival for the hugely successful BMW 3 series and, therefore, a sharply focused rear-drive sports sedan and not a family car that the U.S. arm started to take any interest.

By the time the subsidiary became convinced that the IS200 would be a valuable addition to the range, it was too late for the U.S. to be included in the spring '99 international launch program.

There is an upside to the delay. The wait enabled the engineers to answer the obvious U.S. criticism of the IS200: the need for more muscle. In Europe, where fuel prices are four times higher than the U.S., the emphasis is on refinement rather than outright performance.

Clearly, an in-line six has breeding advantages over rival 4-cyl. engines of the same capacity and power. But the lack of flexibility and, hence, the frequent need for gear changes worried Toyota's American executives.

Toyota in the U.S. rightly guessed that BMW was about to drop all 4-cyl. engines from its range of 3 series sedans to concentrate on the 2.5L and 2.8L engines. So it's no coincidence that Toyota's 228-hp 3.0L straight-six slots in under the IS200 bonnet without any need for visual change.

The European IS200 uses a much modified (but not brand-new) 6-cyl. previously used in various Toyota Mark II, Chaser and Cresta models from the G-FE family. The altogether different and bigger 2.5L or 3.0L engine also gets variable valve timing and belongs to the JZ-GE range.

We know it as the super-smooth power unit from the still underrated GS300. For the IS300, due to hit U.S. Lexus showrooms in the summer of 2000, Lexus plans a 5-speed automatic (the auto IS200 has 4-speeds only) with pushbutton steering wheel control but no manual version.

That begs the question of whether or not the IS300 will come to Europe next year. Toyota claims not. At least for the moment, meaning let's see how the IS200 performs. And remember, if a high-performance version becomes a necessity, Toyota could add the high-revving 210-hp 2.0L 4-cyl. to the European lineup.

Likewise, rumors of an IS200 coupe are apparently just that. Given the success of the BMW 3 series coupe, that's somewhat surprising, especially because Lexus has been successful selling the gorgeous SC300/400 coupe, effectively a re-bodied LS400, since 1991 in the U.S.

Nevertheless, gossip about an IS200 coupe, said to borrow design cues from the 4-door but with entirely different sheet metal, continue to surface in Japan and the U.S., despite an official denial from Toyota.

Toyota / Lexus
Altezza / IS200
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