After several years of success building larger sedans to compete against the German brands, Lexus decided it was time to build a 3 Series fighter.
Not a lot of sedans really become iconic tuner cars, and those that do tend to have impressive rallying pedigrees. But the Toyota Altezza, later to be imported to the US as the Lexus IS 300, would prove to have massive tuning potential. The Altezza would even prove to have some styling influences which would reach beyond just this model. It might have seemed like an ordinary 3 Series fighter in stock form, but it was so much more than that.
By the late Nineties, Toyota and Lexus were having a good deal of success competing with the big names in German luxury when it came to bigger, more expensive cars, but the sportiness which attracted buyers to lower-priced smaller models was lacking. It was therefore decided to build a sport sedan which would be sold as a Toyota in Japan and as a Lexus in Europe and North America. This would be the Altezza, first launched in 1998 for Japan and Europe and 2000 in the US. Several different engines were offered, but at first there was only one available in the US. Fortunately, this one engine was also the only one that was really of any interest.
This engine was the 2JZ-GE, a 3.0-liter inline-six which produced 215 horsepower. Those with a gift for remembering engine codes will notice that this is the same engine that was found in non-turbo versions of the Supra. This meant that, even when the car was brand new, quite a few performance parts already existed for it, including the necessary parts to make your own turbo version. This was in fact one of the favorite tuning practices for the Altezza. Switching to forged internals and then bolting on a turbo kit could make for some really quite dramatic power gains.
Increases of 150 percent on pump gas were common, and those who made the necessary changes for the car to be able to handle the power were known at times to have been able to get as much as 800 horsepower out of an Altezza. As great as the Altezza was for tuning, it wasn't really the car itself, and more Toyota's 2JZ engine which was popular. This was evidenced by the sudden drop off in its popularity with tuners when the second generation debuted with a new engine in 2006. The name Altezza was even dropped at this point for the Japanese market, and the car became the Lexus IS in all regions as Toyota brought its export luxury brand home to roost.
In 2010, Lexus introduced an F Sport version of the car in an attempt to recapture some of the sportiness which made the earlier car so exciting, and it's really not a bad car at all. But the tuning potential just isn't what it was. Of course, there is now an IS with a 5.0-liter V8, but this just isn't the same as having a Supra engine in your sedan. One area where the car had an unexpectedly large influence was its taillights. Even before the car was first sold in the US, aftermarket parts companies were selling "Altezza lights" for a variety of different cars, many of which weren't even Toyotas.
These became "Lexus lights" in many cases, after the car was introduced to the US market and the clear taillight style began to spread to other Lexus models. Why exactly they caught on so quickly is difficult to say, but for a while, they served as a visual indicator that a car had been tuned (even if the extent of this tuning was the addition of a fart-can muffler), and was a sort of secret handshake of the tuning world. The Altezza's tenure as a tunable sport sedan was pretty brief, and probably would have barely gotten off of the ground were it not for the ease with which Supra parts could be repurposed.