Why the Lexus IS200 is a better alternative to the BMW 3 Series

Want rear-wheel drive fun without the BMW stigma? Look no further!

43w ago

I've spent the past few weeks in and around various Lexus IS200's, through filming, building and generally researching the model, I got to learn about its highs and lows. I concluded that these days, the IS200 is a better car than the BMW 3- Series it was designed to compete with.

Back when the IS200 and E46 3-Series debuted the motoring press of had one verdict, 'Nice try Lexus, but the BMW's just better', that was 2 decades ago though. With time, the trends, fashion, depreciation and reliability scores have altered the playing field. In my opinion, if you are going to buy a 2nd hand luxury sedan for around £2-4,000 these days, you are going to be better off with the Lexus.

All the opinions in this piece are my own & subjective, they mostly refer to the IS200 (not IS300) and the 318/320/323/325 model BMW's. The bigger 3 liter and above models play in a slightly different league to the IS200, though, (being slightly biased again) you can buy & modify an IS200 to the same power as a 330 for about as much as a good condition 330 would cost you.

1. No BMW Stigma

Unlike some of Bavaria's finest, even the most poverty spec IS200's come equipped with turn signals, meaning that owning one doesn't come with the same kind of stigma as owning an older BMW does.

Does it have any real meaning? Perhaps, perhaps not, I've personally met only a handful of people who proudly proclaimed ill-intent towards BMW drivers. Either by not letting them out at junctions, being difficult to overtake or being general jerks (ironic, eh?) but I sincerely hope these are a rarity.

On a more serious note, what others think shouldn't affect your car choice, but if you prefer something that will fly a bit more under the radar, the IS200 will be your friend. It's the kind of car that those 'in the know' simply know, and those who don't won't give it a second look on the motorway.

2. It's cheaper!

No, being either cheap or expensive doesn't mean a car is good, but if you are looking for a first project, drift-missile or a fun daily, you can't ignore the Bangernomics of your purchase!

This IS 200 is currently for sale on AutoTrader

This IS 200 is currently for sale on AutoTrader

Sadly the days when you could pick one of these up for a £1,000 or less, are long gone. That said, you can still pick up a mint condition specimen in good spec for less than £2000 as in the example above. For your money, you will likely get a car with a full service history, 2.0 litre straight 6 and all creature comforts you can realistically need in a car.

3. Reliability! More JDM = More Better right?

If you are buying a 20 year old luxury car you will tinker with it sooner or later, either because you want to or because you have to in order to keep it ruining.

As it's a Toyota you aren't likely to have to tinker with a lot to keep it going, both the 2 and 3-litre engines (the latter found in the IS300) are typically bombproof, the suspension is fine, there are some complaints about the manual gearboxes but these are rare. The biggest issue of these are sticking/warping front callipers, fortunately, it's generally a cheap fix & can be solved permanently using aftermarket parts

Am I calling BMW's unreliable? No, but let's face it, the 2000s were beginning of the fall for European luxury cars reliability. The E46 was arguably one of the last truly reliable BMW's, but after 2 decades myself (and a couple of reliability index's) put the trust in the Lexus.

If you are tinkering with it because you want to, you will be happy to hear that the aftermarket support for these is huge. That's no surprise, as the car was defacto designed to be modified, its chief engineer Mr Nobuaki Katayama had his personal IS fitted with a supercharger and lowered springs with stiffer shocks. This might also explain the massive bit of space to the left of the exhaust manifold that's just begging to be fitted with a turbo.

If you do elect to run boost, be it from a turbo or supercharger you will be pleased to hear that the stock engine is good for 300+ horsepower without any major modifications.

4. It's more luxurious

Back in the day the 3- Series was deemed as the more luxurious option, no surprises here, the Bavarians have some 50 years extra experience in building luxury cars. Overall the verdict was that the 3-series just simply offered more options, for those who had the money to shell out on them.

These days I would argue that the IS200 has the upper hand though, as if you go car shopping with about £2,500, you will seldom find a good condition 3-series that's as high spec as the Lexus for the same money.

In short yes, you will find some 3-series models which will blow an IS 200 out of the water, but not in the same money.

I would recommend you go for 'Sport' trim, which arguably comes with every possible option a petrolhead could want on a car. Namely; limited-slip dif, full leather/part-leather upholstery (the latter being much nicer in my opinion), fully electric & heated front seats, sat-nav, two-tone steering wheel with steering wheel-mounted controls, parking sensors, heated mirrors and in some cases even a heated windscreen.

Now some of these might not be standard on your Sport, this all comes down to model-year, but scour the classifieds and I'm sure you will find a model up to your spec for well under £3,000 if not less.

5. It's just cool,

So this once again is purely subjective, I'm the type of person who prefers having something unique, unusual or just a little bit different to what everyone else drives on the road. The Lexus fits that bracket, other than being 'rare', it manages to blend unique looks without disturbing the classic 3-box sedan styling that I'm a huge fan of.

It's full of little details that make you feel simply cared for as a driver & owner. If you don't quite know what I mean, please do yourself a favour and visit your nearest Lexus dealership, then compare the experience with that of a European luxury brand.

Oh and just look at that gauge cluster, I mean is it weird that it alone would persuade me to buy it over the 3-series?

Concluding (what is this a school paper?!)

The IS 200 is a better car for a certain type of person, someone who likes something a little bit different than the obvious choice. If you all you want is POOOOWER and some cheap thrills than go ahead and get a 330i, 330d or a banged-up M3 if you got the money to spend.

However, if you need 4-doors, RWD, dependability and a certain level of luxury and elegance, the IS200 is your friend.

An IS200 I've been tinkering with, with some friends

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Comments (14)

  • You forgot to mention that it's relatively simple to put a 2JZ-GTE engine in the IS200/300 body. One of my friends did that with his IS300. It's now pushing close to 800 hp.

      9 months ago
    • The IS300 already has the 2JZ-GE from the factory, just slap a massive turbo on it and off you go!!🤣

        9 months ago
    • It's not quite the same though. The GTE had different pistons to allow for more boost along with oil spray nozzles for cooling and a different head with redesigned inlet/exhaust ports, cams, & valves. Basically more power can be had from the...

      Read more
        9 months ago
  • Uk market had a 2 litre 6 cylinder, Japanese market had a 2 litre 4 cylinder.

    It’s good that Lexus tailored engines to markets and to pitch against BMW, the European market had the straight 6.

    Much cooler as an older car, not so much when new.

      9 months ago
    • Agreed, it's awesome value at 2nd hand prices.

        9 months ago
  • It's so good I bought one 3 weeks ago while also looking at 3 series, loving it and can't wait to modify it how I want 👍

      9 months ago
  • The 2.0 straight six is its biggest let down! Pretty easy to beams or 1jz/2jz swap though.

      9 months ago
    • It is quite underpowered, I wouldn't write it off though, a little boost can take that engine quite far and for a fraction of the cost compared to swapping it out.

        9 months ago
    • I always thought the first IS was a solid car, wonder if the 2L inline 6 cyl could be boosted like the 3L. Is the 2L a mini 2JZ? The cluster with the clock face was wicked

        9 months ago
  • A lovely read Adrian! The IS 200 remains to be a great buy on the second-hand market👍

      9 months ago