Fleet News

Lexus IS

Lexus

Review

WHEN Lexus launched the first IS, much was made of it being a real threat to the 3-series, A4 and C-class monopoly, but in truth that threat didn’t materialize into full-on attack.

While it was a great looking car, the lack of a diesel, a naffly-designed interior and the overpowering strength of German branding ensured it was a left-field choice in the UK fleet market.

Lexus is hoping the new IS will make more of the promise that definitely exists for the brand in the UK. It looks fantastic, there is a bigger network of dealers, and the interior is more sober.

Silky petrol engines have been the mainstay of Lexus, but is one of the reasons it has never made as big an impact as it should in the corporate market. The IS250 comes with a 204bhp 2.5-litre V6, with either six-speed manual or auto. But that will not be a key motor for corporate buyers.

What is really important is that the IS is the first Lexus to be fitted with a diesel – the 175bhp 2.2-litre unit that is also being used by Toyota in the Avensis and Corolla Verso.

Only available in manual, and with average economy of 44.8mpg and CO2 emissions of 168g/km, it claims to be especially efficient, although our test vehicle could not get within a country mile of those economy figures.

The diesel IS is expected to take the lion’s share of sales, at about 70%, but in total volume Lexus is being conservative, reckoning on 7,400 sales a year. In its best year with an all-petrol range of the old model, it sold 7,000.

Why such conservatism? According to Stuart McCullough, director, Lexus Europe, it is because Lexus would rather let the IS find its natural level as opposed to forcing a pre-determined, and possibly unsustainable, volume on the network.

Not surprisingly the IS comes extremely well equipped, as is the Lexus way, with all models having climate control, six-disc CD player, cruise control and electric windows. Only the base model has cloth seats, with SE and SE-L versions having leather and Sport models a material similar to Alcantara. Prices start at £22,200 for the IS220d, with the IS250 starting at £22,400. The IS 220d SE-L looks good value at £27,800.

There are few options, certainly when compared to the vast portfolio offered by the Germans. McCullough says the reason for this is two-fold – the engineers do not believe you can maintain quality and testing standards when every car is built to individual specification, and that lots of bespoke cars hurt residual values.

As a result, many options are built into packs. This is all well and good, but if you want the trick Mark Levinson audio system, you also have to shell out for satellite navigation and a rear parking camera, at a total cost of £2,700 for the Multimedia pack.

Automatic SE-L models also have the option of adaptive cruise control. This has to come with the Pre Safe system, which will detect an impending impact (only with something metallic though) and tighten the front seatbelts and increase braking if it thinks the driver isn’t giving the middle pedal enough welly.

However, it is more than £2,500 for adaptive cruise control and Pre Safe, and looks like a tough sell – drivers don’t generally like paying for systems they don’t believe they’ll ever need.

Lexus is well aware that as it is competing with some of the strongest brands on the market, it has to hit the mark not only with the product, but with costs as well.

In particular, it reckons it has the edge in servicing costs, claiming fleets will pay out £1,800 compared to £2,200 for a similar Audi A4, through shorter services and cheaper, longer-lasting parts.

With many of the IS orders going through leasing firms, a strong residual forecast is as important as solid maintenance costs and CAP is predicting RVs in the high 40%s for both models after three years/60,000 miles. This puts it up at the top of the segment, with the low volumes and reliability key reasons for this forecast.

Behind the wheel

ONE of the key pillars of Lexus is quality – obsessive Toyota manufacturing values, but with much higher quality materials. And elements like the leather seats certainly are of a standard far above what you would get on an equivalent BMW or Audi.

The cabin is beautifully appointed, and far more stylish and elegantly simple than the old model, where the black and gold décor reminded me of a provincial nightclub.

The Optitron backlit instrument panel is crystal clear and the layout of the switchgear is much less fussy, although the touch screen sat-nav has a worrying tendency to provide you with vast amounts of confusing information.

But we had a couple of niggles with our test cars. On one, the sat-nav didn’t really enjoy the navving bit of it, and seemed to have a pretty tenuous link to any sats as well, getting us lost on more than one occasion. And the second car had a rattle in the passenger-side door pillar. Because you expect a 100% pass rate from Lexus, these relatively minor annoyances take on a disproportionately large importance.

Over the past three or four years, nearly every launch we’ve written about has included some well-crafted words about how the diesel is far superior to the petrol. And certainly, the 2.2-litre 175bhp diesel in the IS continues to set new levels in refinement. Once it has warmed up it is remarkably quiet and smooth.

But apart from that, it has very little to recommend it. There is huge turbo lag, and nothing much happens before 2,500rpm and after 4,000rpm. Allied to oddly spaced, long gearing, especially in second and third, the IS220 is sluggish, dull-witted and frustrating. Apparently, Sport models will get closer ratios to make the most of the engine. I’d suggest all versions need it.

This is a very heavy car. At more than 1,600kg, it weighs as much as the larger Audi A6, and is barely any lighter than the bigger GS. And that weight counts when it comes to fuel consumption. I know these things are not the most reliable, but the trip computer was showing 28mpg at motorway cruising speeds and 25mpg on country lanes.

There’s also a tiny amount of space in the back, in terms of headroom and legroom, and the boot is hardly cavernous.

The IS is very refined, and at cruising speed is wonderfully quiet. Lexus has worked so hard on reducing noise levels that even the sun visors have sound deadening materials. It also rides very well, and while the handling isn’t as sprightly as a 3-series, it strikes a good comfort/sport balance.

Driving verdict

THE IS looks great, has a beautifully-built cabin and should have good running costs. But the diesel is a major disappointment, and that cannot be good news in such a fiercely competitive sector.

Model: IS250 IS220d
Max power (bhp/rpm): 204/6,400 175/3,600
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 186/4,800 295/2,000
Max speed (mph): 144 (141) 134
-62mph (secs): 8.1 (8.4) 8.9
Fuel consumption (mpg): 28.8 (31) 44.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 231 (214) 168
Prices (OTR): £22,200–£28,000

(Figures in brackets for auto)

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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