Our Fleet: Lexus IS220d - Final Report
22 February 2007
Paul Barker on two months with the Japanese brand's first-ever diesel car
Lexus has spent years skirting around the edge of the business car market, gently building an image of quality, reliability and class without ever achieving significant volumes.
The new IS220d is the brand's first foray into the diesel market and represents a step up in terms of Lexus's ambitions. So we took one for two months to see how seriously BMW, Audi and the rest should be taking it.
Although the light blue colour isn't the IS's best suit , the car's still probably the most attractive in its segment, and the compact, aggressive stance is certainly more attractive than its BMW or Audi rivals. There is a price to pay for that, though, with both rear passenger and boot space being well short of the class average, thanks to a swooping roofline . The boot also has a narrow opening , but it does come with a handy dropped section in the middle that stops half-loads such as a week's shopping rolling round the boot , .
Move inside and things, initially, appear classy, but the closer you look, the less impressive the interior materials feel, although the seats are as comfy as anything this side of the luxury sector.
Packing in the kit
We picked the SE trim with the multimedia pack, because that brings Bluetooth connectivity, rear parking assist monitor, upgraded stereo and most importantly, the new satnav system that comes with lane-assist, which we wanted to try out on London's manic streets.
The multimedia pack isn't cheap at £2710 but you do get a lot of kit for that money. The Mark Levinson stereo upgrade is a quality sound system, while Bluetooth and rear parking camera are both handy.
The excellent satnav system is really enhanced by the lane warning system. It's a really simple device. Anyone who's driven through cities they don't know can guarantee they'll be caught in the wrong lane at some point, and that the natives won't be too fond of letting them merge in - the little diagram in the corner of the satnav screen  makes city driving that little bit less stressful.
Standard kit on the IS220d Sport is good, with cruise control, climate control, six-CD player with MP3 socket, electric heated and memory front seats, 18-inch alloys, auto wipers and leather steering wheel all included.
Unfortunately our Lexus was specced with a beige interior that scuffed and marked several times in the two months it was with us . I dread to think how grubby it'll look three years down the line.
The 177PS 2.2-litre diesel, also used in a host of Toyota products, isn't the most refined in the class, although it's not offensively intrusive. However, as soon as you pull away you find its first problem because first gear is way too short a ratio, which means you'll regularly run past its power band before shifting up. Choosing first gear is also surprisingly notchy, with a grate you wouldn't expect from a Budget product, let alone a premium one. There's also little of the diesel punch you'd get from similarly powered rivals. The IS's engine is flat and uninspiring - it almost feels down on power to the point of being faulty. That didn't stop us picking up a speeding ticket on a quiet dual carriageway in Kent last month, though, so there is enough speed to upset the authorities no matter how tight the engine feels.
Despite it having 7000 miles on the clock when it arrived, we still never managed impressive fuel consumption. Even steady cruise-controlled motorway runs hit a best average of 36.8mpg, and around town we dropped as low as 26.0mpg, compared with a claimed average figure of 44.8. Overall, the average fuel consumption was 29.8mpg, which meant a not entirely impressive cost per mile figure of 45.3p. You'd expect the equivalent German rival to be a distance below 40ppm.
The ride is another moan, because it's set too hard. Normally, Lexus provides the most comfortable and cosseting of cars, but the IS feels like it's gone chasing BMW's 3-series in terms of driving experience, and it dynamically hasn't quite managed it, leaving it neither sporty nor comfortable. High-speed ride is better than low-speed, though, and the IS is most at home on motorways. Cruises to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool during its time with us brought the Lexus qualities of comfort and high-speed refinement to the fore.
The steering is well-weighted, too - light enough around town for parking yet with enough resistance to make both motorway driving and back-road blasts enjoyable.
Most of the satnav programmes aren't available while the car's moving, which is fair enough under health and safety pretensions when there's just the driver in the car, but when the passenger's not allowed to reprogramme the navigation on a motorway, it's immensely frustrating . Also, the cruise control won't resume when you've dropped below a certain speed, presumably to stop it accidentally being resumed, which, like the satnav, is a Lexus-wide irritation that means on dual carriageways punctuated by roundabouts you have to set it back to the desired speed manually every time instead of just flicking reset.
Another nanny-state feature is the constantly glowing passenger airbag warning light on the centre console. Most cars warn when the airbag's switched off to carry a child Seat, but this one glows the whole time, and the ugly orange light is the first thing on the column that catches the eye.
Other smaller issues included a handbrake that only holds the car on the very top notch, and ultra-sensitive brakes.
There's no denying that the IS220d looks the part , and on first glance anyone in the company car park would at least consider swapping their Audi A4, BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-class keys for the Lexus. I like Lexus as a brand and I really wanted the IS220d to be a cracking car. However, there are a number of, mostly, easy to solve flaws that detract from what has the potential to be a cracking car, which in some ways makes it worse. You can see what a good car is hiding under that fine-looking exterior, but at the moment the IS220d just isn't the car it should be.