Toyota Altezza / Lexus IS200

BMW 02 Series and 3 Series are one of the miracles in motor history. They proved there are millions of keen drivers that would pay premium price and sacrifice a little bit passenger comfort for a sedan with superb handling and performance. For thirty years, BMW dominated this market segment without any serious challenge. As the market is expanding, Audi A4 and Alfa Romeo entered the market, both with great success. Toyota, which has already created the 5-Series-challenging GS400, also wants to have a slice in this market. 

If you are European or American, you need to do 100% to win people's heart. If you are Asian, you need to achieve 120% of what the European done in order to win their respect. That's what Toyota's engineers thought. Therefore, from the beginning they chose the most ideal mechanical configuration for their 3-Series challenger : rear-wheel-drive and all double wishbones suspensions. 

They know their suspension tuning used to be criticized by the Western media as too soft, steering used to be criticized as too light and lifeless, so they spent extra time to test and tune the car in Germany. After that, they decided to equip the car with sports car-style 17 inches wheels with 45% aspect ratio, a first in this class of car. Besides, 6 speed manual and 5 speed adaptive automatic were employed for enhancing driving pleasure. 

In terms of engine, they thought they have nothing to worry about. From the existing range, they picked up Celica and MR2's 2-litres four, upgraded with double VVT-i (at both inlet and exhaust valves) and titanium valves. Accompany with 11.5 : 1 high compression ratio, this high-revving unit output 210ps at 7600rpm and 160lbft at 6400rpm. 

So, this becomes the Altezza, the Japanese Car of the Year 1999. According to the local magazines which have tested it, Altezza has the handling to overshadow the latest BMW 3-Series E46. Steering is neutral and sensitive, body control and grip are extremely good. 

Supra has good handling and performance, but it was criticized as lack of character. Altezza avoid this by deliberately making a beautiful exhaust note. 

However, comparing with BMW 323i, 328i and Alfa 156 V6, Altezza's inline-4 feels lack of power. Forget the 210ps rating, the lack of capacity result in the lack of torque and a relatively peaky torque curve. Road testers felt unable to exploit the potential of the chassis. 

Altezza / IS200 is rather small compare with the 3-Series. It is 71mm shorter, 19mm narrower and 5mm lower. Wheelbase is 55mm shorter. Although the rectangular shape seems to benefit interior room, it isn't. 6 feet high rear passengers will find their heads touching the roof as in the 3 Series. However, rear leg room is marginally better.

Toyota's stylists intentionally create a very aggressive interior. Undoubtedly, the highlight is 4-in-one chronograhic dial, which is probably inspired by Casio's G-shock watch. What a pity the packaging is awful. You'll see cheaper grade of plastic than rivals and sub-standard build quality for a Lexus. The seats looks unattractive and feels not very comfortable, mostly because of lacking lumbar adjustment and short in the squab. Steering wheel is not adjustable in reach thus deteriorate the otherwise good driving position.

The exterior looks even worse. This is the ugliest car I have seen in the whole 1998. Although recently I see this car twice a day averagely, I still can't accept its look.

Lexus IS200

A cheaper version was developed for both domestic and overseas market. For overseas market, it is badged as Lexus IS200. It is powered by a 2-litre straight 6 modified from the Mark II sedan, with inlet-bounded VVT-i. Lower compression ratio (10.0:1) suits the inferior fuel in overseas. Its output is very much lower : 153hp, although the 144lbft / 4400rpm makes acceleration less different. 

It is not provided with the 5 speed automatic. People who need auto have to put up with the slow 4A. However, IS200 has a flat undertray to improve the coefficient of drag from 0.29 to 0.28. It should benefit high speed cruising on Germany's autobahn.

Road test impression

2 UK publications tested the IS200 and reported great impression. Both describe it handles very good on smooth surface. Steering feels very communicative in action, quick and more accurate than 3-Series. Nevertheless, power steering offers an abundance of assistance during parking. The chassis and well tuned suspensions feels alive in bends, body control precisely and tightly thanks to the grippy 215 tyres. However, when arriving limit, steering feel fade out as the camber change (due to body roll) makes the thin, 45% aspect ratio tyres riding on their outside edge. In this respect, BMW 3 Series and Alfa 156 deal better with cornering limit.

