Forgotten Heroes: Toyota Altezza RS200

There can be little doubt that Toyota has built some of the greatest cars in the history of Japanese motoring – and motoring in general.

From the likes of the Supra MK4, to the MR2, to the more humble and ordinary (but nonetheless legendary) like the Camry and Corolla, Toyota’s “back catalog” of greatest hits would make the Beatles blush.

But the purpose of our Forgotten Heroes segment is to cast fresh light on cars that were great in their own right, but which have never quite garnered the same reputation and popularity as some of their brand stablemates.

Today’s example is the Toyota Altezza.

In particular, the Toyota Altezza RS200.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Altezza is a Lexus IS from the XE10 generation. You can read our second generation XE20 Lexus IS buyer’s guide here for more information if you’re interested in a later car.

The iconic rear/tail lights of the Altezza – perhaps only the Nissan Skyline has more recognisable light clusters.

You’d be forgiven for good reason for thinking that the Altezza is a Lexus IS, because that is basically what the Altezza is.

The Altezza was marketed as the JDM version of the Lexus IS, at a time when Lexus didn’t actually sell cars within Japan (learn more here about what JDM means for a deeper understanding of this often confusing topic) In fact, the Altezza actually came before the Lexus IS, albeit only by a few months.

Much like the Lexus IS, the Altezza was available with various trim, engine and transmission options. There was also a wagon version (known as the Altezza ‘Gita’ – these are not particularly practical as the boot space is comprised).

Of all the Altezzas, perhaps the most special and desirable is the subject of today’s article – the “RS200” (also known as the RS200Z – more on that later).

The reason why the RS200 is worthy of revisiting is simple – it took the stylish looks of the IS/Altezza, the great reliability and build quality and excellent chassis, and then combined that with a true 1990s/early 2000s engine choice … a high-revving four cylinder engine.

In this edition of ‘Forgotten Heroes’ we are going to fill you in on the Toyota Altezza RS200 and explain why you might want to consider one as your next purchase.

Cover photo credit: https://scscarsales.com.au/ 

Toyota Altezza RS200 Specifications

With the Altezza RS200, you got the following key specifications:

  • Four door sedan (RS200 spec was not available in the Altezza Gita/sportwagon variant, as far as we are aware)
  • Rear wheel drive
  • 5th generation 3S-GE “blacktop” engine with dual VVT-i, producing 207hp in manual cars and 197hp in automatic cars (automatic cars had a lower compression ratio, less aggressive cam profiling and steel-alloy valves as opposed to titanium valves). This engine is also known as the “BEAMS’ engine, which stands for Breakthrough Engine with Advanced Mechanism System, which is a bit wordy and meaningless. Nonetheless, the engine is good and produces ample power in an exciting manner owing to the higher rev band. If someone is selling you an RS200 that has the 2.0 I6, then it is definitely not an RS200.
  • Six speed manual or five speed automatic
    • Compare this to the six speed manual or four speed automatic for 1G-FE 2.0 I6 models (sold as the Altezza AS200)
  • ~1360kg weight (just under 3000lbs)
  • Some Altezzas came fitted with a Limited Slip Differential (LSD). There is actually considerable debate as to which exact models came with this option – as with many JDM cars that also had export variants, there are numerous different specs/options. In particular, RS200 Z & L editions do have LSDs, whereas the “base” RS200s (at least earlier versions) typically do not.
Excellent info on using the chassis plate on your Altezza to identify the diff code: https://www.lexusownersclub.co.uk/forum/topic/64026-rear-diff/

In our research, we also used Archive.org to pull up this comprehensive database of information from an old site called ‘Japan Cars’ that covered exactly which Altezza RS200s came with LSDs (amusingly referred to as “torsion” LSD) as well as other key specs and options:

It’s probably a bit hard to read on the image above, but it seems that the base spec RS200 was not available with an LSD, while the Z and L editions came with it as standard equipment. On automatic cars (all trim levels) the LSD was an optional extra.

There were also a number of other optional extras and add ons, such a rear spoiler and sunroof option. Click on the image below to see the full options list.

Click to view the full list of options

When Was The Toyota Altezza Made?

The Toyota Altezza was produced from 1998-2005 (so slightly earlier than the Lexus IS, which came in 1999) in the ‘XE10’ generation.

There was only one generation of the Altezza, although there are variations/tweaks throughout the ~7 year production life of the car – a facelift came in 2003.

We wouldn’t be too fussed on buying an earlier or later model, and instead focus on getting the best example possible for the money.

Why You Should Consider An RS200 Altezza

The Altezza Ticks All The Boxes

To explain this concept, let’s consider a car that is the opposite.

Take a Toyota MR2 – a superb car no doubt (and a genuine future classic) but fundamentally limited in what you can use it for. You can only ever have two seats, there isn’t much space, and realistically it’s just not a great daily driver.

The Toyota Altezza manages to tick just about every box you could want to tick, unless you specifically need a car with a big boot/trunk (in which case look at one of these great JDM wagons) or 4×4/AWD.

It’s a practical, stylish car that is fun to drive and also offers reasonable running costs and fuel economy. In terms of safety, it was well-specified for its day, particularly cars with added side airbags which is a feature we would look out for.

