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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.