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A silver streak: 25 years of Lexus IS

Throughout its 25-year history, the Lexus IS has evolved through three generations.

Ntsako Mthethwa
June 5, 2024
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A silver streak: 25 years of Lexus IS

Take a closer look at the year 1999, and you will concede that it was indeed a pivotal era in the history books, marked by notable events across various sectors across the globe.

Locally, the African National Congress (ANC) won the second democratic election, appointing Thabo Mbeki as South Africa's second democratic president. The establishment of the euro currency and the assumption of full powers by the European Central Bank were among the exciting events, while the controversial youth drama series Yizo-Yizo made its debut on SABC 1.

The automotive industry, on the other hand, also saw remarkable developments. Opel made a grand entry into the MPV market with its Zafira. In contrast, Volkswagen debuted its fourth-generation Jetta sedan the same year that the first-generation Honda HR-V and Kia Rio vehicles were unveiled.

At that time, Lexus was preparing to launch its new IS model in Japan. Initially unveiled in October 1999, marking approximately 10 years since the Lexus brand's inception, and sold under the Toyota Altezza nameplate, this entry-level sport model marked a new era for the brand, positioning itself below the ES in the Lexus range and celebrating its silver jubilee this year. Throughout its 25-year history, the Lexus IS has evolved through three generations, each time facing formidable competition from executive sedans in its class. Key competitors have included the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Alfa Romeo Giulia, to name a few.

Despite the intense competition, the Lexus IS has not only endured but thrived, carving out a niche for itself as a trendy and refined sedan. Its unique blend of design and performance has garnered it a global following, demonstrating its enduring charm in the highly competitive market despite SUVs taking the lead over sedans. 

Love affair (XE10)

The IS rose significantly to fame when it introduced its first-generation model, known as the XE10, which debuted for sale in 2001 and wielded a straight-6 engine. While it faced fierce competition from the Germans, it was its rear-wheel-drive layout that was coupled with a naturally-aspirated version of the 2JZ-GTE engine that also powered the Mk4 Supra that made driving it engaging. 

Available in sedan and wagon variants, the influence of Chief Engineer Nobuaki Katayama, known for his work on the iconic AE86, was evident here as it disrupted the status quo among its rivals, thanks to its superior build quality, distinctive design, unparalleled ride, and impressive handling. The range of trim levels catered to a variety of preferences, but it was the IS 300, powered by a 3.0-litre 2JZ-GTE inline-6 engine, that truly captured the hearts of many.

Now, over two decades later, it is this very model that has cemented the IS’s position as a formidable contender in the luxury sedan market. The enduring appeal of the IS and its legacy continue to resonate, highlighting the model’s significant contribution to the Lexus brand.


Second generation (XE20)

Following the unveiling of the production variant of the second-generation Lexus IS, also known as the XE20 series, at the 2005 New York International Show, it became clearer that the IS got better. Later that year, it went on sale as a 2006 model, a year before Mercedes-Benz revealed its W204 C-Class to rival the E90 BMW 3 Series and B7 Audi A4, which both launched in 2004. Besides being technologically advanced in so many ways, including keyless ignition, this particular model featured athletic etiquette, thanks to a sleeker and coupe-like fascia as well as a fastback profile.

It was this model that marked the next introduction of the brand’s L-finesse design language, following the GS executive sedan. 

The second generation model retained its rear-wheel-drive configuration in some models while others adopted AWD systems; however, it opted for new engines. Throughout its eight-year assignment, the entire range included the IS 200d, IS 220d, IS 250, IS 250 AWD, IS 300, IS 350, IS 350 AWD, IS F, IS 250 C, IS 300 C, and IS 350 C. Each variant offered special features and specifications, catering to a broad spectrum of customer preferences and requirements.

That said, it was the IS F that captured the hearts of high-performance car enthusiasts. This acclaim can be attributed to its impressive 5.0-litre V8 engine, capable of delivering a substantial 310kW and 503Nm of torque to the rear axle via an 8-speed automatic transmission. This combination of power and performance positioned the Lexus IS F as a formidable competitor to the E90 BMW M3, which also housed a V8 engine. 