There’s a reason the Altezza – in both AS and RS guise – was released to critical acclaim in Japan and won car of the year awards on launch, and why the Lexus IS is also considered to be such a great vehicle.

It doesn’t necessarily excel in any particular area, but it doesn’t need to because the overall package is so rounded and balanced.

The Altezza is the sort of car you could get by your significant other on the basis of it being a reliable Toyota sedan. Much easier than convincing them a Mitsubishi 3000GT or Nissan 300ZX is a good purchase.

Affordable To Run

One of the best reasons to consider an Altezza RS200 as your next “modern classic” purchase is that these cars have a good reputation for reliability and being affordable to run.

The combination of an NA engine, simple transmission (either plain manual or automatic, no fancy CVT or dual clutches here) rear wheel drive and ‘Golden Era’ Toyota reliability combine to make a package that shouldn’t cost you much to keep on the road.

You can still encounter unpleasant bills and repair costs with an Altezza – or any car for that matter. You need to do your homework and thoroughly inspect any potential purchase. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a buyer’s guide for the Altezza/original Lexus IS … but if this is something you’d like to see, then leave a comment below and we can consider creating one.

What matters is once you find a good example, ensuring that you keep up-to-date with all required maintenance.

Because of the relatively light weight of the Altezza – at least by modern standards – and the nature of the engine, if driven carefully you can expect to use around 8-10 litres of fuel per 100km of driving, which is not bad at all for a fun car. If you drive hard into the power band, as you’ll probably want to do, then expect fuel economy to fall off a cliff.

This affordability makes the Altezza an ideal ‘modern classic’ for daily driving.

As an aside, there used to be a popular publication here in New Zealand called the Dog and Lemon Guide … not too sure if it’s still going, but it was basically a big book published every year that contained advice on buying just about every used car available in New Zealand at the time.

The cars in the guide were categorised into different groups, with star ratings based on how good (or more often bad) they are in terms of reliability and safety.

Many fun JDM cars like the 300ZX and GTO received bad scores. However, the Altezza rates highly, something that stuck with us from the time.

Fun To Drive

The RS200 is a fun and enjoyable car to drive. The Lexus IS (on which it is based) smoother and more well-rounded and probably better suited to daily driving as you don’t need to rev hard to get into the power band, but when it comes to driving engagement the RS200 is the clear winner.

Although it’s not the fastest car in the world, nor the best handling, the Altezza is more than the sum of its parts and offers a rewarding driving experience, particularly in manual transmission guise.

Affordable To Buy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have noticed that prices of classic cars have skyrocket in recent years, particularly JDM classics. Cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Toyota Supra MK4 are now the domain of Bitcoin “OGs” or people who got in at the ground floor of the Gamestop Short Squeeze.

For us mere financial mortals, it’s probably time to start looking at the second and third-tier of classic cars and JDM heroes. Something like the Altezza RS200 fits the bill. Although these cars have gone up in price, they are still eminently affordable and accessible to the average enthusiast.

For example, here in NZ you might expect to pay around $15,000 (~$9000 USD) for a decent example that has been freshly imported and complied by a dealer. If you’re buying privately you can save even more money, although you miss out on some of the protections that buying from a dealer offers.

Spend a bit more and you can pick up a very clean looking example like this:

Available for sale: https://www.trademe.co.nz/a/motors/cars/toyota/altezza/listing/3541017190

While that isn’t “chump change”, when you consider just how pricey the most desirable JDM cars (and other modern classics) have become, it’s not a bad deal at all.

In fact, part of the motivation behind our Forgotten Heroes series is to highlight cars that fly somewhat under the radar, which are well worth considering purchasing. The “halo cars” of the 1990s and early 2000s are well out of the reach of most of us these days, but here are so many excellent cars that are still well worth considering that just aren’t so desirable.

Reasons Against Buying An Altezza RS200

Many Have Been Thrashed, Abused, And/Or Poorly Modified

Because of the relative affordability of the Altezza – at least as far as “interesting” cars go – it has long been accessible for boy racers, hoons, and those who were potentially able to buy but not necessarily properly maintain or care for their car.

Here in New Zealand, you can often hear an Altezza RS200 coming before you see one because owners have a tendency to modify the exhaust system, which often results in a rather unpleasant raspy and rattly sound (at least at lower RPM).

It’s also not uncommon to see them with aftermarket body kits, wheels, stance kits, suspension or any kind of other “Fast & Furious Jr” mod.

Because of the nature of the 3S-GE engine, which you have to work hard to get maximum power, Altezzas can tend to live a hard life as well. Therefore, it’s critical to buy on condition, and service history if possible.

We would prefer a clean, unmodified example – but if you find one that has been modified to a good standard and you like the mods, then it would be worthy of consideration.

These aren’t the rarest cars out, so it’s better to wait to buy a good one than jump into a purchase you’ll regret.

It Might Be Challenging To Find An Altezza

The Toyota Altezza RS200 is a true JDM car (learn more here about what JDM means).

