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Click for pictures“All-new IS 220 diesel
  from Lexus targets the
  comparable Audi, BMW
  and Mercedes models
  currently dominating
  this sector. So, has it
  got what it takes to beat
  the Big Three?”

SELLING AT THE PREMIUM end of the C-segment against
the likes of the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 models, the new Lexus IS four-door saloon range — an all-new generation of Lexus
's top-selling sports saloon — also faces tough competition from the Honda Accord 2.2 diesel, the new Alfa 159, Saab 9-3, Jaguar X-Type and Volvo S60.

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.

Lexus sales grew in the UK last year by 5 per cent, with 10,500 registrations. So far this year, and 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 near as big as BMW, Mercedes or Audi maybe, but they are making their mark.

CAP, the motor industry's residual values guide, recently placed the new diesel-powered 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/60,000 miles period. It was a similar story for the petrol-powered 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 it's understandable why both private and business buyers are increasingly attracted to a non-German premium brand. In the USA, Lexus has been the top executive car brand for the last six years.

Initially launched in the UK last November as a 204bhp V6 2.5-litre petrol model, it was quickly followed in January by the all-important 220d diesel, as tested here. When it arrives in April, the 220d Sport version will complete the new IS line-up.

To look at, the new Lexus IS sports saloon is, in many respects, similar to both the BMW 3 Series and the 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 coupé-saloon curved roofline of the C-Class. Other than the rather 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 okay, although the width is limited due to the contoured seating that effectively makes it a four-seater — not a five. The sloping roofline also gives less headroom. In the front the driver appears to have less width, especially in the footwell region, compared to the space provided in the left-hand passenger footwell. Perhaps the fact that Lexus is first and foremost a brand for the left-hand drive American and European markets is to blame. The boot, too, is smaller than that of the major competition, due to wheel arch intrusion.

While interior room is not its strongest point, 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. All IS models have 16-inch alloy wheels, climate control, cruise control, smart keyless entry and start-up, sequenced LED interior lighting, electric windows and electrically-operated folding heated door mirrors and a 13-speaker sound system with an in-dash, six-disc CD player. SE models have full leather upholstery with electrically-adjustable, heated and ventilated front seats and 17-inch alloys.

The technical specification is also comprehensive and includes ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist System (BAS), Traction Control (TRC) and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) — although the latter is not fitted to Sport variants.

The Lexus IS range of petrol and diesel models starts at 22,200 and tops out at 28,000. The cheapest model — significantly because of
its company car appeal — is the IS 220d. My test version was the 220d SE, priced at 25,200. But with a few added 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 not everything is perfect with this diesel model. Yes, it uses Toyota's very-refined, all-aluminium 4-cylinder 2.2-litre turbocharged common-rail direct-injection diesel engine with a power output of 175bhp. And yes, it is very quiet and not short on torque — 295lb ft, delivered between 2,000rpm and 2,600rpm.

However, the big issue is the gearing. It is so high that it makes the 220d best suited to the role of open-road cruiser. And it's 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 that the new Sport version will have lower gearing and will be a better car for it.

On A- and B-roads and in town, significant engine revs are required to get the car moving — a very untypical diesel engine characteristic. When 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 it does mar the overall driving pleasure.

For a business user spending most of his or her time behind the wheel on motorways, it will be fine. But for day in, 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 to alleviate this. A shame, because with a top speed of 134mph and a 0-62mph time of 8.9 seconds, it has the potential for good driving enjoyment. It is all the more frustrating because a newly-developed, close-ratio six-speed automatic, which has steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts for sequential manual gear selection, is available on the IS 250.

There is, I'm pleased to say, some welcome payback for the high gear-ing: fuel economy and carbon dioxide emissions are both excellent and pointedly of benefit to business users. A combined figure of 44.8mpg can be achieved (35.8 urban and 52.3mpg touring), and Lexus say the IS 220d is also the cleanest premium diesel model available, putting out just 169g/km for emissions.

The 220d's ride and handling are certainly not as sharp as that of the best in this sector — BMW's 320d — and not as good as comparable Mercedes or Audi models either. The Lexus does get unsettled on poorer road surfaces, when the road noise is more evident too — probably because the car, in other aspects, is actually very quiet.
The lack of noise is down to the fact that Lexus intended the new IS to deliver class-leading NVH performance — achieved through a
number of innovations including the world's first sound-absorbing sun visors, acoustic glass in the front screen and exceptionally close
panel fit.

I wasn't happy with the high gearing, the unsettled ride, tight rear interior space and the fact that an automatic transmission is not offered. Plus points include the growing brand desirability, very good build quality, high standard specification and good residual values.
Even if potential buyers come to a similar conclusion after taking a
test drive, for many of them the fact that it's not wearing a badge from one of the Big Three will, I think, be an important deciding factor when it comes to buying. — David Miles

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Lexus IS 220d SE | 25,200
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
MPG: 44.8mpg | Power: 175bhp | Torque: 295lb ft

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------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Lexus IS