The Independent Road Test: Posh, yes, but not a patch on big brother: Roger Bell finds the new Toyota Lexus luxurious and accomplished, but lacking the 'magic carpet serenity' of its elder sibling

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Lexus is a dirty word in the boardrooms of Europe's luxury car makers. Since its introduction in 1988, the name on Toyota's poshest saloons has come to symbolise quality and customer satisfaction even more than that of Mercedes-Benz. The pounds 42,000 LS400, quieter than a Rolls-Royce and less than half the price, dominates its market sector in the US and outsells Merc's beleaguered S- class cars in Britain. The new pounds 31,350 GS300 rivals cheaper versions of Jaguar's XJ6, BMW's 5-series and the E-class Mercedes.

Toyota describes the six-cylinder GS300 as a 'luxury compact'. It is certainly luxurious, including heated seats, leather-and-walnut trim, two airbags, air-conditioning and electric power for practically everything that moves (seats, sunroof, steering wheel, windows, locks, mirrors, bootlid, filler flap). But compact? Not at more than 16ft in length. Space-wasting packaging accounts for the poky, high-lipped boot and a rear compartment less roomy than a Ford Granada's.

Italdesign of Italy styled the shovel-nosed, high-tailed GS300, which is not as restrained in appearance as the LS400. Its powerful engine is a non-turbo version of the Toyota Supra's 3.0-litre 'six', driving the rear wheels (as in a Jag or a Merc) through a smooth, responsive four-speed automatic transmission. There is no manual alternative. Performance is strong, especially with the switchable gearbox in 'power' mode and the overdrive locked out. For a fast and heavy car, fuel consumption is reasonable.

Muted though it is, the newcomer's engine is not as quiet as the whispering V8 of the LS400. Also, the big tyres drone and thunk on poor surfaces, denying the junior Lexus the refinement and 'magic carpet' serenity of the senior. The corollary of firm, handling-biased suspension is jiggling round town, if not at speed beyond city limits. Although the GS300 feels safe and secure when hustled through corners, it is not a great driving experience. The assisted steering is too tight, too anaesthetised to draw the keen driver into the action. Toyota has produced an accomplished car, but not a beguiling one.

Comfort is the GS300's strongest suit, even though the interior lacks the opulence of a Jaguar's. The front seats, adjustable in eight ways, cosset in their embrace. Even the rear ones support better than most, though legroom and headroom is tight in the back. Lavish standard equipment includes anti-lock brakes, cruise control and levellers - but not a trip computer. The muddled centre control panel (for 'climate control' and nine-speaker audio equipment) is a bit daunting, but the switchgear is a tactile delight and the instruments brilliant.

Since the LS400 was launched here, Toyota has increased the number of Lexus dealers from 41 to more than 70, and its softly-softly marketing approach seems to be working. Although total registrations in the luxury sector are down, those of Lexus are more than 60 per cent up. With the launch of the GS300, sales are expected to double within the year.

SPECIFICATIONS

Lexus GS300, pounds 31,950 Engine: 2,997cc, six cylinders, two overhead camshafts, 24 valves, multi-point fuel injection; 209bhp at 5,800rpm. Transmission: four- speed electronic automatic with two programmes, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in nine seconds, top speed 140mph, fuel consumption 17-25mpg.

COMPARISONS

Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 auto, pounds 26,800 Alfa's best car is even better after a recent facelift to classic Pininfarina styling. Cheaper than Lexus and more entertaining to drive (especially with manual transmission), but not so luxurious or well equipped.

BMW 530i, pounds 30,650 Extras costing pounds 9,000 are needed to bring the specification up to that of the Lexus. Superb V8 engine and five-speed automatic transmission provide exceptional performance and refinement.

Honda Legend, pounds 31,250 Strong performance from smooth V6 engine, but handling lacks finesse. Despite long wheelbase and front-wheel drive, rear compartment is not roomy.

Jaguar XJ6 3.2S, pounds 28,950 No rival instils such a strong sense of well-being, even though opulent cabin is ergonomically flawed. Enjoyable handling, smooth ride. New lease of life through Ford-inspired quality control. (Photograph omitted)

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