Lexus IS200t F-Sport: don't judge books by their cover
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Some 14 years ago someone, somewhere in Auckland, arrived at what was then known as Giltrap Lexus, and purchased a silver Lexus IS200. Automatic, inline six, half leather black on black interior.
That original owner looked after it, nurtured it, until he/she and it parted ways. The Lexus then travelled around Auckland through the hands of three more owners until I bought it two months ago.
Buying an old Lexus is a no-brainer. They're reliable, and they also represent lots of luxury for little money. And after a lengthy hiatus, the old girl returned to the dealership it once called home to help me pick up its distant sibling; the 2017 IS200t F-Sport.
Priced at $84,900, it slots in at $10,600 more than the entry-level IS200t, but a full $23,000 less than the six-cylinder IS350 F-Sport.
I've long had a mixed impression of the current IS, mainly because of the way it looks. The Lexus design department's fixation for huge hour-glass grills and creased bodywork remains an acquired taste for most.
But, parked in the heart of Auckland city for our photoshoot, among the shoppers and the warmly lit boutique stores, our IS200t's appearance was a revelation. The way the light peering between the skyscrapers and clouds would bounce off the folds of its red panels, shooting up the car's flanks in burning white, convinced me on the spot. It is a stunning car.
It's hard to tell at first, but the designers have given the IS a facelift, too. Vertical nostrils — that once sat on either side of the large front grille of the old F-Sport — have been neatly integrated inside it. The distinct headlights have been flattened off underneath. And all models now feature a similar aggressive squared-off jawline, although the F-Sport gets extra bling around its corner vents.
Despite the changes making the car look a smidge more reserved across the board, there's still no mistaking its look for anything else -- or, in particular, for being German. A stark contrast from my first-generation IS200, which fell over itself to make every effort it could to look European.
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But, there's a fatal mistake waiting to be made in the midst of the F-Sport's sharp looks; don't assume it's sporty.
Although it carries the same visual confidence as, say, a BMW M3, the IS200t simply isn't a rival for that segment, or indeed for a few of the mildly flavoured spin-offs. And that's something that can either make or break your view on the car; especially for a sedan priced above $80,000.
I'm not saying it's slow. It's not. The 180kW turbocharged 2-litre engine is capable enough to throw you into curves with decent haste. And once you attack those curves, you'll never run out of grip or control, thanks to an unflappable chassis and suspension combination.
However, rarely are any of these shenanigans as fun as they should be. Power comes only after a long delay, even when in manual Sport+ mode and with a particularly heavy foot. Even then the delivery of that power is far from linear. The 8-speed Sports Direct Shift transmission tries its best, but fights a losing battle.
No, to appreciate the F-Sport, you have to look beyond it as a sports sedan and focus on the refinement. It's one of the quietest cars I've driven, particularly in Eco mode. And its controls are exceptionally light and crisp.
It may not stir the depths of one's soul, but that isn't a crime.
Pessimists would label the interior cramped, however I'd prefer the term "fitted". The dash leaps out and wraps around you, forcing you to wear it like a jacket. Four people will fit comfortably, but the fifth has to straddle an enormous transmission tunnel.
Like the exterior, the interior appears supremely Lexus — though I question some of the materials. The cruise-control stalk is exactly the same as the one in my antique IS200, and we counted a mishmash of at least five different shades and textures of silver and grey in here — all of which take away from the premium feel.
The same could be said of the dated Toyota-based infotainment system, made particularly hard to traverse by the "remote touch controller". Although the pad is hated almost universally, I didn't mind it. Once you get your head around how sensitive it is, it's more intuitive to use on the move than a garden-variety touchscreen.
The touchpad is one of several features sure to amuse tech-savvy buyers, along with the swipeable climate controls and the motorised digital gauge cluster. The latter houses controls for some of the IS200t's finer features, including lane departure alert with steering assist and dynamic radar cruise control. Blind spot monitoring, reverse camera, and an optional Mark Levinson sound system are also part of the technology arsenal.
It may not conquer the numbers game as its rivals do; but the IS200t still represents a tough, dependable all-rounder dressed up in a razor-sharp tuxedo.
And 14 years from now, that will still hold true.
2017 Lexus IS200t F-Sport
Pros: Distinctive styling, refinement throughout
Cons: No manual transmission, sterile to drive