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MotorMax: Luxury Lexus oozes class.

Byline: MIKE TORPEY

IN little over a decade Lexus has become soundly established as a prestige brand. People now say the word with that same inflection of class they use when mentioning BMW, Jaguar or Mercedes.

The summer of 1999 saw the IS200, a car described as a sports sedan, arrive on the compact executive scene. Aware that the benchmark for success was the BMW 3-Series, Lexus set about creating something that not only matched the best around, but also beat it on price and standard goodies.

The three-model range kicked off with an S derivative at pounds 20,500, followed by a pounds 22,000 SE version with a higher equipment count. It was topped by the Sport for an extra grand, featuring some detailed mechanical and cosmetic enhancements.

The Japanese company clearly got it right, for the IS200 has been ranked top of the executive/luxury car sector in the JD Power Customer Satisfaction Awards.

A straight six-cylinder engine is common to all three models, as is a six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox. A computer controlled four-speed self-shifter was a pounds 1,195 option.

As a driver's car the Lexus oozes class. Gear-change is superb, ride quality outstanding - especially at speed - steering nicely precise and brakes positive.

Performance can't be faulted either. The 153bhp power pack will whisk the rear-wheel drive saloon up to 60mph in 9.5 seconds and torque is very good at low engine speeds.

Inside, a deal of care has been taken to make the IS200 look a bit different - and here Lexus hits paydirt.

The dash and fascia, with its shiny charcoal surround and inserts, features a single circular dial containing three smaller dials. Depending on your likes and dislikes, this looks either like an expensive analogue clock or free-with-petrol wristwatch.

Leg and headroom up front is generous, but tight in the back where the transmission tunnel interferes with space for a middle passenger, making comfort in that position impossible.

The standard equipment check sheet is too long to list. But key features on all models include twin front airbags, anti-lock brakes with switchable traction control, air-conditioning, six-disc CD player, four electric windows, remote central locking, immobiliser and alarm.

You should expect to pay around pounds 12,500 for a 1999 IS200 four-door manual model on T-plate in good condition or pounds 18,250 for a 2001 X-reg Sport in excellent condition.

PROBLEMS TO LOOK OUT FORBODY: Should be unmarked ENGINE/GEARBOX: Full Lexus service history remains importantFASTFASTfactsMODEL: Lexus IS200 DRIVING: Sporty and entertaining to drive with nicely weighted steering and six-speed manual gearbox. PERFORMANCE: Quickacceleration and plenty of torque from straight six engine. 0-62mph in 9.5 secs, top speed 134mph. ECONOMY: Reasonablerunning costs, 29.1mpg average.

SAFETY: Loaded with kit - twin front airbags, anti-lock brakes with switchable traction control, alarm and immobiliser.

RECOMMENDED BUY: IS200 SE. Romeo 156; BMW 3-Series; Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

ALTERNATIVES: Alfa
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 10, 2002
Words:482
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