While we hear that the IS F almost didn’t happen, Yukihiko Yaguchi, a former engineer on several Supra models, convinced the company to build the IS F to take on the formidable German duo, and it worked. 

The XE20 distinguished itself in the automotive market not only through its diverse powerplant options but also due to its exceptional build quality. This model remained relevant and competitive for eight years, thanks to continuous updates that enhanced its features and performance. Production of the XE20 continued until 2013, when its replacement model, the EX30, succeeded it. 

Third Instalment (XE30)

The third generation of the Lexus IS (XE30) was unveiled in 2013 at the Detroit Motor Show. At first glance, it became evident that the brand had adopted an entirely different approach to its development. Initially, it rode on a significantly revised version of its predecessor’s platform, with modifications made to the suspension for better comfort and handling. Sadly, Lexus never brought back the powerful IS F in this application, despite carrying over most engine options from its predecessor.

Instead, Lexus introduced the RC F in 2014, which was essentially the coupe version of the IS F but with more added power (348kW and 527Nm) from the same 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated engine. 

Sadly, the RC F, along with its LC counterpart, was discontinued in some markets, including South Africa, at the beginning of 2024. 

The entire range consisted of the IS 250, IS 250 AWD, IS 200t, IS 300, IS 300 AWD, IS 350, IS 350 AWD, IS 300h, IS 300h AWD, and the IS 500 F strictly for the U.S. market. The latter became the first V8-powered IS model since the brutal IS F of the second generation. 

The IS range underwent minor cosmetic modifications to maintain its contemporary appeal. However, in response to the challenging market conditions worsened by the global pandemic, Lexus implemented a significant redesign of the IS model in 2021 to bolster sales figures and sustain the brand’s competitive position in the fold. The design of the IS included new headlights, a spindle grille, and enlarged fenders, and the interior featured a new infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone pairing. Depending on the market, the IS comes standard with an 8-inch touchscreen or a larger 10-inch unit.

The powertrains remained similar to the second generation but incorporated some form of electrification. For the South African market at least, the refreshed IS range consisted of the hybridised units of the IS 300h EX, IS 300h SE, and IS 300 F Sport. As the former’s name suggests, it featured aggressive styling cues, pretty much what the M Sport and AMG Line are in the BMW and Mercedes-Benz portfolios.

All of them featured a 2.5-litre petrol-hybrid engine with a total system output of 164kW and 221Nm enough to catapult the sedans from 0-100 km/h in 8.7 seconds. Behind the wheel, the IS delivered a driving experience that left a profound and enduring impression to this day, despite wielding the underwhelming CVT transmissions. 


Motorsport Participation

In the motorsport domain, the Lexus IS has been a vehicle of choice for numerous racing teams. Notably, Toyota Racing Development utilised the first-generation IS 200 and IS 300 models considerably. The Lexus IS also made its mark in endurance racing, with entries in the ADAC-Westfalenfahrt VLN 4-Hour endurance race and the prestigious 2009 24 Hours of Nürburgring race.

In the latter, the Lexus IS F secured a commendable third-place finish in the SP8 class. 


Where to go from here?

What's next? You ask. Well, in 2025, Lexus plans to introduce its fourth-generation IS model, which will feature a battery-electric powerplant and will pack a significant amount of technological advancements. And speaking of powerplants, the new IS will likely continue to be available in three distinct engine options, including a 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6 and a 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V8 in the case of the IS 500, depending on the market.

With the brand’s ‘Lexus Electrified’ vision, the marque aims to offer 100% battery-electric vehicles globally by 2035, so we don't rule out the possibility of a fully electric variant joining the hybrid models. 

Even with electrification in place, the Lexus IS nameplate continues to resonate with the masses looking for a premium executive sedan, and the majority of IS models remain highly popular among buyers. Here’s to 25 more years. 


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