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A balanced contender

 The Lexus IS250 is a promising newcomer with bags of style and enough punch to give those swaggering German cruisers a run for their money

When companies in southeast Asia want to give their junior executives a company car, there are invariably two choices – BMW or Mercedes – based on the popular notion that only German cars have the quality and prestige that reflects the desired corporate image. It is understandable to ignore a Fiat or Daihatsu and though Korean cars have slowly and steadily improved, they lack the flair to show off a company in its best light. The executives themselves wouldn’t be too delighted either and might even feel insulted enough to resign.

Enter the Luxus IS250, a worthy Japanese alternative to the German

Enter the Lexus IS250, a worthy Japanese alternative to the Germans. Launched less than 20 years ago as Toyota’s luxury division, the Lexus brand was initially exported to the US (unconfirmed rumour has it that the name is short for Luxury Export US) where it has enjoyed enormous popularity and for the past 15 years has been rated by J D Power (the industry yardstick) as the most reliable brand in the US. It is now sold in 68 countries, including Germany.

Toyota jumped into this market segment with both feet, spending more than a billion dollars in developing and creating an entirely separate division with an ethic of obsessive perfection and after-sales service surpassed only by such ultra brands as Maybach and Rolls-Royce. The Lexus brandmeisters also concentrated mostly on big, powerful sedans that can accommodate a large family, though in the lucrative US market they tend to be driven by old men, giving the Lexus a bit of a stodgy and not particularly fashionable image.

In recent years, though, it has turned its technological prowess to more sporty models, in an attempt to face down BMW and Audi, with the IS series leading the way. The IS250 is the entry level model: a compact, well-muscled sedan that competes in the looks and engineering departments with its main rivals, the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class.

That’s the corporate background, but how does the end product drive? The “look-no-hands” entry to the car is a plus in that it senses your approach and allows you to leave the key in your pocket, climb in and push the large starter button. The engine purrs into life, the gauges light up and dance, while seats, mirrors and steering rake adjust to your preselected settings – a bit of gentle drama sending a clear message that this is intelligent transport.

The ride is not as crisp as the BMW and not as soft as a Merc. Where BMW sedans opt for handling over comfort and Benz offers the reverse, the IS250 sits somewhere in between. Some purists, using the two German brands as a longstanding benchmark, claim that this is an indecisive stance on the part of the Lexus engineers . . . or maybe it’s a decision taken by the company’s marketing department. This may be so, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire for a car that gives a balance of both worlds.

Plenty to shout about, inside and out

The IS250 is incredibly quiet – registering lower on the decibel meter than its German rivals – but the downside is that the 204bhp, V6 engine produces a pleasant, throaty roar when you put your foot down, but you hear only a hint of it.

The handling is lively enough to feel sporty with sharp (if uncommunicative) electronically assisted steering combined with rear-wheel drive, so you can fishtail around mountain bends if you have the nerve. It feels young and urges you to feel that way, too. This is not an old man’s sedan and though it has little in the way of body roll, at higher speeds it doesn’t always feel as well tied down as one might like. This is no leisurely autobahn cruiser, it requires attention and a firm hand.

The 2.5-litre engine is smooth and responsive, but requires a bit of revving to find its stride. It pulls nicely, with 100km/h arriving in just under eight seconds. You’re not pinned to your seat but it’s enough to put a wicked smile on your face and perhaps let loose an involuntary laugh. Overriding the six-speed automatic transmission and engaging the paddle shifters is another handling and performance plus point – until your next stop at the petrol pumps. The performance definitely has a price tag.

Standard safety features include front knee, abdomen and side curtain airbags, a seamless traction control, along with anti-lock and brake force distribution.

So the Lexus IS250 is fun, eye-pleasing outside and in, extremely well engineered and well-built and strikes a happy medium between performance and comfort. There is little to complain about.

At 3.5m baht ($102,550) it is priced pretty competitively with its German counterparts the 325i Coupe and Merc C230 Avant Garde, which cost nearly 5m baht. While the Lexus is built in Japan, the German brands are screwed together in Thailand. The IS250 is loaded with standard goodies that can cost extra in the others. You get a fully loaded vehicle that doesn’t meet a doppelganger at every red light, so it’s well worth a second look.

However, the Germans have a much better resale value in Thailand. The Lexus is every bit as good, but brand awareness, prestige and street cred – popular fallacies that play a big part in resales – will continue to depress the secondhand price of a Lexus until more people wake up to the brand’s worth.

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