Expansion of the Lexus range continued in 1998 with the arrival of the IS 200. Slotting into the compact executive market below the GS (in Europe), and ES (rest of the world) models, the sporting 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 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-Nineties. Engineering the project was Nobuaki Katayama, who had previously worked on the rear-wheel drive AE85/86 Corolla 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 (Lexus remained exclusively an export brand until July 2005), and was sold through a chain of dealerships called Toyota Vista Store. It won that year’s Japanese Car of The Year award.
The Lexus IS 200 arrived in the UK in 1999, and was initially available only as a two-litre petrol saloon. 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. 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 watch, 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 IS 300. Power rose from 158 to 220bhp, and top speed improved from 134 to 144mph. At the same time, the five-door SportCross (Altezza 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 marked 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-developed 200bhp four-cylinder RS model has proved to be a popular personal import from Japan, despite never being offered for sale officially in the UK.
Building upon the success of the first IS-series, Lexus launched its second-generation version in 2005. And it really was a case of all change, both visually and technically. The new IS was now longer and wider and styled to the new Lexus ‘L-Finesse’ design philosophy, allying it visually to the larger GS and LS models. The use of aluminium in its construction managed to keep the weight gain down to an acceptable 50kg or so, depending on the car – impressive considering the body was also stronger and stiffer.
The mixture of relatively compact dimensions, excellent rear-wheel drive handling, and impeccable build quality marked this out as more of the same – despite the differences. And there were many. In a marketing sense, the XE20 marked an important point in the development of its maker, as it saw the end of the Toyota Altezza – because in Japan, these cars were now sold under the Lexus banner. The XE20 was available with an entry-level four-cylinder power unit (not in the UK); and it would also be the first to be offered with the option of a four-cylinder turbo diesel.
The diversification continued – all straight-sixes were replaced by new direct-injection V6s, ranging in capacity from 2.5- to 3.5-litres (IS 250 to IS 350). Once again, two body-styles were offered – but this time around, the four-door saloon was joined later by a two-door coupe-cabriolet, known as the IS-C.
Once again, the IS majored on delivering a sporting drive, with the bulk-seller in the UK – the IS250 – being a car that thrived on revs to deliver its best performance. This was no hardship, as the engine was both quiet and smooth, and the six-speed gearbox light and positive to use. Like its predecessor, the handling and ride were both excellent – the double-wishbone suspended IS was firm and well-damped, giving the driver plenty of confidence. The XE20 was similarly set-up to deliver sure-footed handling at high-speed, though at the expense of some low-speed smoothness.
In 2007, the 417bhp 5.0-litre V8 powered IS-F was added to the range. The IS-F was pitched directly at established mid-sized super-saloons such as the BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, and Audi RS4. A year later, the coupe-cabriolet IS-250C was unveiled, a notable feature of the new folding-hardtop Lexus being that it maintained much of the saloon’s refinement when the roof was up. The coupe-cabriolet IS was launched to coincide with the 2008 facelift. Development of the car continued throughout its life – so in 2010, the IS 220d was de-tuned (by 25bhp) to become the cleaner, more economical IS 200d, and a number of styling changes were incorporated – as well as the arrival of the popular F-Sport model.