The overall rating of a review is different from a simple average of all individual ratings.
Share this review on
The Japanese, apparently, are fantastic at developing existing ideas into something new but seldom create something original. Invent a calculator, the Japanese will make it smaller. Make a television, they come back with a 42 inch plasma screen that you hang on the wall. All of this is brilliant for cold, functional devices, but how well does it work when they put their minds to something with a bit of soul, a little passion… like a sports saloon.
Lexus is the luxury division of Toyota, formed several years ago when Toyota realised that nobody was going to buy one of their cars instead of a BMW 7 series or Mercedes S Class, no matter how good it was. They needed to create a premium brand car, which normally takes decades, with an immediate presence. This led to the Lexus LS400, which was superb but did not have the brand impact to impress European snob values. Years later it is regarded as a fine car, but people still can’t get past the fact that it isn’t a German limo.
In 1999, Lexus launched the IS200 – aimed at the executive sports saloon market.
King of the sports saloons was, and still is, the BMW 3 series. Fine engines, great driving experience, bags of driveway kudos and built so solidly that you would think it was carved out of granite. Nobody in Europe has been able to shift the 3 series from the top of every thrusting exec’s wish list (who said yuppies were a thing of the past) but Lexus were undaunted and decided to clone this winning formula.
Just like the 3 series, the IS200 got a straight six 2.0 litre engine, rear wheel drive, sporty, and aggressive styling. Everything, in fact, to make it look like a strong contender – on paper at least. It was in June 2000 that I joined a company with a pretty generous company car policy and for the first (and only) time in my life I had my pick of a really tasty choice of vehicles.
Ruling out the VW’s, Fords, Vauxhalls, etc., I found that I could just about scrape into a BMW 320 SE and even went for a test drive. It was an impressive car, everything responded as I had imagined – precise steering, instant brakes, gear changes that flattered, a healthy shove in the back whenever the accelerator was applied and so on. However, there was just one problem – it was a BMW. You see, I don’t associate myself with the pushy, superior image that I personally perceived BMW still had. I liked the car, but I just didn’t like the baggage – so where was I going to get a non-BMW BMW? I think you can see where this is going.
By coincidence, the IS200 was doing the usual round of new car reviews in all the auto magazines and it really caught my eye. All the reviews said the same thing – it was like a BMW 3 series, but not quite, which sounded just the job.
I booked myself a test drive and arrived at Lexus (Leeds) on a sunny afternoon. The first thing that struck me was the immaculate design of the showroom. Great walls of curved glass, the swirly Lexus ‘L’ logo scattered subtly around the pristine walls. The cars were fantastically well presented, gleaming like jewels. Being in the soulless BMW dealer was like a black and white movie, but in the Lexus palace I was on the set of Star Wars. It was over the top, definitely ostentatious, but immediately made me feel special – this had the wow factor and no mistake.
The sales people were understated, efficient, courteous and unassuming. I was in jeans, T shirt and trainers, but they treated me like I was head to toe in Gucci.
Leading me out to the demonstration car, I appraised the IS200 for the first time “in the metal”. The car squatted firmly on the tarmac, quietly confident and cool. Subtly flared wheel arches framed 17 inch 5 spoke alloy wheels. A powerful bonnet bulge (don’t read too much into this) sloped down to the chunky grille and headlamps, tinted windows hinted at the mysterious. I loved it.
In contrast, the interior is a riot of vulgar, flashy styling. Black leather and suede seats sat low in the car and I slid into the drivers seat, it’s side bolsters gripping me reassuringly. Looking past the thick, leather covered steering wheel, the speedo and rev counter stared back at me. Distinctively styled to resemble a precision watch, within the face of the speedo are smaller analogue instrument faces for fuel tank, engine temperature, and fuel consumption rate. Drilled aluminium pedals and a heavy polished steel gear knob completed the picture. I loved it even more. Buy it? If it had brass handles on the sides, I would have let you bury me in it.
On the road, it was a dream. Not as fast or as firm as the BMW, but it made me feel good. The driving position, the feel of the materials, the satisfying, easy snick-snick of the gearbox, all making me feel like I was the greatest driver in the world even though I never took it above 50. And the engine! – the exhaust note, they told me, had been specifically tuned to sound great without being too intrusive inside the otherwise whisper quiet cabin – and anal though that attention to detail might be, it is priceless. I’ll never forget the smooth racy rumble of the sweet straight six, growing to a banshee’s wail just before the 7,500 rpm rev limiter. Big grins all round. Pure and simple fun. Passion. Thrills. It had it all and it wasn’t a beemer.
I could let the harsh realities creep in to my memories – the appalling fuel consumption, due to the engine being not quite as thrifty as a BMW and the car being fairly heavy – the annoying ping ping ping safety noise that came on whenever reverse gear was engaged, as if I wouldn’t know which direction I was going in! – the tiny boot…
None of that matters and so it shouldn’t because a sporty saloon is not a practical choice, it is a victory of heart over head. What matters is that it was terrific to drive, came with heaps of kit – 6 disc CD player, climate control, electric heated seats, electric sunroof, funky door mirrors that folded in at the touch of a button – which made it boy toy heaven.
I still remember it fondly three years later and if any of this sounds like it would be your cup of tea, go and get one. Don’t delay, just go and treat yourself to one, even if it is only for six months – you won’t regret it and the experience will stay with you forever.
What a refreshing review - it's a very tempting proposition, even more so in IS300 form. I agree with your BMW comments - they are great cars (I'm on my second) but there is a certain perceived 'BMW Driver' image. Unfortunately, because of the popularity and availability of the 3 Series, anyone can own one (in some guise or other). The Lexus is still quite a rarity on our roads, and is a very nice looking motor. Toyota have done very well! Good choice, roll on the IS430! Then maybe, just maybe, I might be persuaded out of my Bimmer!
OKkaraoke 03.02.2004 20:23
Sounds amazing! I especially like the 6-disk CD player feature.