Think of the 2016 Lexus IS 200t as the CAFÉ editionJan 26th, 2016
Café society rarely invites me to one of their sun-dappled patio brunches, where willowy women in hats the size of stop signs sip $40-a-shot wine.
I don’t much blame them. I look downright ridiculous with a cardigan sweater tied around my neck, and I don’t even own a watch, much less a gold Rolex.
If you handed me a glass of cabernet sauvignon, I might ask for a straw.
In my blue jeans and beer world, CAFÉ means Corporate Average Fuel Economy, and it imposes its own social order — one that demands smaller, more complex engines, lighter weights and bigger price tags.
For most of us plebes, it is the real CAFÉ society, and Lexus — like every other automaker — is just trying to live with it, as is evident in the new 2016 IS 200t sedan.
For 2016, Lexus dropped the entry-level 2.5-liter V-6 engine — a skinny-legged weakling with 204 horsepower — and replaced it with a turbocharged 2-liter four.
Though smaller, the turbo four produces 37 more horsepower and a whopping 73 more pound-feet of torque than the six.
More important, it gets slightly better fuel economy — 22 miles per gallon in town and 33 on the highway, compared with 21/30 for the skinny six.
While that’s a pretty modest gain, every gallon helps in the slow march to the feds’ mandated 54.5 mpg average by 2025 — a goal I don’t think the industry will make.
But, hey, the IS intends to look pretty darn good trying.
If you can get beyond its gaping spindle grille — a signature Lexus design element, for better or worse — the IS is one of Lexi’s more attractive vehicles.
Aimed at the 3-series BMW, the dark red IS I had recently sat low with an appropriate sport-sedan stance.
Playful projector headlamps with check-shaped LED accent lights beneath them kind of softened that giant, exaggerated grille, which looked a bit like something Bubba might use to barbecue a brisket and a half-dozen chicken breasts.
The car’s mostly flat sides got a little muscle from slightly flared fenders, as well as a prominent character line up high that formed a shoulder over the door handles and rear fenders.
My favorite flourish on the car, though, was a whimsical line down low that kicked up in front of the rear wheel, giving the IS some lightly chiseled distinction.
Ready for combat
As an F-Sport model (a $3,545 option, by the way), my IS rolled on 225/40 tires up front and meaty 255/35s in the rear wrapped around gray 18-inch wheels.
With its stiffer suspension and lower stance, it certainly appeared ready for street combat.
The 241-horsepower turbo four beneath the IS’ hood came from Lexi’s strange-looking NX crossover.
Armed with 258 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,650 rpm, the little engine packed enough punch to push the 3,700-pound IS around fairly well. But its shove could be a bit slow arriving. When I hit the engine hard from a dead stop, it often responded with turbo lag for a millisecond or two before jumping away with decent spring.
If you keep your right foot down hard, the engine feels fairly strong, pushing the stocky IS to 60 mph in a respectable — though hardly segment-leading — 6.8 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
A refined, slick-shifting eight-speed automatic put the power to the pavement via the rear wheels, clicking off full-throttle, 5,500-rpm shifts.
At least, the IS can contend reasonably well with BMWs and Benzes in corners and curves. Thanks mostly to the smaller, lighter engine and much improved suspension that arrived in 2014, the IS turns in as aggressively as any regular 3-Series BMW I’ve driven.
It can also hold a line in corners as cleanly as a Bimmer, ripping through them flatly with good grip and balance.
In addition, I thought the IS had livelier steering, feeling slightly lighter and less murky.
In the cockpit
Of course, there’s always a price to pay for fun, and as long as it doesn’t involve jail time, wedding rings or week-long hangovers, I’m willing to belly up to the bar.
The firm F-Sport suspension in the IS can get kind of bouncy over bad pavement, though never to the point where it makes you see double or gives you acid reflux, as one of my Mustangs regularly did.
It’s the sort of platform that a real sports sedan needs, I think.
Likewise, the black interior in my $44,000 IS fit the car’s image pretty well, looking relatively upscale without lapsing into ornate techno-bizarre.
The dashboard, for example, was cast in a pliable black plastic and curved gracefully over the instrument panel. It rolled down onto the glove compartment, surrounding a bright — and functional — display screen recessed neatly into the dash.
A flat-black console arched up to the base of the display screen, giving the interior a racy cockpit feel.
Moreover, when Lexus redesigned the IS in 2014, it stretched the car’s wheelbase by a few inches, creating more legroom in back.
Up front, neatly stitched leather seats with supportive bolsters and perforated centers maintained the near-luxury vibe.
But it seems to me that this new CAFÉ society could be a real challenge for Lexus and other high-end automakers.
As everyone in the first two tiers of the luxury segment is forced to increasingly use small turbocharged four-cylinder engines in their base cars, most end up with no more performance than a good mainstream midsize sedan — and at a $10,000 premium.
The finely crafted IS 200t will easily meet most drivers’ needs. But I wonder how it will maintain its perceived near-luxury superiority if it can’t muster any more horsepower than some Honda Accords and Ford Fusions.