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Future Classic Friday: Lexus IS200

Published 17 May 2019

This year marks the 20thanniversary of one of the car industry’s major icons. The ‘Lexus Light' made its debut in 1999, adorning the back of the IS200, and has gone on to become a byword for aftermarket modifications ever since. 

Featuring clear lenses, chrome backgrounds and coloured inserts, the rear light clusters of the IS200 were certainly distinctive, though they definitely looked more at home on the back of Lexus’s first compact executive car than they did on the rear of a scabby Ford Fiesta with a cherry bomb back box. 

1999 Lexus IS200 (2)

Ironically, then, one of the IS200’s more distinctive features actually cheapened rather than enhanced the brand, a situation not helped by TV’s Alan Partridge trading in his Rover 800 for an IS200 and spending several minutes deliberating on whether the plural of Lexus was ‘Lexuses’ or ‘Lexii’ (he settled on the latter). 

Yet despite all this, the IS was a good car - and an interesting one to boot. It was the company’s smallest model yet, a direct rival to the BMW 3-Series and very similarly packaged. It was rear-wheel-drive, with a longitudinally mounted straight-six up front. The engine was super-smooth and produced 154bhp - not class-leading by any stretch, but enough to give the IS200 a decent turn of pace and effortless cruising capabilities. Manual versions also got a six-speed gearbox when such a thing was still a novelty, which further aided the IS200’s cruising ability. 

1999 Lexus IS200 (3)

It handled like a BMW, too, with excellent balance and well-weighted steering giving it the credentials required to keep company car drivers happy. The only real criticism was the car’s interior, which used a lot of Toyota switchgear and felt cheap compared to its German rivals.

In 2000, the range was expanded to include the IS200 SportCross, an estate model in the vein of the Alfa 156 SportWagon, insofar as it actually had less luggage space than its saloon alternative, but was developed with styling front-of-mind.

1999 Lexus IS200 (4)

By Lexus standards, the IS200 was a great success. While it was comprehensively outsold by the likes of the 3-Series and the Audi A4, it nevertheless more than doubled Lexus’s sales volumes in less than two years, opening the brand up to a whole new area of the market. 

In 2002, the range was expanded further with the introduction of the IS300, with a 3.0-litre 217bhp straight six upfront, giving the Lexus a foothold in the more powerful sector of the compact executive class. It was rapid and smooth, and also brought with it a new five-speed automatic transmission. It further boosted Lexus’s European sales, though volumes in the UK were limited by the fact it fell into the highest benefit-in-kind tax bracket. 

So, 20 years on (and ‘Lexus Lights’ aside), does the IS200 have the credentials to be considered a future classic? 

1999 Lexus IS200 (5)

Yes. There will always be those who look down their noses because it’s a Japanese car and one that comes from a brand with very little heritage or history, but the fact remains that IS200 was a brave, innovative and successful entry into an already crowded marketplace, and one that really helped put Lexus on the map. If future classic potential is judged by a car’s importance to its manufacturer, then the IS200’s place in the history books is without question.

Comments

   2 days ago

The engines and drivetrain on these are bombproof, they are the chav chariot of choice all over Ireland and can regularly be seen performing donuts at many a road junction . The 6 cylinder motor sounds great especially with an exhaust upgrade.
Cheap rwd fun , just a shame about the people that steer them, if you ever visit Donegal in the North West of Ireland you'll understand my point.

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