To buy one of these you’d need rocks in your head…

Posted on February 26th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Palaeontologist Richard Fortey makes the point that the apparent inevitability of the demise of the dinosaurs is a purely retrospective analysis – there was nothing in their evolution that predestined them for death. So to use the word dinosaur to portray outdatedness is to completely misread history.

Sorry Richard, but I can find no better term to express it: the Lexus IS200 is a dinosaur. There may not be a single cataclysmic event that will end its tenure on Earth, but its evolutionary path is finished… if it ever existed.

It’s been a while since I drove an IS200 (see New Car Test – Lexus IS200 Limited Edition) and in the five years since, my memory had dimmed a little. But getting back into the car – this one an auto trans Sports Luxury model – brought it all back. In spades. On nearly all criteria of judgement, this is a pitiful car. Why anyone would be willing to hand over the AUD$57,900 (plus ORC!) is completely beyond me. So, on what criteria, then?

Well, take interior space. All cars have to carry things around – they provide transport of goods and people. The IS200 might have four doors, but the rears may as well be welded shut. In the back there’s barely space for a small child – and no way could any normally-sized adult fit in there. And things aren’t much better up front. I’m average in height but my head was brushing the underside of the sunroof cover… with the seat at its lowest position. With the wide rear-wheel drive transmission tunnel gobbling cabin space, there’s no room for the left driver’s leg and the door is close and its sill high. Nearly any other small car on the road has more interior space – or more that is usable, anyway. Try a Honda Jazz, a Mazda 2, a Barina… the list goes on.

OK, so the space utilisation is a design lesson in how not to do it. What about performance? Ahhh, performance…..well, this car doesn’t have any.

The IS200 I was driving had low kilometres on the odometer and the air con was on. But, launched at full throttle, it managed 0-100 km/h in 13.3 seconds…. Yes, you read that right, this near AUD$58,000 car is amongst the slowest on the road. But it gets worse. In use, it feels even more like a snail. In the first few metres away from a standstill, the electronic throttle (which probably causes the blade to snap fully open) gives adequate urge, but then the six cylinder engine falls into a torque hole that extends from idle to about 4000 rpm. From 4000-6000 rpm it picks up a little, but even there it feels like the ancient Toyota 1G engine it is. (Surely Toyota must have amortized the design and development costs back in 1990 or so?)

The other day I sold my 1988 Crown, which also has a 1G 2-litre six cylinder. But the old Crown uses a supercharged version of the engine, and even without the variable cam timing of the IS200, feels so much stronger on the road. Oh yes, and I sold the Crown for $1600….

Coupled to a 4-speed auto (just like the Crown…), this is a driveline in search of torque. The trans changes down, the engine revs hard – and the IS200 slowly locomotes forward. Up steep country hills it’s appalling – and that’s with just one occupant on board.

Ride and handling? There it’s is a different story. The IS200 has sweet and accurate steering and bags of grip from its 215/45 Dunlop Sport 8090’s. Flick the car through a series of high speed S-bends and it’s stable and composed. Exceed the level of grip and with no stability control (yep, AUD$57,900 and no stability control!), understeer sets in. With the traction control on, the car handles much like a front-wheel drive – power-on understeer and a little lift-off oversteer. With the traction control off, in dry conditions at least the story’s the same – there’s no power, remember. Especially considering the low profile tyres, the ride is excellent.

But before you start thinking that the ride and handling outweigh the negatives, pause to consider. The Mazda 6 handles real roads damn-near as well, and the Honda Accord Euro is in the same ballpark. And unless the road was steeply downhill, with their superior performance both the Honda and Mazda would run away and hide from the Lexus…

Aah, so perhaps the IS200 is being misread here. Maybe it’s designed as an economical small car? Nope, not with a government fuel economy figure of 9.9 litres/100km. And I bet that in real world driving, the IS200 would do much worse than this – the engine is working so hard so much of the time just to keep up with traffic.

In fact, let’s stop and think more laterally of another product from the Toyota stable – the hybrid Prius. The Prius I-Tech costs less, is better equipped (it has satellite nav and stability control), has much better performance, far more interior space – and uses about half as much fuel! (And no, it doesn’t steer nearly as well as the IS200.)

If every trip you took was with just the driver on board, every road you drove headed steeply downhill with lots of twists and turns, and everywhere you went you had the excellent sound system pumping hard – maybe then the Lexus IS200 might make a convincing proposition. But as it is, you’d have rocks in your head to shell out for one of these.

Footnote: As this was being written, the IS200 was being replaced with a brand new model – the IS250. And sure as hell not before time!

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