In terms of ride, Lexus IS200 is a little bit bias towards hard for some people but just perfect for keen drivers. Even our civilised local magazines regard its ride comfort as acceptable.

As predicted, performance is the weakest sector of the baby Lexus, at least until the arrival of IS300. Against the clock, it took a full 9 seconds to complete 0-60mph. 0-100mph of 25.8sec is no better. Not just the figures prove that, in fact the driver always feel the engine lack of flexibility and punch to keep up with BMW 323i (0-60 in 7.6sec) and even Alfa 156 2.0TS (8.1sec). It just edge out the four cylinder 318i.

Luckily, the short-throw, close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox keeps the driver involving. The lovely exhaust noise also enhance excitement.

On a typical rough B-road, IS200 started to show its shortness in damping and body control, also shows some high speed float. Steering feel deteriorates as speed increases. Now I know why the European IS200 has added with the flat undertray : because the engineers experienced high speed stability problem during its test in Germany. They thought they've solved the problem by the addition of flat bottom thus the reduction of lift, but on rough British roads it is another matter.

The above report was last updated on 2 May 99. All Rights Reserved.

Lexus IS300 versus BMW 330i

The so-called 3-series segment is getting excited now. Lexus has already shipped IS300 to the USA. Unlike the IS200, it should have abundance of power to beat the benchmark BMW 328i. That’s a total of 215 horsepower and 218 lbft of torque, coming from the Supra-derived 24-valve straight six displacing 2997 c.c., aided with VVT-i continuously variable valve timing. It’s virtually the same as GS300 and Crown’s power plants too. 

Don’t celebrate too early. BMW is introducing a 3.0-litre straight six into the 3-series as well. This engine will replace the 2.8 unit in all BMW models. It retains the basic construction of the current 2.5 and 2.8 unit, that means all aluminium construction and Double Vanos VVT. The extra displacement boost power and torque to 231 hp (DIN) and 221 lbft (DIN) respectively. In SAE scale, it is 225 hp and 214 lbft. So the new 330i will be at least as quick as the IS300.

In terms of eagerness, sound quality or refinement, unless the new BMW 3.0 is worse than the 2.8 (very unlikely), it won’t have problem to beat the Lexus counterpart. In fact, BMW’s 2.5 and 2.8 have been one of the Ward’s 10 best engines since their debut, while Lexus’s straight six never won this title. The differences are small, but enough to distinguish.

The IS200 was already praised as a good driver’s car, better than any Japanese sedan ever achieved. However, giving the bigger engine burdening the nose, handling is inevitably compromised a bit. Although Lexus claimed the center of engine is located 55 mm behind the front axle, this also implies that nearly half of the engine is hanging in front of the axle. Most important, unlike BMW, it has heavy cast iron block. Toyota has yet to develop an all-alloy in-line six.

According to early road test impression, extra weight at the front results in poorer handling. At modest drive, it behaves as sporty and communicative as the IS200. Under pressure, the IS300 has quite a lot of understeer. 
Steering feel is deteriorated. Damping on rough roads isn’t as good too.

In contrast, the marvellous 3-series never has such problems. Basically, there is no difference in handling can be felt among 318i, 323i and 328i. What separate them is just the wheel and tyre, which give the pricier models a positive edge. Therefore we can predict the 330i will handle better than IS300.

Lexus loses another battle in the drive train. Unlike BMW, it doesn’t offer a manual transmission for the IS300, at least for the first year. It’s a big disappointment, as the IS200’s 6-speed manual shift so sweet. There’s rumours saying the IS200’s unit cannot handle the extra torque from the new engine. So far, the most demanding application of that gearbox is used in Nissan Silvia turbo, which handles 203 lbft of torque, still not matching the IS300’s 218 lbft. Another feasible gearbox is Supra’s 6-speeder, which always mate to this 2JZ-GE engine. However, a Japanese tuner has already proved that it doesn’t fit neatly into the Altezza (that is, Japanese IS200). It requires the shifter lever to be relocated several centimetres rearward. Moreover, it doesn’t shift as slick as the IS200’s. 

