The first generation Altezza (codename XE10) was launched in Japan in October 1998, while the Lexus IS200 (JCE10) made its debut in Europe in 1999 and in North America as the IS300 in 2000. The first generation, straight-6-powered IS featured sedan and wagon variants. The second generation IS (GSE20) was launched globally in 2006 with V6-powered IS 250 and IS 350 sedan models. A high-performance V8 sedan version, the IS F, premiered in 2007. Hardtop convertible versions, the IS 250 C and IS 350 C, debuted in 2008. According to Lexus, the IS designation stands for Intelligent Sport.
Produced as a direct competitor to the luxury sport sedans of the leading European luxury marques, the Altezza/IS was designed with a greater performance emphasis than typically seen on prior Japanese luxury vehicles. The design received critical acclaim at its 1998 launch, and was awarded Japan's "Car of the Year" honor for 1998-1999. A year later, Lexus began marketing the IS equivalent models in Europe, and the IS debuted in the U.S. as a 2001 model.
The Altezza came in 3 variants:
- The AS200 (Chassis code TA-SXE-10, sedan or TA-GXE-10 FR Gita wagon, TA-GXE-15, 4WD Gita wagon), powered by a 1G-FE inline-6 engine generating 160PS JIS (118kW) or 155PS DIN (114kW) and mated to a 6–speed manual transmission (4–speed automatic optional)
- The RS200 (Chassis code GH-SXE-10, sedan) powered by a Yamaha tuned 3S-GE inline-4 engine generating 210PS JIS (154kW) and mated to a 6–speed transmission (5–speed automatic optional)
- The AS300 (Chassis code TA-JCE-10 FR Gita Wagon, or TA-JCE-15, 4WD Gita wagon) powered by a 2JZ-GE inline-6 engine generating 220PS JIS (162kW) or 215hp SAE (160kW) and mated to only a 5–speed automatic for the FR Gita Wagon or a 4–speed automatic for the 4WD Gita Wagon.
Lexus IS vehicles sold in North America, as well as the Japanese hatchback/station wagon version called the Gita (called Lexus IS SportCross in the U.S. and Europe) were only available in the 3.0 liter 6-cylinder version (2JZ-GE). In the U.S. market, sales fell below expectations; after hitting a high of 22,486 units in 2001, IS sales dropped below the 10,000-unit mark in 2004. The IS200 fared better relative to sales targets in Europe and Asia, while still well short of the sales volume achieved by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and other, mostly German-made competitors. This trend was indicative of Lexus' smaller global status; while Lexus' range of cars is very successful in North America, the marque's sales still lag behind its German rivals in Europe. In Europe the IS 300 was only available with the 5-speed automatic transmission; the lack of a manual gearbox option may have limited sales in contrast to its rivals, the BMW 3-Series and the Mercedes C-Class.