Now along comes Lexus with the IS200, which is not seeking to make a small inroad into this market, but instead storm in with 5,500 sales this year and about 8,000 next year - almost twice the amount of big brother LS400s and GS300s it sold last year. So will the IS200 rank up there with the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz? Lexus says a categorical yes.
Already the Japanese manufacturer claims to have had almost 1,000 deposits paid on the cars without anyone having driven them and with well over a month to go before it goes on sale. And Lexus says fleets will be won over with the lower running costs of the IS200, putting it at a price advantage over its rivals. It estimates that the SE - which is expected to be the biggest seller in the fleet market - will have a contract hire rate of about £5 less per month than an equivalently specified BMW 318i.
It is clear Lexus means business, targeting fleets with the promise of low wholelife costs along with a high specification even on the base-model S at £20,500. Standard specification on the S includes a six-speed gearbox, electric windows, switchable traction control, twin and side airbags, climate control air conditioning, six-disc CD autochanger, power steering, remote central locking, three-spoke leather-trim steering wheel, immobiliser, double locking, full size spare wheel and 16in alloy wheels.
Extras on the SE at £22,000 include electric sunroof, wide-view rear mirror, front windscreen de-icer, heated front seats, leather and 'Ecsane' suede-look trim, headlamp washers and 17in alloys. And on the Sport at £23,000 the extras include limited slip differential, drilled aluminium pedals, rear spoiler, stainless steel scuff plates, stainless steel exhaust pipe, rear dark tinted glass and two-tone steering wheel.
To emphasise value for money, Lexus has compared the pricing of the SE with its closest rivals at the same specification, which reveals that the SE comes in as the lowest priced car by more than £1,000. At the same specification level the prices are: IS200 SE £22,000, Alfa Romeo 156 2.0 Twin Spark Sport 1 £23,115.74, Audi A4 1.8 SE £24,133.57, BMW 318i SE £25,720 and Mercedes C180 Elegance £29,400.90.
And Lexus says it only loses out on the power stakes to Alfa Romeo with its 2.0-litre 155bhp engine just pipping the 153bhp put out by the IS200's straight-six. The 2.0-litre Audi has 125bhp, the Mercedes 122bhp, while the BMW 318i comes in last at 118bhp. But of course, while the Lexus has the power benefit, it still only offers one engine, which fleets looking at the user-chooser list may find a little limiting. Lexus is dropping hints that there may be a 2.5-litre version, or even the introduction of the 3.0-litre V6 from the GS300, but nothing has been confirmed for the immediate future.
Lexus's proud boasts are all well and good - the car might be cheaper, better specified and more economical to run for fleets, but the question still stands: will the company car driver allow the IS200 into this select little club? If offered the choice of a 3-series (complete with envious looks from the neighbours) or a Lexus, is there still any choice when it comes to brand image?
At the moment the answer is no, but things could change - in the luxury sector Lexus has done great things since its launch as a brand just 10 years ago, establishing itself with the LS400 and GS300.
But it is these two cars which have made things doubly tough for Lexus in gaining a more sporty image rather than the 'fat-cat' businessman suited to the luxury models. Lexus hopes to alter this image with its sporty model, which rather than targeting the 45-year-old plus bracket is instead looking to win sales from the 35-45 age group.
Lexus has gone all out on the styling to make the car as appealing as possible to this group, almost as if it took a list of features which make a car sporty in the prestige market, and stuck every one on, from lots of silver edged dials to a polished aluminium gear knob. And the car is superb to drive, its crisp handling and braking was put to the test at the launch of the vehicle in the south of France, on open motorways and more trying mountain roads - complete with a stream of hairpin bends.
All of these were handled effortlessly, with the front and rear double-wishbone suspension giving a smooth ride, as the 2.0-litre straight-six engine roars out its 153bhp taking the car from 0-62mph in 9.5 secs in the six-speed manual, before settling down to an almost inaudible purr on the open road.
On a long run and when throwing the car into corners, the leather and fabric seats are comfortable and hold you firmly. The gear change is heavy and snappy, although it did seem a little long at first, and I'm still not all that convinced about the necessity for six gears.
The exterior squat and stocky looks make it seem smaller than many other cars in its class, and indeed it is slightly shorter than a 3-series, but the interior volume is larger than all its rivals. These looks first give a menacing impression - add the black rear windows which accompany the Sport and the threatening image is complete.
This image continues inside the vehicle with the chrome finishing and, of course, the radical styling for the new chronograph instrument display. The whole car had a very German feel - powerful with a good, solid build quality. Close the doors and they thud shut without a rattle.
This is obviously what Lexus was looking for, and it now remains to be seen whether fleets can be won over by the IS200.
However, I do not believe BMW has too much to worry about with the arrival of this latest contender, with the German manufacturer offering a wide range of engines and trim levels compared to the IS200's one engine and three trims. But the Mercedes C-class could be in a great deal of trouble. Now relatively old and facing a new model in the new millennium, the C-class is by far the weaker target. Another win area for the Lexus will be with the drivers which have turned to the Alfa Romeo for 'something different' but now fancy something which promises an even better reliability record and improved reliability and build quality.