Many of the first Lexus’ came to the United States as rebadged JDM Toyotas. The Lexus RX was sold as the Toyota Harrier, the original ES is a JDM Camry Prominent (seriously), and everyone’s favorite BMW E46 killer, the Lexus IS300, was sold as a Toyota Altezza. That JDM IS in particular was actually better than the car we got.
To start, U.S. spec had the yawner of a naturally aspirated 2JZ engine. It’s a decent engine, but ultimately suffers from the “Porsche Cayman complex“ of Toyota engines: It was supposed to have a turbo, but… didn’t.
In Japan, the car got a few engine variants. A 2.0-liter 1G-FE inline-6 AS200, which sucked, and a 2.0-liter fifth-gen black top 3S-GE BEAMS RS200 that did not suck. BEAMS stands for Breakthrough Engine with Advanced Mechanism System, which is complete nonsense, but the magic under that emblem was for real.
The engine has dual VVT-i, Toyota’s variable valve timing deal, and was co-developed with Yamaha to make 207 horsepower with an 8,000 RPM redline. The BEAMS cars came in five-speed auto (but detuned by 20ish horsepower) or with a six-speed manual Aisin J160 transmission that has lineage lasting until today as the Aisin AZ6 in the Toyobaru twins. It also had a few features in the Mazda RX-8 and Miata, as well as the S15 Nissan Silvia.
If you didn’t know, that is actually excellent. A high-revving zingy Toyota inline-four a-la 4A-GE, is one of life’s truest joys. In fact, the chief engineer of the Altezza/IS did his magic on the Corolla AE86, and I think the true lineage between AE86 and BRZ is linked by the Altezza RS200. The RS200 is still a relatively cushy sedan, made lighter and buzzier by a sportier engine and now proven slick-shifting transmission.
The Altezza is the true expression of the Lexus IS. We got a good car, but we didn’t get the best car. The chronograph gauge cluster that inhabits the IS also lives in the Altezza, but was reconfigured for enthusiasts. Instead of the U.S. spec side-tach and center-speedo, the six-speed manual Altezza has a huge 9000-rpm center tachometer with oil pressure, battery voltage, and coolant temperature in the “chronographs,” finished off with a snazzy LCD matrix display for speed and other functions.
The RS200 featured a few exterior looks, some very similar to the IS, some more aggressive. The TRD package cars (they have a complicated naming system so let’s just call it TRD) have a different bumper, skirts, and a small wing. Honestly, it doesn’t even matter, because aftermarket stuff made it look really great. TTE makes excellent aero adornments, along with various JDM aero companies like Vertex, Varis, and BN Sports.
I’ve driven many IS300s and can’t imagine what a slick-shifting screamer of a drivetrain would do to it. I need one. Now. Excuse me while I go look for an importer.