Track Time With a Turbocharged Lexus IS200t F Sport
With thunder rumbling in the distance, the clouds suddenly part, and down from the heavens comes a car with a fiery red shell, rear-wheel drive, turbo-powered ferocity, and uninterrupted attitude. Okay, so maybe I’m over-exaggerating a hair, but seriously, after driving the F Sport version of the Lexus IS200t you too will agree that this car is a gift from above as it reclaims its title as a sport sedan after years of being dogged for having an anemic 2.5-liter, naturally-aspirated V6 snoozer.
This new engine may not be the most powerful player on the block, what with its 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, but slap her in “Sport+” and start fiddling with the paddle shifters, and you will awaken a dormant demon that knows how to have one hell of a good time. Borrowing a beefed-up motor and turbo set-up from the NX200t I reviewed back in the spring, the IS200t is the first Lexus sedan to feature forced induction, which means that the Japanese automaker may now compete directly with European car makers, all of which manufacture turbocharged, four-cylinder four-door performers.
So it has a new powerplant, is only available in rear-wheel drive, comes to us with the full F Sport performance package, and has all of the reliability, luxury, and connectivity one could ever want or need in a car. The only question now is, how does it act when the checkered flag flies and the chips are down?
In order to give the IS200t F Sport a fair chance at grabbing our attention on a grid littered with STI Subarus, Cadillac CTS-V sedans, and Challenger Hellcat evildoers, Lexus’s latest stab at turbocharged technology was thrown into “Sport+” mode and taken around Chicago’s Autobahn Country Club’s track at a breakneck pace. To say that it was the fastest car on the course that day would be a mistake. But claiming that it held its own with cars that easily had triple the power, and twice the number of cylinders would be a decidedly accurate statement. Here’s how this surprisingly swift little luxury sedan made it all possible…
Like the NX 200t F Sport, which is a compact crossover that is an absolute blast to drive, the IS200t has the ability to run on either an Otto combustion cycle for power, or the far leaner Atkinson cycle to achieve a 22/33 EPA efficiency rating. Toyota utilizes this uniquely tuned variable valve timing setup in this car, to make both the port and direct-injection work better than ever before in regards to performance and fuel economy, which is a first for the Toyota/Lexus/Scion family. Considerably more powerful than the turbo four-bangers offered in the Audi A4 and the BMW 328i, the only major drawback we found with the IS200t was that it is only available with an eight-speed “autotragic,” and feel that a six-speed manual gearbox should at least be an option when opting for the performance-driven F Sport line.
But the minute you get out on that track, and the turbo spools up, all of these misgivings about the car not having a stick are quickly forgotten. Hitting corner after corner, this mid-size luxury sedan did amazingly well, keeping up with the Dodge Viper in front of it with far less throttle thrashing than expected. Sure, the 600+ horsepower sex machine in front of us pulled harder than a tooth extraction, but in Sport+ mode the IS200t did a great job keeping the revs up so that boost could remain at optimum levels. Plus, in the corners this car was easily one of the biggest winners of the day, owning apexes like no one’s business, and handling just as smoothly as some of the most track tuned cars money can buy.
This unexpected, and utterly appreciated perk was facilitated by the IS200t’s ability to stiffen up when put into a performance, “F Sport setting.” The steering firmed up, the suspension got tighter, throttle response became almost instantaneous, and shift points changed so that the upper echelons of the power band could be utilized, all while the rear diff worked tirelessly to keep the wheels spinning in tandem with one another.
Meanwhile, back in the driver’s seat, there is an overwhelming feeling that it is time for a cup of tea. Regardless of what is going on outside, the fully functional cabin commands an air of aristocracy that can only be overcome by one’s driving style. It may not be the most lavish interior I have ever seen, but this is an F Sport model, so expect a little bolstering, some wild gauge-pod LFA-inspired graphics, along with a healthy smattering of sophisticated, sport-inspired interior trim pieces and a steering wheel that feels race-ready. Just by sitting in the driver’s seat you can tell that Lexus is doing its damnedest to dissolve all of the old notions that they only make heavy, utterly unexciting, cushy cars, and by taking the F Sport approach to everything, this award winning brand is building an army of affordable performance luxury vehicles.
Combining track day capabilities, everyday Toyota reliability, futuristic engine and technological advancements, Lexus-grade cabin quality, and a price point that barely grazes $40,000, the IS200t F Sport is a solid bet for anyone living in a part of America that doesn’t see a lot of snow. This is a car that has single-handedly swept all memory of its lackluster, 2.5-liter predecessor from our minds, and in its place has planted a seed of hope that someday soon Toyota will begin applying this turbocharged approach to sports cars like the RC F we reviewed, thus giving us a long overdue Supra replacement that doesn’t mind rocking some F Sport leather underpants.