When we look back at the recent history of drivetrain technology in cars, it’s quite fascinating to see how engines, gearboxes and such have been developed by the different carmakers around the world. In Europe the focus was on downsizing the engine and using turbochargers to make up the gap of lost displacement. This process started with diesel engines and then moved on to petrol, so that in modern cars today, you’ve got petrol engines as small as just one litre coming equipped with a reasonably sized turbo to give it the maximum output of a 1.5 litre engine. Drive it normally though and you get the fuel economy of the one litre engine. Go to the other side of the world – Asia – and you find the Japanese manufacturers have worked on pairing an electric motor with a petrol engine to improve efficiency. Toyota had the most success here, starting with the Prius and then expanding to most of the model range. It shared that love with Lexus too, and you can now have a hybrid drivetrain with almost every single model Lexus offers.

This was the divide in ideology for a few years now, but recently, you could say there’s been a reconciliation of ideals, at least that’s how it appears. The European car manufacturers have begun offering more and more plug-in hybrid vehicles in the last year or two, while Japan’s largest car manufacturer has finally made an attempt at a downsizing turbo engine. It was only a few months ago when we read that Toyota’s engineering team had developed a turbocharged two litre petrol engine, and the Group has wasted no time in rapidly rolling out the engine across the Toyota and Lexus ranges around the world.

This brings me to my Drive this week – the Lexus IS 200t. For several years now, the Lexus IS engine choice was pretty simple – get the smaller 2.5 litre V6 to save fuel, or the bigger 3.5 litre V6 if you wanted power. The company then introduced a hybrid option which gave you power somewhere in-between the two while drastically reducing fuel consumption.
But now, the new turbo engine changes everything – it replaces the smaller V6 to actually become the entry-level drivetrain, making the IS a much better car to step into now.

The current generation IS sedan was introduced only a couple of years ago, so Lexus has decided to drop in the new drivetrain and not change anything else. The two litre turbo engine produces 180 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque; it comes mated to an eight speed automatic transmission powering the rear wheels.

I have to say, for the company’s first attempt at a turbo engine, they’ve done a pretty decent job. Engine response off the mark is admirable – it quickly fires up to the 6100 RPM redline and the wide spread of gears makes sure the revs stay up there under full acceleration, making good use of the engine’s torque band and getting you to 100 km/h in around seven seconds. Unfortunately, acceleration when you’re already moving isn’t so impressive. Plant your foot down and the gearbox will find the right gear almost immediately, but then there’s 1-2 seconds of turbo lag before you get to maximum output and fire away. Lexus says it’s using a twin-scroll turbo charger, so the lag is a bit of a mystery and a shame, but still, it’s the company’s first turbo engine, so I can only imagine the next one will be even better.

The gearbox is one of the smoothest and sophisticated in the business. Under normal driving it will shift up as soon as it can to improve fuel economy. If you hit a hill, the gearbox will notice and downshift to give you enough torque to climb up. Put the car in sports mode and the gearbox becomes more responsive when you drive the car harder. It will stay longer in lower gears, blip the throttle on downshifts and execute those downshifts earlier if you’re braking hard from high speed.

One other change in the IS 200t is the introduction of engine idle stop-start – great for saving fuel in heavy traffic or city conditions with a lot of stopping. It’s also intelligent enough not to stop the engine when you have the air conditioning at full power on those hot days.

A quick summary of the model line-up: the IS 200t is available in three variants – Luxury, F Sport and Sports Luxury. Standard features include climate control air, radar cruise control, satellite navigation, bi-xenon headlights, rain sensing wipers and electrically-adjustable steering column. The F Sport adds all the sporty stuff, like adaptive suspension, 18 inch alloys, sports pedals, high friction brake pads and a single gauge digital instrument cluster. The Sports Luxury adds a sunroof, 15 speaker sound system, electric rear sunshade and new-age safety features including automatic high beam, lane departure warning and blind spot monitor.

The IS 200t retails from $57,500 and ranges up to $79,000 for the top model before on-road costs.

In summary, the Lexus IS now has turbo power and it’s pretty decent, especially considering it’s the company’s first attempt at one. If you’re after a Lexus IS but don’t want to spend too much on one, you won’t go wrong with this drivetrain. That’s it for me this week.

10 October 2015
Albert Malik