Engine: 2.5 litre petrol
Performance: 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, 31.0mpg
Worth considering: Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class
Toyota's luxury car outfit, Lexus, has been present in Europe for 15 years. In that time it's won plenty of respect but its cars still seem to be outnumbered on the roads by those of the prestige German manufacturers.
I suspect that one reason for this is that 15 years isn't much more than the blink of an eye when it comes to establishing a luxury car brand. Audi, for example, has only really earned its place in the top bracket after 40 years of trying, and that was working with a revived badge, rather than a completely new one. In the US, where they are less sniffy about these questions of automotive pedigree, of course, Lexus has been wildly successful, as have the other Japanese luxury brands - Honda's Acura and Nissan's Infiniti - which aren't even sold here.
So what would it take for Europeans to embrace Lexus more wholeheartedly? One area where the Japanese don't need to expend any additional effort is that of engines and transmissions; these are just about as good as anything else on the market. And given that Lexus is part of Toyota, you can also take it for granted that the cars are better built and more reliable than most.
Where Lexus has so far not quite hit the mark for a lot of Europeans is in terms of style; some of the switchgear, for example, has looked a bit like it's come from, say, a Corolla. You know it's going to stand up to a few hundred thousand miles of hard use without any problems but it looks unappealingly hard and shiny. And the exterior design of previous Lexus models lacked character; the cars were nicely proportioned but bland, as well as somewhat derivative. The original IS, replaced recently by this new version on which our readers pass their verdict this week, looked like a straight morphing together of the last-generation models of the Mercedes C-Class and the BMW 3-Series.
But this new IS is different - the traditional strengths such as the near-silent drivetrain are preserved but after years of trying, Lexus finally seems to be grasping the mysterious process by which the European luxury manufacturers inject desirability - as distinct from quality - into their cars. The instruments are better and the cabin colours and materials are too.
And with the styling of the IS, Lexus seems to be finding a design language of its own, too; handsome but not too obviously inspired by anything else. The only jarring note is the radiator grille, which incorporates unusual vertical fins that fan out, Ssangyong fashion - but that was just about the only significant nit I could find to pick.
Dave Patchett, 47, Architect, Wirral, usual car: Saab 900 Classic Aero Turbo
First impressions on seeing this new model left me a little disappointed - just like the rest now, I thought. The interior was an improvement on previous models, cool perforated charcoal leather upholstery with timber trims and a bit of brushed stainless steel to appeal to thirtysomething boy racers.I was having fun with the steering-column-mounted paddle gear change until I selected a downshift and found the engine management system was really in control. On the motorway I was surprised at how easily a crosswind pushed the car sideways and disappointed that the top-end acceleration did not match my 15-year-old Saab Turbo.
Mik Escolme, 35, Teacher, Sandbach, Cheshire, usual car: Peugeot 405
What struck me was just how quiet the engine was. Even at high speed there is very little cabin noise. The car grips to the road well and the ride is very smooth. Although the car has a sporty look and feel it didn't perform like a sports car - it's not slow but there are many cars which would out accelerate it. It was very comfortable to drive; a lot of care seems to have been taken to enable you to get the perfect driving position. All the controls are in easy reach of the driver and have a satisfying feel of quality to them. The back seats are comfortable but leg and head room are in short supply. Similarly, the boot was smaller than I expected. It's a nice car, not a great car.
Andrew Leahy, 27, Doctor, Manchester, usual car: VW Golf GT
In a class where looks are important, I think that the Lexus is an attractive car from the side, but I was unable to warm to the front end's appearance. Inside the car you got the feel of Lexus's renowned build quality and generous specification, although we struggled a little at times with the windows steaming up. To drive the IS did not feel overly big; it was beautifully quiet and handled the Pennine corners with ease despite the steering being light on feel. The performance on the motorway improved once we switched to the automatic's sport mode. Given it is an executive car, for me it just lacked that feeling that I was driving something special.
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