REVIEW DATE: 14 Nov 2008
The Lexus IS always presented a very serious challenge to the best of the rest in the compact executive saloon sector. Now it's sharpened up its value proposition. Jonathan Crouch reports
The sharky styling and classy feel of the Lexus IS will be enough to convince many compact executive BMW 3 Series-class buyers of its merits before they even venture aboard, especially now that prices have been sharpened and specifications improved. Once you are behind the wheel, the build quality looks strong and the car handles with a degree of sporty composure. The engines aren't the best out there and space in the back could be more generous but excellent safety, robust security and the famed Lexus dealer network all loom large in the plus column.
For compact executive car buyers fed up with Germany's usual suspects, the Lexus IS would seem to be the default choice. Beautifully styled, robustly built and flawlessly reliable with a dealer network that's routinely steeped in praise by every customer satisfaction survey going, the junior Lexus appears to tick all the boxes. So why hasn't it made more of an impact? Is the IS the market's best kept secret, a car that would be capable of breaking the 3-Series, C-Class and A4 monopoly if only more people knew? Or is the Lexus merely a second tier operator destined to gaze longingly up at the top table along with assorted Saabs, Volvos and Jaguars?
The availability of only single mainstream petrol and diesel engine choices, plus the lack of an estate derivative doesn't help the Japanese brand but in recent times, there have been signs that the marque is going to be doing a bit more to put this under-estimated product on the map. First, there was the introduction of the IS-F high performance flagship variant, too expensive to garner many sales but important as a halo model. Much the same applies to the stylish IS250C convertible. Then, more recently, equipment levels have been improved, prices reduced and a styling tweaks announced for a sharper look.
"For compact executive car buyers fed up with Germany's usual suspects, the Lexus IS would seem to be the default choice.."
As ever, two mainstream engines are offered, one petrol and one diesel. The petrol engine is a beefy 2.5-litre V6 with 202bhp that's quiet, smooth and melodic but has to be worked hard if it's to offer up its best performance. With the delightful six-speed automatic gearbox fitted, it's a tempting package for lazy, relaxed motoring. The 175bhp 2.2-litre diesel is much noisier of course but does serve up 400Nm of torque (as opposed to 249Nm) from as little as 2,000rpm, so you'll not want for pulling power. The diesel takes 8.9s to reach 60mph while the petrol takes 8.1s so both have the pace to match comparatively priced rivals.
The engine range probably won't whet the appetite in quite the way that BMW's 3-Series line-up will but the IS has more definite appeal in other areas. Fast steering and limpet-like grip make the IS a fine car to hurry along in. The suspension is firm and rather un-Lexus like which is great for spirited driving but can become wearing at lower speeds on poor surfaces. Road noise is the only refinement issue with the wind and the engine keeping themselves to themselves so far as the IS's tranquil cabin is concerned. Sport models get a gearbox with shorter ratios that helps you get the most out of the V6 engine.
The most notable recent upgrade is the provision of Lexus's advanced handling and safety system Vehicle Integrated Dynamics Management (VDIM) as standard on all models. VDIM co-ordinates the operation of the car's ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), Traction Control (TRC) and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with the Electric Power Steering (EPS), providing smooth, optimum assistance as the car reaches its performance limits.
The second generation Lexus IS dates back to 2005 and is certainly distinctive. Try imagining this car wearing an Audi or Saab badge. It's quite impossible. More recent models have received slight tweaks to the bumpers, the front grille, the rear lights and the door mirrors but otherwise the eye-catching 'L-finesse' design theme remains intact. It's a very taut, muscular looking design with origami-sharp swage lines and very painstakingly finished detailing. The overall effect is sporty and unapologetically Japanese. It's also beautifully built: the gap between bumpers and adjacent body panels is just 0.35mm for example.
Inside, the interior is also constructed with customary Lexus quality. Some of the materials lack the luxurious feel common to German rivals but there's never any doubt that the IS will stand the test of time. Technophobes will welcome the absence of complex computer control interfaces. In terms of space, those in the front are well catered for but the rear seating area and 378-litre boot are less amply proportioned.
Most Lexus IS sales are made in the £22,000 to £30,000 bracket and you'll be paying a fee at the upper end of that spectrum if you go for the pretty IS250C convertible. Mainstream prices represent a saving of £2,000-£3,000 over fancy German alternatives yet still the Lexus feels the more up-market product. The IS-F super saloon is a different cost question entirely, up at around £50,000 but still OK value compared with a BMW M3. Obvious rivals apart from the inevitable BMW 3 Series/Mercedes C-Class/Audi A4 triumvirate include Saab's 9-3, Alfa Romeo's 159 and Jaguar's X-TYPE.
Lexus customers never go short of equipment and even the entry-level IS has a quota of extras that can put German rivals to shame. The 13-speaker CD stereo system is a cracker then there's climate control, cruise control, tinted glass, electric mirrors and electric windows all round. The IS also comes with excellent safety provision that gives you eight airbags, stability control, traction control, brake assist and brakeforce distribution. Security too is out of the top draw with locking systems to confound the cleverest crooks.
Running costs are crucial to most buying decisions in the compact executive sector and most manufacturers have made significant strides in keeping them down. Crucially for the market sector in which the IS is pitched into, the 2.2-litre common rail 175bhp diesel variant now offers improved CO2 emissions (reduced from 163 to 148g/km) that shift it down to Vehicle Excise Band C.
At the pumps, the diesel is of course the most cost effective at 50mpg but it doesn't have much competition. The V6 petrol can only deliver a 29mpg return on the combined cycle and again its 231g/km emissions seem high given the engine's 202bhp power output. The 215bhp BMW 325i can deliver 40mpg and 170g/km of CO2. As an ownership proposition, the IS redeems itself with strong residual values helped by its relative exclusivity compared to fleet-favourites like the 3-Series and A4.
Many purchasers in the compact executive sector base their decision entirely on specs and figures, hence Lexus' decision to improve equipment and lower prices as part of the most recent package of IS range improvements. The stronger running costs of the diesel variant that many will choose are welcome too - and timely.
It is, after all, easy to overlook the Lexus IS in a market sector that's dominated by BMW, Audi and Mercedes but this car definitely deserves more attention than it sometimes gets. Perhaps it can't quite eclipse the big hitting Teutonic alternatives but the fact that it isn't German will be enough to convince many weary execs yearning for a change.
The results below show the top IS deals on buyacar
|Lexus IS 250C SE-I 2dr Auto convertible|
|Price £28,490||Save £3,245|
|Lexus IS 250 SE-L 4dr Auto [Sunroof/Multimedia/Acc/Pcs] saloon|
|Lexus IS 220d SE-I 4dr  diesel saloon|
|Lexus IS 250 SE-I 4dr Auto  saloon|
|Lexus IS 250 SE-I 4dr Auto [Navigation]  saloon|
|Price £27,364||Save £3,572|
|VIEW MORE DISCOUNT IS DEALS|
|For IS RANGE|
|OVERALL||7.6 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||6|
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