Toyota is now trying to fix that, so in the first year only a 5-speed automatic will be offered. It is already optional in Altezza and standard in GS400, with E-shift manual override via the buttons on the spokes of steering wheel. Nice auto, but it’s hard to convince that a driver’s car shift by itself. Performance is also harmed - Lexus claimed a top speed of 143 mph and 0-60 mph in 7.1 seconds, no match with BMW’s claim for the 330i, that is, 155 mph and 0-62 in 6.5 sec. 

Weight also plays an important role in performance. At 1483 kg, the IS300 has lost any advantage over BMW.

Oddly, American Lexus offer 205/55R16 tyres as standard for the most powerful IS, with 215/45ZR17 as option. European IS300 will offer the 17-in as standard, just like the IS200.

As usual, there is price advantage for the Lexus. I expect 5-10% over the BMW 330i with equivalent equipment. That doesn’t mean Toyota can make the IS cheaper, it is just BMW can enjoy higher profit margin because it is still the benchmark.

The above report was last updated on 30 Apr 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Toyota Progres

Progres could be said as the forerunner of Altezza. It was launched half a year earlier than the latter, but unlike its sister, sales is bounded in Japan. While the Altezza represents a new idea, the Progres conforms to the traditional value. Although based on the same rear-wheel-drive platform, its wheelbase has an extra 110mm to provide the amount of cabin space that a luxurious sedan deserve. Similarly, the overall length is 100mm longer than Altezza, while the 1700mm width is 20mm short of its sister, once again prove that it is not designed for ultimate driving excitement.

Engines come from Mk II and Supra etc., model NC250 gets a 2.5 litres VVT-i straight six, rated at 200ps and 185lbft. NC300 is powered by Supra's 3.0 litres VVT-i straight six, capable of 215hp and 217lbft. Rumour said the 2.5 unit may eventually share with IS200 in order to compete with BMW 323i.

The above report was last updated on 3 May 99. All Rights Reserved.

Toyota Brevis

Toyota Brevis is the twins sister of Progres, hence an enlarged Lexus IS. Unlike Progres, the new Brevis aims at younger customers and compete directly with imports like BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class. Basically, the chassis and powertrains are identical to Progres. What makes it more appealing is a (relatively) handsome exterior styling and a beautifully trimmed interior. The stylish center console houses a LCD monitor and an alloy-effect sound system consists of on-dash CD changer, DVD and MD, with 7 speakers on top model. Besides, like Ford Taurus, it provides power pedals which can adjust across a range of 70mm to suit drivers of different height. Better than Taurus, the position of pedal, steering wheel and driver’s seat are memorised. 

Brevis rides on the same rear-drive platform as Lexus IS, with wheelbase extended to 2780 mm to better all its European rivals. In terms of size and weight, it stand between a BMW 3-series and 5-series, so cabin space is plenty. However, dynamically speaking it can hardly match the European rivals (that role is left for Lexus to fulfill), although rides on double-wishbones suspensions. Suspension is set softer than the Lexus, steering is less direct, and its 1550 kg kerb weight also hurt handling agility.

There are two choices of power plant: 2.5-litre or 3.0-litre straight-six, pumping out 200 hp and 220 hp respectively. Both are equipped with VVT-i and D-4 direct injection. In contrast, there is only 1 transmission available - 5-speed ECT automatic without Tiptronic-style manual override, the same one as IS300. 

Of course, Brevis is bounded in domestic market.

The above report was last updated on 27 Aug 2001. All Rights Reserved.


Lexus IS200
Toyota Altezza RS200
Lexus IS300
Front-engined, Rwd
Front-engined, Rwd
Front-engined, Rwd
L / W / H / WB: 4400 / 1720 / 1410 / 2670 mm
Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT.
Inline-6, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT
1988 c.c.
1998 c.c.
2997 c.c.
153 hp (DIN)
210 ps (JIS)
215 hp (SAE)
144 lbft (DIN)
160 lbft (JIS)
218 lbft (SAE)
5A with manual mode
All: double wishbones
215/45 ZR17
215/45 ZR17
215/45 ZR17 (option)
1435 kg
1360 kg
1483 kg
Top speed
137 mph*
143 mph (estimated)
143 mph (claimed)
0-60 mph
9.0 sec*
7.7 sec (estimated)
7.5 sec**
0-100 mph
25.8 sec*
19.5 sec**
* Tested by Autocar
** Tested by Road & Track

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