A Sammy Hagar song filled my mind as I turned on to my favorite driving road in the hills of Northern California in the 2017 Lexus IS 200t F Sport. 45 constant miles of twists and turns had me driving with one foot on the brake and one on the gas, all the better to get back on the throttle as quickly as possible. As I came to a straightaway, I smashed on the throttle and gave a shout, "I can't drive fifty fiiiiive!"
The IS, Lexus' entry-level sedan, comes in a few iterations, including all-wheel drive and an available V6. But I rocked the rear-wheel drive version running a 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine, and equipped with the F Sport package. While this example may be the least powerful IS available, I found the car to be a well-balanced machine with plenty of zip to carve corners and enough comfort to give the German sport sedans a run for their euros.
With 241 horsepower on tap, the IS 200t has enough power to be an enjoyable ride, but not so much as to get you in trouble. 258 pound-feet of torque pulls to the red line smoothly. There is a bit of a delay when you give it the beans, but not much. After that slight hiccup, the car's acceleration is super smooth and a lot of fun.
It dives into corners willingly and exits them in a composed manner, even though there is no limited-slip differential to help power out of those turns. The ride on the F Sport-tuned suspension is a bit on the stiff side, but it is in no way uncomfortable and it helps keep the sedan from leaning in the turns. The chassis can handle quick changes in direction with ease, encouraging a heavy foot through all but the tightest of transitions.
The IS comes with four drive modes, Eco, Sport, Normal and Snow, although I was unable to evaluate the Snow mode here in sunny California. The system modifies throttle, steering and transmission response, but it's tough to tell the difference between Sport and Normal. Eco mode takes it one step further, modulating engine output and climate settings, all in the name of fuel efficiency. The EPA gives the IS a rating of 22 mpg in the city, 32 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg combined. During my week with my heavy foot, I only saw 21 mpg.
In the turns the eight-speed automatic transmission wants to upshift a shade too quickly and downshift a bit too slowly for my taste, even in Sport mode. Fortunately, it can be shifted manually using the steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters. The shifts aren't the snappiest in the business, but being able to control the shift points makes for a more connected driving experience.
Unfortunately, where I didn't feel connected was in the steering. While it has a nice weight to it, especially at speed, there is minimal feedback. It's tough to know exactly where you're placing the car or how much grip is left in the Bridgestone Turanza summer tires. Still, turn-in is sharp and it has a nice weight to it, and my complaints here are minimal.
En-formulate a new system, please
If there is one thing that makes me long for the days of low-tech eight-track cassette players it's the available Remote Touch controller of the Lexus Enform infotainment system. The mouse/joystick/hateful handle from hell is inaccurate, often overshooting my desired icon. You can customize the feedback force for the Remote Touch controller, but no matter how tight I set it, the joystick was always more of a PITA than it is worth. Remote Touch only comes with the optional navigation package. If you're not keen on spending an extra $1,735, you'll get a rotary knob that is much easier to control.
The system isn't intuitive and has so many menus and sub-menus it borders on the ridiculous. It took nine clicks to get from the home screen to one completely stored preset, and the navigation doesn't have one-box address entry for navigation.
To be fair, I like the 10.3-inch screen. It's very clear and it can be split so that one function occupies the left two thirds of the screen, with information about climate, audio, navigation, settings or phone displayed on the right one third. The icon that brings back full-display mode is hidden, however, until you pass the cursor over it. I spent a whole day trying to figure out how to get the map to full-screen and only figured it out after I watched a Lexus-produced video tutorial. It shouldn't be this difficult.
There is no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and we haven't heard when or if they will ever become available. Instead Lexus offers Siri Eyes Free, which activates Apple's Siri on your paired iPhone through the car's own voice command system, to send text messages, place calls and select music. It's not as convenient as your phone's interface, but it's a close second.
The interior of the IS is a comfy place to be and the F Sport option adds a few snazzy touches, not the least of which are heated and cooled front seats. The gauge cluster takes inspiration from Lexus's LFA supercar, with a different design for each driving mode. The in-dash information display keeps you apprised of gear position, mileage and phone and audio data, but the F Sport also provides performance data with a G-force meter and a turbo gauge. The extra track-focused tech is cool to have, but usually I don't let my eyes wander from the road in front of me.
New for 2017 is the inclusion of Lexus Safety System Plus as standard equipment. This adds a pre-collision braking system, intelligent high beams, lane keeping alert with steering assist and adaptive cruise control. Unfortunately, the adaptive cruise control does not work at speeds under 25 mph, making it pretty useless for the Bay Area's infamous stop-and-go traffic. Oddly, Lexus charges an extra $600 for blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. With the cameras and radars already in place for the standard safety equipment, these two features should be included as well.
And you can't talk Lexus without talking about The Spindle. Maybe I'm just used to it, but the enormous grille doesn't look as, well, hideous as I once thought. The F Sport gets more of a diamond shape pattern in the grille rather than the horizontal louvers of the regular IS, something that deemphasizes the width just a bit. The F Sport also gets a different front bumper treatment and 18-inch wheels.
So how does the Lexus stack up against the Germans? Theboasts similar power numbers but with the available Virtual Cockpit technology, it trounces the Lexus when it comes to media and connectivity. The venerable is available in a hybrid that can scoot to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, a full second faster than the Lexus. If you're looking for something with more of a staid design, the is a sophisticated sedan.
The 2017 Lexus IS 200t starts at $37,825, and my test model with navigation and the F Sport package, plus a few little options like a cargo net, comes in at $45,239. While the cosmetic touches of the F Sport package make the car a better sell visually, I can think of better ways to spend $3,545.
As it stands, the little Lexus is a fine and sporty sedan that looks good and offers a heap of driving enjoyment. However, the day-to-day chore of living with the Enform system puts a huge damper on the thrill.