Selling at the premium end of the C-segment against the likes of the German BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C- Class and Audi A4 models, and facing strong competition from the Honda Accord 2.2 diesels, the new Alfa 159, not to mention the Jaguar X-Type, Saab 9-3 and Volvo S60, the new IS sports four-door saloon range from Lexus faces tough competition.
A formidable task on paper but it appears that Lexus, the premium brand from Toyota, is winning the battle for sales. Although German brands dominate this sector, especially with the business and fleet markets, Lexus is securing a respectable following by customers who want something different.
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Lexus sales grew in the UK last year by 5 per cent with 10,500 registrations. So far this year with the introduction of the new IS range, sales are up 73 per cent. It is the same story in Europe where Lexus sales this year should rise by a further third to around 45,000 units. Not anywhere as big as BMW, Mercedes or Audi but they are making their mark.
Recently CAP, the motor industry's residual values guide, placed the new Lexus IS 220d ahead of the BMW 320d ES and the Mercedes C220 CDI SE. CAP predicts the IS 220d will retain 54 per cent of its value over the three year/60,0000 period. It was a similar story for the petrol engined IS 250 as well.
Lexus also came top in the latest National Franchised Dealers Association survey achieving the highest ratings in the industry for customer care, dealer support, training, product price and vehicle and parts supply. Lexus also consistently comes near the top in other customer satisfaction surveys so you can see why both private and business buyers are more and more being attracted to a non-German premium brand. In the USA, Lexus has been the top executive car brand for the last six years.
Looking at the new IS sports saloon, initially launched last November in the UK with the all important 220d diesel models added in January and to be followed in April by the 220d Sport, the car is similar in many respects to both the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class. It has the wide muscular wheel arches, waist down profile and integral lip spoiler in the boot lid of the BMW and the side coupe-saloon curved roof line from the C-Class. Other than the nondescript and bland face and grille of the Lexus, it would be hard to spot the difference between all three makes.
Inside the Lexus, especially in the rear, it appears to be less roomy than the BMW and Mercedes. The rear seat legroom is OK but the width is limited due to the contoured seats so effectively it is a four seater not a five. The sloping roofline also gives less headroom. In the front the driver's position appears to have less width, especially in the footwell region compared to the space provided in the left hand passenger footwell. Perhaps the legacy that Lexus is first and foremost a brand for the left hand drive USA and European markets plays are part in this. Even the luggage boot is smaller than the major competition due to wheel arch intrusion.
So interior room is not its strongest point. However safety and security features are. The standard equipment includes a full array of eight front, side and knee airbags right through to etched glass. The overall quality can also be rated highly. There is a comprehensive array of extra cost options as well. However all IS models have climate control, keyless entry and start up button, sequenced LED interior lighting, electric windows and electrically operated folding heated door mirrors and a 13 speaker sound system with in-dash six-disc CD player. SE models upwards have full leather upholstery and front seats, which are ventilated and electrically adjustable.
The technical specification is also comprehensive and of course this includes anti-lock braking, traction control and a vehicle stability programme, although the later is not fitted to Sport variants. Alloy roads wheels are standard.
The Lexus IS range of petrol and diesel models starts at £22,200 and rises to £28,000. The cheapest model is the IS 220d significantly because of its company car appeal. My test version was the 220d SE priced at £25,200, but with a few extras including the superb Mark Levinson surround sound audio package and a DVD navigation system, the car weighed in at a hefty £27,800.
So far so good. But all things are not perfect with this diesel model. Yes it uses the very refined Toyota 2.2-litre, 4-cylinder, low emission turbocharged direct injection diesel engine with a power output of 175bhp. It is very quiet and not short on torque which is 400Nm developed from 2,000rpm to 2,600 rpm.
However the big issue is that the gearing is so high it is an open road cruiser. It is almost impossible to use sixth gear at anything much below 60mph unless you are driving on a motorway. The torque is there but the gearing is wrong and I gather the new Sport version will have lower gearing and will be a better car for it.
On A or B roads and in town significant engine revs are required to get the car moving which is very unlike typical diesel engine characteristics. If you want to overtake a slower vehicle you need to change down two or even three gears. Fortunately the six speed manual gearbox is smooth and precise so you can block gearchange to do this but overall driving pleasure is not so good.
If you are a business user driving most of the time on a motorway it will be ok. For day in and day out motoring it does not appeal or perform anywhere as well as the BMW, Mercedes and Audi models. Unfortunately no automatic transmission option is available either.
True the top speed is 134mph and the 0-62mph is 8.9 seconds so it has the potential but not the driving enjoyment. Because of its high gearing, fuel economy and low CO2 emissions are excellent and of benefit to business users. Around 44.8mpg can be achieved with 169 g/km for emissions putting it in VED band F.
Ride and handling is certainly not as sharp as the BMW 320d, the best in this sector, and it's not as good as the Mercedes or Audi comparable models either. The car does get unsettled on poorer road surfaces and the road noise is more evident, probably because the car in other aspects is very quiet.
Lexus IS 220d SE.
Price with options: £27,800.
Engine: Four-cylinder, 2.2-litre, all-aluminium, common rail direct injection with turbocharger. 175bhp and 400Nm of torque.
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-62mph 8.9 seconds, 44.8mpg, CO2 168g/km.
VED band: F.
Insurance group: 13E.
For: Growing brand desirability, build quality, high specification, good residual values.
Against: Gearing too high, unsettled ride, tight rear interior space, no automatic transmission.