The IS now has a much more aggressive face.
The IS now has a much more aggressive face.

For most people, Lexus is an also-ran. It fits into that subpremium category that basically means "not German".

The luxury brand of Toyota struggles in SA to match the might of Audi, BMW and Mercedes, but things look a little better when you compare it to Jaguar, Volkswagen and Volvo, at least in terms of sales numbers. Few people are going to say they would rather have a Lexus than a Jaguar. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has always been a Lexus fan. I rest my case.

So it will come as no surprise that in November, the company sold just 97 cars in SA. That number barely justifies its existence compared to its German rivals, but like some of our government officials, the company has no intention of going anywhere, and is promising to continue offering its own brand of luxury and affordability.

Then there is the US — the market for which the brand was actually created. Stateside they love their Lexuses. What is the plural of Lexus anyway? Lexii?

This year sales are down 20.6% but we are still talking about 32,857 models sold there this year to the end of November. In that month alone the brand sold 3,571 vehicles. Doesn’t sound like much? Well here’s the thing: we are talking about just one model, the IS. The company has sold 121,429 vehicles across its range this year in the US.

The interior gets a few upgrades including a new 10.3 inch multimedia screen on some models.
The interior gets a few upgrades including a new 10.3 inch multimedia screen on some models.

Sales of the IS are still about half those of the BMW 3 Series over there, but we can only imagine how much Lexus SA would like to sell half as many cars as its German rival. BMW sold 447 3 Series models here in November. Lexus IS sales were 20. Right, so not that popular then?

Let’s put the Teutonic trio of the A4, 3 Series and C-Class aside and suddenly IS sales don’t look so bad. Jaguar sold just 10 XEs, Volkswagen 19 Passats and Volvo 12 S60s. The IS is the leader of the chasing pack, although perhaps pack is not quite accurate.

Lexus wants to change its sales position, reverse that 20.9% decline in the US and improve its numbers in SA. One of the ways to do that will be to change its image, and it has a fantastic plan to do that in the form of the LC500, which is coming to SA in the middle of 2017. As a niche sports and GT car it will only sell a handful each month here, but it will be the first of a number of new models heading the country. Before all the new stuff and brand rejuvenation, the company has launched a facelifted IS.

The new look is meaner, more aggressive and frankly might give a few of the older generation drivers nightmares. But that’s probably fine with company president Akio Toyoda. He wants to attract a younger crowd to the brand, anyway — people who will not find the new facade, with its bird-swallowing air ducts and broken shards of glass daytime running lights, scary.

There are LED lights front and back featuring refreshed looks and still sporting that L-Finesse design philosophy. The rear lights also get their own aero stabilising fins to help with downforce. Now that’s something for owners to brag about.

Inside there are also a number of changes including a bigger multimedia screen, which has increased from seven inches to 10.3 inches in the EX and F-Sport trims. The 350 F-Sport also gets a new customise mode in the drive mode select and items such as the active cruise control have apparently been made easier to use.

The F-Sport version offers a 180kW V6.
The F-Sport version offers a 180kW V6.

The changes are all rather minor and others include new cup holders, changes to the stitching and some quality and refinement enhancements. It is only a facelift, after all.

The model range continues as it was with an IS200t in E or EX trim and the IS350 F-Sport. The 200t, with its turbocharged motor, offers up 180kW, while the big brother 350 generates 233kW and 378Nm from its 3.5l V6.

There are some other changes for those who care about how their IS handles. Body rigidity has been improved by using laser screw and adhesive bonding techniques in the body. The front suspension gets a 20% increase in roll rigidity and there is a new multilink rear suspension set-up. There is a new electric power steering system and an adaptive variable suspension system.

In the Lexus way, all of this comes in a package that has few options, or none, which is good because while no-one was looking, the IS seems to have thrown away one of its key attributes: its price. The 200t in E trim costs R601,900. Yes, it has everything as standard, but a BMW 320i Luxury Line is R526,312. Opt for the 200t EX and the price is R659,100.

The IS350 F-Sport is R728,800. The BMW 330i Sport Line costs R606,522, and R122,000 will get you quite a few extras off the extensive BMW options list. And the 330i has more power. The Mercedes C300 AMG-Line has more torque and a star on the front at R628,764.

The more we think about it, the more we wonder what Lexus is thinking. We can only imagine that the company is planning to take a leaf out of the book of the Stella Artois advertising manual and use the tag line "reassuringly expensive."

No doubt we will get an e-mail from Lexus SA pointing out a spec for spec comparison between the IS and its rivals. We were wondering what to read this holiday.

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