Unlike the Lexus IS, it was intended only for sale in Japan. This means in markets like the United States it might be tricky to source, import and comply one – particularly owing to the infamous 25 year import law (learn more here on our article about why the Nissan Skyline is illegal in the United States).

We see Altezza RS200s crop up most commonly in countries like New Zealand, where used Japanese imports are common. If you’re interested in buying one of these cars, then you might want to talk to a specialist JDM importer.

We can recommend the following as a starting point:

  • J Cars – New Zealand
  • J Spec Imports – Australia
  • Torque GT – United Kingdom
  • For the United States, we don’t actually know of any specific trusted importers (as such a big country it probably varies state by state who you’d be best to use). Feel free to make suggestions in the comment section.

Incorrect Specifications Make Buying Accurately A Challenge

This is only a minor gripe (if you do your homework and check chassis codes etc it will be easy to solve this problem) but because of the various specifications available for the Altezza, including the six cylinder engine options, Gita sportwagon we’ve seen a number of examples of “misrepresented” cars.

Dealers bring these in and incorrectly call a base RS200 an RS200Z, or call an RS200L an RS200, or call an AS200 an RS200 (or vice versa, or any combination of these kind of specification identification mistakes).

To be fair, the importing dealers – or current owners – are probably just relying on information from whomever they purchased the car from in the first place.

Long story short, it’s important to check the exact specification of the car you’re buying. For example, if the listing says “it definitely has an LSD”, then assume it doesn’t unless you can verify it based off the chassis plate or other verifying info.

The good news? You can sometimes find Altezzas that have been undersold (e.g. someone thinks they’ve got a base AS200 when they’ve actually got an RS200Z, because they just wanted a stylish and practical Toyota sedan at the time they purchased) and score yourself a bargain.

Average Potential Investment Value

This is the corollary to the point we made above about the RS200 Altezza still being affordable to buy … its relative obscurity and fact that it is definitely not in the “top tier” of JDM modern classics mean it is unlikely to be the best investment vehicle going-forward (pun most definitely intended).

We suspect prices will continue to rise, simply as age and mileage take their toll on the surviving fleet, but if you want to try and justify a purchase on the basis that it’s going to make you a capital gain over time, then you might want to look elsewhere.

If you just want an interesting, fun-to-drive and affordable-to-own modern classic and don’t really care about whether you make money on it over time, then the Altezza is worthy of your consideration.

Toyota Altezza FAQs

Is There A Lexus Altezza?

No, there is no Lexus Altezza per se. The Lexus IS200/300 is the Lexus version of the Altezza, although Lexus never sold the car with the 3S-GE BEAMS engine in the RS200 (although the car did come with the excellent 3.0 straight six engine, which presumably Toyota/Lexus figured was better suited to American buyers and driving conditions)

If someone is trying to sell you a Lexus Altezza, then they have either rebadged a Lexus IS200/300 OR they don’t know what they are talking about, or a combination of both.

Is The Lexus IS200/300 or Altezza Better?

In markets such as New Zealand and Australia where you might find both cars for sale (with the Altezza being a used import from Japan) which is better?

Ultimately this comes down to personal preference and how you like your cars to behave.

If you want a more involved and sporty driving experience, then find a manual-equipped Altezza RS200 and don’t look back.

However, if you prefer more luxury features and want a smoother engine that is a bit more refined in its performance and power delivery, the Lexus might be a better option.

Was There An Altezza RS200 Wagon?

No, as far as we are aware, the Altezza RS200/3S-GE engine was only ever available in the sedan.

The Altezza Gita (wagon variant) gets either the 2.0 or 3.0 straight six engine.

For what it’s worth, the Gita/wagon isn’t the best buy in our view as it is nowhere near as stylish as the sedan and it isn’t all that practical.

Recap – Toyota Altezza RS200

If you are interested in buying a true JDM car that combines style, practicality, performance, reliability and economy, then the Toyota Altezza RS200 is well worth consideration.

Although other Altezzas from the lineup aren’t bad at all (one of the editors has driven a 3L Altezza Gita, for example, and it was a great car) it’s the RS200 that is the most interesting and appealing owing to its high-revving engine and sportier nature.

The biggest issue with buying an RS200 Altezza in our view is that many of them – at least from what we can see – have lived a tough life and been driven aggressively, and often modified in a tasteless manner. Here in New Zealand it is common to hear an RS200 before you see it (because some dodgy exhaust has been fitted) only to find it has every panel a different colour, and some tacky body kit added on).

If you can find a nice clean example, which is probably going to be easier if you buy a fresh import as opposed to purchasing one that has already been owned domestically, then you are getting a car that really does tick so many boxes.

The styling is still on-the-money over 20 years later, it’s a sufficiently practical car to use and live with everyday, and with the 3SGE engine you get enough performance to have fun … and in a manner that isn’t easily attainable in today’s world of small turbocharged engines.

And the most important bit? You’ll be cooler than any of your friends who happen to own a Lexus IS.

What do YOU think about the Toyota Altezza RS200? Leave a comment below, it would be great to hear from you.

If you own one, feel free to send any photos or videos to admin@garagedreams.net and we will feature them here (or as a Readers’ Cars feature) if you like!

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