In 1998, Lexus took on BMW at its core discipline. How did that go?
In 1998 the Lexus brand had only reached its ninth birthday. Up until then it had two cars on sale in the Euromarket, the LS400 saloon and the GS300. With the LS200, Lexus extended its range into BMW 3-series territory. Was it a Good Thing? While consistency can be a bit tedious in the arts, in business it is generally a positive attribute. In some ways, Lexus had consistency nailed down. All their cars have been screwed together by black-belt, Olympic level robots and technicians.
The LS400 itself had already become a legend for quality. Intended to be the world’s best car until the next one came along, a case can be made that it is still the world’s best car when all measurable parameters have been balanced. In a more shallow way, Lexus did not manage consistency, not the kind valued by people who value consistency for its own sake and are utterly unwilling to see the many levels consistency can operate on.
What the IS200 is is not only a sports saloon that aimed to be a better 3-series than the 3-series, but part of a longer argument about what a crushingly competent high-end car maker could be. It’s an existential question, at bottom.
What was the IS200? “This new small Lexus, apart from looking to cement Toyota’s luxury brand in Europe, has the mettle to punch a hole in the German monopoly on rear-wheel-driven fun. And it looks the part,” wrote Horrell, P. in Car, October 1998. Appealing to my innately conservative inclinations (my radicalism has Burkean grounds), a straight six engine powered the IS200 and its power landed on the road via the wheels near the boot.
Such was the confidence of Lexus that they specified 2.0 litre swept volume, producing 155 hp via variable inlet valve timing and not a 2.5 or a 2.7 or a turbo. A 3.0 litre did turn up later on – and that was it for engines barring another 2.0 litre. (In contrast counting the number of engines available for the E-36 BMW 3-series requires a law degree. Ten? Eight?).
The Lexus’ initial 2.0 unit had 144 lb ft of twist action and a power-to-heft ratio of 122 bhp per tonne. How heavy? 1355 kg. The E-36 had a curb-weight of 1130 kg. It could achieve a maximum speed of 134 mph and consumed petrol at the rate of 29.6 mpg.
Car’s Paul Horrell summed it (the car) up as follows: “Given that Britain is both the best market for Lexus in Europe, and place where ‘prestige’ saloon market is the most clearly demarcated from the unfortunate mass-market horde, we’re likely to see a lot of IS200s on our streets. If it lives up to its on paper promise, it should shake up the class very nicely indeed.”
Honest John today calls the car “exquisite”, standing out from the Rover 75, BMW E-46 and Jaguar S-Type launched the same year. “Well equipped, reliable and rated highly by owners. Controlled rear-drive handling, rewarding manual gearshift and decent ride, ” HJ says. The quibbles involved the mediocre (not terrible) fuel consumption and (oddly) the fact that it held its value. Question mark. Scrunching brow.
So, in isolation, the case is clear the IS200 is a good machine, well-made. But? “But,” they say. Do they? Yes, running alongside that glowing praise is the lingering suspicion the IS200 was ‘merely’ a copy of the E-36. It is pretty clear that the IS200 has the same recipe as the E36 (and the Opel Rekord, for that matter).
But what do you do if the class leader has x, y and z qualities – do you (1) replicate them, do you try to (2) excel in other areas, or (3) select x,y and z and exceed them?
That glib pub-bore point, “it’s just an E-35* knock off matey” overlooks the twisting difficulty of the three alternative paths to gain market entry in a market as tightly fought at the premium executive. It had to be like an E-36 for the same reason the E-36 was like it was.
I’m going to ignore the boring fact the IS200 had a life in Japan as Toyota Altezza – as a Lexus, the IS followed path (1) because (2) and (3) would not work. To excel in other areas (path 2) is usually not possible because the other areas are less important or less relevant almost by definition. The market leaders lead because they match the customers’ needs by being good at x, y and z. If you want to lead the market in soap, don’t try selling hairspray, hairspray won’t clean your mitts.
To try path (3) would mean the possibility of overkill – a car that was 10% more BMW-3 series than the 3-series would not be the 3-series. And that was what happened to the E-46, a car with the very same brief as the IS200. The E-46 is reckoned to be the 3-series where the Three lost its way. In the very same year as the E46, Lexus offered a car as good as the E-36. That makes sense. It’s almost as if Lexus knew that the law of car evolution would lead the Three into its Later Elvis years.
This is fine and large but does not address the question asked at the start, about the nature of a crushingly competent high-end car maker. Which level of consistency did Lexus want? Why did their cars (the LS400, two iterations of the GS and the IS, not to mention the lovely SC) all seem so different and what was so wrong with that? Well, they were quite visually different which had to do with Toyota’s mothership demanding these cars could be sold as Toyotas in some markets. Bother.
If Lexus was to compete with Mercedes they needed some vertical affinity-kind-of-consistency even if it was really irrelevant. Who would have thought that a factor in buying Car X was its resemblance to the cars in the showroom you would not buy? What Lexus seemed to do was to over-estimate their potential customers.
It turns out that when people bought a small Benz it was because it was like the big Benz they really wanted, and that car had a lineage going back to the Holy Roman Empire.
The IS200 actually did well enough – and twenty years later looks very smart still. It’s so right-sized, that car. Apparently Lexus misjudged the value of consistent styling even as they got every thing else right. That, not the red herring E-36 thing, is the key. In isolation the IS200 is very fine but it really needed to be a scaled down LS400. Would that have been enough?
**” You mean E-36, you berk.”