He then reveals that the IS200 SportCross was inspired by the wish of the chief engineer on the project, Nobuaki Katayama, to be able to fit his go-kart in the back of a Lexus.
This mix of the homely and the worldy fits well with the Lexus brand. It wants to be the best – but in a quiet, controlled way. The IS200 brought Lexus an unprecedented slice of the premium car market, in the UK in particular. Introduced in 1999, the IS200 was responsible for a 100% increase in sales for the company. In 2001, Lexus sold more than 23,000 units in Europe and in four years, its sales volume has tripled. Its biggest market in Europe is the UK, followed by Germany and Italy.
Lexus plans to sell about 2,000 of the new SportCross in a full year, including 1,200 in the UK. The IS200 SportCross shares the front bumper of the IS300 SportCross, but with a lower grille seal and a lip spoiler designed to improve aerodynamics and distinguish it from other models. Lexus has gone to great pains to avoid the standard box-like shape of estates and given the car a sleek rear, more familiar to coupes. The boot is made from aluminium to reduce the weight of the car and it encloses a 340-litre luggage space, increased to 620 litres with the rear seats folded.
Interior design features include drilled aluminium pedals, stainless steel scuff plates, rear tinted glass, roof spoiler and two-tone steering wheel.
Standard spec includes manual gearbox, alloy wheels, nine-speaker sound system with six CD autochanger, electric sunroof, twin front airbags and curtain airbags. Anti-lock brakes and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution with Brake Assist and traction control come as standard. A Navigator sat-nav system is available as an option for £2,340.
Behind the wheel
Lexus held the press launch of the car in Italy and getting lost on the outskirts of Rome on a first drive in a left-hand drive car is hardly the recipe for relaxed motoring. It is a credit to the IS200 SportCross that I made it back to the UK at all under such stressful conditions.
Lexus has given the car a classy feel, all black leather and plastic with chrome touches on the dials that is both supremely functional and appealing to the eye. I got in and but for sliding the seat back did nothing else to make myself comfortable. Italian roads are not for the fainthearted, but the 153bhp engine provides enough power to accelerate out of trouble without putting it under pressure.
Lexus has been successful in engineering the car to drive like a saloon, rather than a 'heavy' estate.
The only issue I have is with the six-speed gearbox. The extra gear adds nothing to the driveability in bustling towns. It's more a hindrance and I was even conscious that the engine was revving too high in sixth for comfort which could be explained by the fact that the car reaches it maximum torque figure at a relatively high 4,600 rpm.
Impeccable road manners, superb build quality and an abundance of unique styling have already established the IS200 as the choice for the more discerning premium car driver.
The SportCross gives that person a little more to choose from without diluting the brand's appeal.
Plus with limited sales targets, if you're playing a game of 'eye spy' in the car with your children don't choose this Lexus, because you just won't be seeing more than one of them in a month.
In a head-to-head with arch rivals, the Mercedes-Benz C200 estate, Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series Touring, I'd consider 'turning Japanese' and choosing the Lexus. The Lexus driving experience is clearly based on the old-shape 3-series, which means a lusty six-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive and a real focus on driver involvement. However, the downside is the Lexus' high CO2 emissions which have an unhealthy impact on a driver's benefit-in-kind tax bill.
Model: IS200 Sportcross
Engine (cc): 1,988
Power (bhp/rpm): 153/6,200
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 144/4,600
Max speed (mph): 134
0-62mph (secs): 9.5
Comb fuel economy (mpg): 28.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 233
Service interval: 2yrs/20,000 miles (safety check every 12 months/10,000miles)
On sale: Now
Price (OTR): £21,990