1998-2005 Lexus IS

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The expansion of the Lexus range continued in 1998, with the arrival of the IS200. Slotting into the compact executive market, below the GS model (in Europe), and ES (rest of the world), the sporting new four-door was designed to fight established players in the market, such as the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 – but do it in a uniquely Lexus way to strengthen the Japanese marque’s values within the luxury car sector following its birth in 1989.

Development of the XE10-series began in the mid-1990s, and engineering the project was Nobuaki Katayama, who had previously worked on the rear-wheel drive Corolla Levin AE85/86 before moving on to the company’s Le Mans and rallying programmes. When it was launched in Japan in 1998, the first generation IS was known as the Toyota Altezza, and was sold through a chain of dealerships called Toyota Vista Store – Lexus remained exclusively an export brand. It won that year’s Japanese Car of The Year award.

The Lexus IS200 arrived in the UK in 1999, and was initially offered in two-litre saloon form only. It won warm reviews in the press. It was clearly a driver’s car – as you’d expect from Katayama – and to get the best performance the sweet six-cylinder needed to be revved beyond 4500rpm, but the driver could make the most of this, thanks to its precise-shifting six-speed gearbox.

But it was a charismatic addition in a market sector littered with talented cars. For its individual design – especially inside – where the main instruments were designed to look like an upmarket chronograph, it was praised. The sporting driver’s seat gave excellent support in corners, handling was sharp, ride well-damped, and equipment levels, on the SE especially, were high.

In 2001, the range was expanded to include a 3-litre version, known – logically enough – as the IS300. Power rose from 158bhp to 220bhp, and top speed improved from 134 to 144mph. At the same time, the five-door SportCross (Gita in Toyota form) was announced, significantly adding appeal to the range. It was a further addition to the ranks of the lifestyle/crossover estate car market.

The first generation IS remained in production until 2005, and proved a significant milestone in the development of Lexus – proving the marque’s core values could remain intact further down the price scale. In the years following its demise in the UK, the Lexus IS has become a popular choice with younger car enthusiasts, who love its balanced rear-wheel drive handling, and wide tuning options through TRD. In addition, the Yamaha-engined 200bhp four-cylinder RS has proved to be a popular personal import from Japan, despite never being offered for sale officially in the UK.
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