Motoring: Road Test - This one will run and run

The Lexus IS200 has the brains of a racer in the body of a saloon
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The Independent Online
Over in South-East Asia, people have been watching what has happened to BMWs. In particular, one Nobuaki Katayama has had trouble equating the Ultimate Driving Machine slogan with the increasingly soft- edged reality, a reality brought about because customers demand to be pampered and don't notice the entertainment slipping away.

Katayama works for Toyota, owner of the Lexus brand. He used to be involved in Toyota's Le Mans and rallying programmes. Now he is chief engineer for the Lexus IS200, and it's easy to guess the rest.

Meet the Lexus IS200, the car intended to be what BMW's 3-series no longer is: a focused, truly sporty, engagingly interactive saloon.

Does that sound like fairy-tale product planning to you? Have I swallowed the company line without so much as a burp? Well, let's see.

The IS200 looks compact, short-tailed, ready to leap. This is not a pretty car, but it's full of intriguing details. Chief of these, on the out-side, are the tail-lights: round, red lenses set in a clear-glazed, chrome-backed triangle. Inside, more than a BMW has been watched.

Someone has been watching watches, because the instrument cluster resembles a giant chronograph. The speedometer needle sweeps around the clock face, three smaller dials are housed within. It looks precise, metallic.

Metallised grey plastic frames the instrument panel, the centre console and the front of the dashboard, and the black padding on top is ribbed along the lines of something retro and probably Italian, although I can't quite figure out what. The gear lever has a knob of shiny aluminium. The aura is contrived but absolutely not bland.

Is the stage set yet? Not before we've considered some more BMW-baiting. People expect a compact BMW, a speedy one anyway, to have a straight- six-cylinder engine. So that is what the IS200 has.

Next up? Rear-wheel drive, of course, the engine set well back in the body, the front wheels set well forward. There are differences in suspension design, though; the Lexus has double wishbones (beloved of ad copywriters) all round. And the wheels are huge: 16 inches in diameter for the S version, 17ins in the SE and Sport.

The Sport adds various bits of cosmetic metalwork, including drilled- aluminium pedals, plus a rear spoiler and, to alter the driving feel, a limited-slip differential and a thicker rear anti-roll bar. These should help towards a yet keener drive, but it's dangerous to make assumptions. First, we'll take to the road in the IS200 SE.

You learn a lot about a car in the first half-mile, and the new knowledge is tinged with disappointment here. The engine, though smooth and tuneful, doesn't feel powerful despite its 153 claimed horsepower.

You have to rev it beyond 4,500rpm before much happens, so it's as well that the Lexus has a precise-shifting six-speed gearbox to keep the engine in its best operating range. The seats are snug, the air-conditioning is excellent and there's a six-disc CD changer mounted conveniently in the dashboard. Then along come some bends, and suddenly everything changes.

Now we can see what Katayama is getting at. You can place the Lexus more precisely on the road than you can any current BMW, and it seems to happen so naturally, so transparently, that it is all done by your subconscious.

Go fast into a corner, decelerating. Now accelerate; there's no lurch, no uncertainty, no tendency for the rear wheels to push the front wheels onto a wider cornering line, or to snap into an unwanted power-slither. The Lexus just hunkers down, aims for the exit and squirts out, perfectly balanced between you, the steering and the accelerator. I can't think of another powerful, rear-wheel drive saloon with such panache, while involving you so much in the action.

Yet the Lexus rides over bumps quite smoothly, too. Unless, that is, you go for the Sport. This car is a caricature of itself: that stiffer rear anti-roll bar makes the rear wheels thump and fidget over uneven surfaces, and exaggerates the IS200's eagerness to turn into a fast corner, spoiling the fluidity. Go for the SE.

There are disappointments. The bonnet is held open by a prop instead of gas-struts, and the boot hinges are low-tech metal hoops. But then the Lexus is little more expensive than a four-cylinder 318i, and both cheaper and better-equipped than a 323i.

The crucial difference, though, is this. You wouldn't go for drive in a 3-series just for the sheer devilment of it. Given an IS200, you wouldn't be seen for dust.

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Lexus IS200

Price range: from pounds 20,500 (S) to pounds 23,000 (Sport)

Engine: 1,988cc, six-cylinder, 24-valve, 153bhp at 6,200rpm (SE)

Transmission: six-speed, manual

Performance: 134mph, 0-60 in 9.3sec, 24-29mpg

Alfa 156 2.0 TS: pounds 19,754. Only four cylinders, but still smooth, crisp and quick. Familiarity hasn't dulled stunning looks.

Audi A4 2.4 V6: pounds 22,188. Not as sporty as Alfa, Lexus and arguably BMW, but a fine object to own. It's just been facelifted - slightly.

BMW 323i SE: pounds 24,745. Pricier than the Lexus, and feels it. More power, too, but less fun.

Saab 9-3 Turbo 5dr: pounds 23,495. Fast and well-finished, but lumpy ride and woolly handling disappoint

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