IS gains the latest Lexus signature spindle grille

IS gains the latest Lexus signature spindle grille

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A colleague who shall remain nameless asked, among fellow journalists, the rhetorical question during the European launch of the third generation IS: given the success of Audi, BMW and Mercedes on home European turf, why does Lexus bother?

It's a fair question. The Toyota luxury brand has never achieved the penetration this side of the pond it enjoys in the US - where it was launched way back in 1989 - but it nonetheless has a loyal following, particularly for its more recently introduced low-CO2 hybrid models which, here in the UK, bring lots of company car tax and London congestion charge-dodging advantages to owners, along with high specification and build quality.

It also gives Toyota dealers, willing to spend the considerable sum on the dedicated Lexus showroom and service facilities, an aspirational brand with which to keep Toyota owners on the up in the family, rather than see them drift off eventually into something from Germany.

Judging by the fighting talk at the IS launch, held in the brand's largest European dealership on the outskirts of Vienna, local Lexus executives have no intention of giving up on the region just yet.

Richard Balshaw, director of Lexus (GB), reckons fresh product is a plus. New GS and LS lines - roughly the equivalent of BMW's 5 and 7 Series - were launched in 2012 and the RX SUV has also had a mid-life refresh. Now comes a redesigned 3 Series fighter - the third generation IS - while the entry level, hybrid-only CT, Lexus' 1 Series if you will, is still new enough.

Balshaw acknowledges Lexus could use "more brand visibility" and a global campaign is under away with the brand sponsoring its own design awards, short films in Cannes and about to bombard the airwaves - and other media delivery routes - with a new brand awareness-boosting TV ad.

That supports the launch of the IS which deputy chief engineer Naoki Kobuyashi said was developed to the brief: "the most enjoyable car in its class to drive".

His team has produced a sedan range with a complete restyle now incorporating the latest Lexus signature 'spindle' grille, distinctive new headlamps with separate L-shaped LED day running lights and a distinctive upward curve in the sill styling line that carries through the wheelarch into the rear bumper. It's a nice evolution of the second generation car.

The G3 version is 75mm longer than its predecessor with a 70mm wheelbase hike to 2,800mm and is also 10mm wider.

For "a sportier drive", the driver's seat hip point is 20mm lower and steering wheel three degrees lower with reach extended 23mm. Some 50mm of the 70mm wheelbase stretch boosts rear seat legroom while the rest expands the boot (trunk), itself more roomy in the hybrid thanks to the under-floor battery pack location.

The 2.5-litre petrol V6 carries over from the previous generation with six-speed torque converter automatic gearbox to appeal to current owners considering the redesign while those who might have bought a diesel are offered instead a new 2.5-litre I4 with CVT transmission and hybrid battery electric powertrain. Toyota Europe said the all-auto gearbox option is because 60% of buyers in the premium sedan segment now opt for self-shifting.

The 2.5-litre Atkinson cycle I4 is loosely based on the one used in the Camry hybrid but is much modifed for the switch to rear-drive installation.

Kobuyashi noted the use of new body adhesive technology and laser screw welding to make the shell more rigid. He revealed the development team got management sign-off for the new car more easily by showing prototypes much earlier in the development phase and ensuring president Toyoda - a keen driver - had a test drive.

Suspension and steering were substantially revised, standard or optional driver aids and safety equipment have been brought up to class standard (eg blind spot assist, radar cruise control, rear cross traffic alert) along with greatly enhanced multimedia (including a parking navigation service and Google Street View) and climate control which now includes electrostatic switches for temperature control - you simply slide your finger up or down a silver bar to make adjustments. Active Sound Control complements the sound of the engine with an audio feed through a dedicated cabin speaker - volume can be varied or switched off.

UK models come with base SE, Luxury, F Sport and Premier trim levels. F Sport is quite distinctive with its own nose, grippier front seats, LFA-inspired single-dial instrument cluster, engine induction noise generator, stiffer suspension and optional Adaptive Variable Suspension with adjustable damper settings.

Since launch in 1999, Lexus has sold 740,800 IS worldwide with European sales 151,000 and counting, and almost half of those in the UK.

Balshaw said the IS is a key model for Lexus (GB), accounting for half of sales while the premium sedan market accounts for 23% of UK sales. Of those, two thirds are two-litre diesels optimised for tax-friendly low CO2 emissions and 60% of all are automatic.

Having tried and failed with a manual-only diesel during the second generation's life, Lexus is now adding a hybrid option which offers class-leading 99g/km CO2 emissions and combined cycle fuel consumption of 65.7mpg. At certain speeds and engine revolutions, the car we sampled was prone to odd drones, whines and vibrations and the power delivery is not as smooth or as seamless as with the creamy-smooth V6 and its conventional six-speed automatic. The hybrid has a CVT which tends to run the engine at a continuous 4,000rpm drone under hard acceleration. Whether or not that combination will lure buyers away from some of the excellent diesel auto combinations BMW and Audi offer remains to be seen but it's worth noting that hybrids vastly outsell petrol-only powertrains in the model lines where Lexus offers both.

Other markets like North America and Australia also get a 3.5-litre V6 with a new eight-speed automatic transmission.

Overall, the new IS is impressive, beautifully built and distinctively stylish, with excellent ride and handling. It doesn't offer the range of body styles that BMW's 3 does but those seeking a sedan with a very tax-efficient powertrain and who don't want a diesel will be drawn to the hybrid. As the Lexus won't match the BMW or Audi on volume - full year forecasts for 2014 and 2015 are under 5,000 - it's likely to be much more exclusive in the company car park, and that may add to its appeal.

Insiders hint that a coupe or convertible - as offered with generation two - may follow later but any wagon body style - there was a generation one five-door 'sportback' for a while - is out of the question.