Toyota Altezza: An underrated JDM
"I went from a Need For Speed game to actually having the car in my garage,” says Yash Sawant, as we wrap up our conversation. The car he is referring to is a Japanese sedan that is nearly two decades old, but as the images from the midnight run suggest ― this isn’t a run-of-the-mill Corolla that you might be chauffeured from the airport in. This is a car that demands respect, I found out after a quick web search for the word ‘Altezza’. Originally meant to be Toyota’s answer to the BMW 3 Series, this Toyota Altezza is a gentleman’s car and is the definitive sleeper from Japan, with street cred and rarity that few supercars can claim to offer.
If you’re new to JDMs, here’s a quick introduction to the Altezza. Launched in 1998, the Altezza was sold outside Japan as the Lexus IS 200 or IS 300, and it was offered with multiple engine options, including the 2JZE mill that powered another JDM legend ― the Toyota Supra. The 2JZE-engined Altezza, or the Lexus IS 300 as it was sold outside Japan, was also one of the cars that you started off with in the popular racing game, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, which is where Yash’s affinity for the Altezza began. It was almost fifteen years later that Yash picked up this example from a friend, and while it was a childhood dream come true, it was not off to a smooth start.
The paint had clearly seen better days and the engine was leaking oil in seven places. The suspension was in a truly sorry state too, the car sitting barely 2 to 3 inches over the road and scraping itself at every given opportunity. But Yash wasn’t unnerved by this. These cars are some of the most reliable and easy machines to work on. What is a pain though are parts, and Yash had no choice but to patiently wait for five months as they were imported from Japan, Thailand and even Russia to help bring the car back to its former glory. Once the car was issued with a clean bill of health mechanically, it could now be souped-up.
“I didn’t want to overdo the car,” Yash says, being very clear on that. “There are anyway just three in the country and I wanted to spec it very clean.” Yash isn’t a fan of cars that are modified to look and sound over-the-top, and those sensibilities can be clearly seen in his Altezza. The paint job is custom, and apart from that, all the aesthetic tweaks are very subtle. The 17-inch Lenso Bayern alloy wheels are not too flashy, wrapped in grippy Bridgestone Potenza rubber, and the overall design of the Altezza is timeless. The previous owner of this car had fitted the period-correct RS200 body kit that was available as an accessory from the factory. As a result, the stance of this car is just right. The changes to the interior are subtle too. The stereo and speakers have been upgraded but that is about it. It still feels very much like a JDM from the ’90s, complete with Japanese writing scrawled over the various switches, such as the joystick controlling the voice navigation!
Yash is no doubt an enthusiast with petrol coursing through his veins but the approach he has taken to tune the 1G-FE in-line six under the hood is one that delivers not outright horsepower but better responsiveness which can be enjoyed every day. The naturally-aspirated engine gets a K&N air filter and a full system exhaust from MagnaFlow to allow it to breathe better, liberating a few more horses from the engine. It took Yash almost two and a half months to find a tune for the Altezza as no one in the country could ‘read’ the ECU. Luckily for him, the ECU was finally cracked by Code 6 Mumbai (Mates & Mods) and the car runs a custom map. While the car has not been dyno’d yet, Yash says that the tune has bumped up the power marginally to nearly 170bhp, with a 0-100kmph time of under 8 seconds. “It’s an NA car, so you can’t expect a lot more power but I just improved the way the car drives,” Yash explains. The engine is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and despite this being an old-school unit, the responsiveness of the Altezza is lovely. Yash adds that, “The car’s very light, so even having 170bhp and 210, 220Nm of torque, it’s quick to drive that way.” Ensuring that the Altezza stops on a dime is an upgraded braking setup from Brembo.
This Altezza now runs on upgraded suspension with the ailing stock suspension replaced for OE components from the IS 300 that was powered by the 2JZE. “Those (2JZE) engines were heavier, so the suspension was better tuned to handle that much more power,” Yash explains, adding that the difference between the earlier suspension and the current setup is that of day and night. “No matter how sharp a turn is, I know the car will go. I don’t have to think twice, I don’t have to press the brake during the turn ― I’m that confident in this car,” he beams. The ride is cushy too ― after all, this was intended to be a sedan that executives would commute to work in ― which surprised Yash’s family. “What actually made me buy the car immediately was that my mom really liked it!” he says.
Clearly the Altezza has the right bones to put out a lot more power but that wasn’t the goal for Yash. “You would expect a JDM car to be neck-snapping-ly fast but this one is not,” he clearly states. All he wanted was the poster car from the days when he played Need For Speed. A turbocharger and a manual gearbox are planned for the future but for now, he plans to enjoy his dream machine as he roars through the streets of Maximum City.