I like Lexus – and I don’t care

Just a few days ago, I had to give up the Lexus, and that made me sad.

Now I have always generally enjoyed the products of Lexus – and sometimes, talking to other motoring journos, and reading certain comments, I feel like I’m not supposed to. I get the impression that this Japanese upstart shouldn’t really be expecting to have its cars considered as premium machines, truly an alternative to Audi, Mercedes-Benz and dare we say it, BMW.

I sometimes wonder if potential customers feel the same way. Lexus sold around 9,000 cars in the UK last year, up seven per cent on 2012. Audi shifted 142,000, up almost 15 per cent, BMW 135,500, yup, less than Audi, and up a mere six per cent. Mercedes – 109K, 19 per cent up. Even the considered very upmarket Jaguar clocked up 16,000-plus – like Audi knocking on 15 per cent growth.

1402Lexus02So judging by the cold hard numbers, Lexus is very much a premium bit player, one that has to be honest, struggled in recent times. And I wonder if buyers test driving a Lexus get out of the car, think that was truly impressive, but think too that as they are earning enough to buy a premium car, it should have an Audi, BMW or Mercedes badge…

Well I admit that on the all-too rare occasions that I drive BMWs, they have to work harder to convince me. I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that they are a premium car that seems to appear around every corner. There’s just too many of them around…

Okay, Audis are getting a bit like that these days, but I do find a lot to like about the Audis I drive – and I drive a lot of Audis. Mercedes? Really on the up – they never used to do much for me, they do a lot more now. Jaguar? Classy, simply classy.

Yet still I can’t get away from the simple pleasure I get from slipping behind the wheel of a Lexus. Mind you it has to be a reasonably-sized Lexus – I’ve never really got on with the CT200h hatchback, to me an oddity in the line-up.

1402Lexus04The Lexus I’ve been driving most recently is the IS300h – and the h is important. Lexus simply does not get enough credit for the several years now that it has pursued the hybrid route. Hybrid is good – it does help with the wallet, which is important for this journo who doesn’t earn nearly enough to justify actually owning a premium car… But it also helps with the power – and in this market you expect a reasonably impressive response when you depress your right foot. In the Lexus, such depressing produces instant electrically generated extra grunt.

And – despite having done it so many times now, I still get an odd thrill from letting off the handbrake in my driveway and gliding up to the main road in the total silence of electric propulsion. Smoothness and power, the perfect combination…

The tech is impressive – and it’s contained within a package that is put together as well as any of its German rivals. The shut lines on the panels, the feel of the surfaces, the general plushness, are up to what I’d expect from the Germans – and to listen to some of my colleagues, you’d believe Lexus isn’t allowed to do anything as well as the Germans…

1402Lexus03I’m happy to admit Lexus doesn’t get everything right. The brand was late to the party with one knob central controls, playing catch-up to BMW’s I-Drive and Audi’s MMI. The Lexus solution, which looks a bit like some form of aircraft joystick, is simply too imprecise, making it easy to miss the function you are looking for. But it’s a minor point in a highly contented driving environment.

So yes, I’m always a little sad when I hand back the keys of a Lexus test car. But with the IS300h it’s been particularly hard – because I’ve had it for too long. Generally us journos have a car on test for a week, which is long enough to get a true impression of what it’s like to live with, the kind of day to day grind that you simply can’t replicate in the rush of a launch event.

1402Lexus05Due, however, to circumstances that I had nothing to do with, I’ve had the IS300h for two weeks, and that’s too long. In that time it went from daily test subject to daily companion, a car I got very accustomed to, very comfortable with. So when it came to giving it back – well the fellow journalist who took it from me is a very nice guy but he was, through no fault of his own, by no means my favourite person that day…

My name is Andrew Charman – and I’d like a Lexus, thanks very much…

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Am I the Stig, or White Van Man?

One of the more interesting aspects of my being a motoring journo is when I get to Stig for my mate Mark James.

Mark James with the camera that goes everywhere with him...

Mark James with the camera that goes everywhere with him…

Mark, you see, makes video road tests – very good video road tests. Mind you they should be as when not motoring hacking with the rest of us he does clever TV programme producing stuff at BBC Wales, and if you are a fan of the mucky sport of rallying you may recall him fronting the World Rally Championship coverage a few years back.

So every time Mark goes on a car launch, he is accompanied by a large case, video cameras, tripods and clever mounts, all of which are used to produce pieces to camera, in-car shots of him driving and the like, which Mark creates all by himself.

What he can’t do, however, is both drive the car and film it passing by at the same time. So a small and exclusive club of us act as his Stigs, our road tests being conducted in front of Mark’s camera. We don’t have speaking roles, we are the silent member of the road test cast, hence the Stig moniker. And no, we don’t wear white outfits and crash helmets…

To demonstrate what I mean, I can do no better than pointing readers towards a typical example of Mark’s tests, with yours truly doing the driving. Simply click here.

...and Mark in typical pose on a car launch.

…and Mark in typical pose on a car launch.

A typical Stig duty involves the pair of us setting out in the car on the road test route laid out by whichever manufacturer is organising the launch, and looking for certain combinations of corners, junctions and the like at which to film.

When something suitable is found Mark is duly dropped at the side of the road, and I accelerate away to find the nearest place to do a quick about-turn – a side road if I’m lucky, sometimes only the entrance to a field, which I will turn in very carefully to avoid muddying the car.

Then it’s a case of driving enthusiastically, but legally I hasten to add, through the scene before performing another about-turn and doing the same thing going the other way – sometimes attracting some highly amusing looks from passers-by. Five or six locations and job done…

Someone's put the steering wheel on the wrong side...

Someone’s put the steering wheel on the wrong side…

This past week saw me doing some Stigging for Mark, but it was rather different to usual. For a start, I was not driving a car, but the new Ford Transit van. A very large version of the new Transit van… And this was not on familiar UK roads, but in Spain. Quiet rural roads? Not a chance, we were based on an industrial estate on the edge of the city of Barcelona…

All of which brings some challenges to the Stig role. I have no issue with driving a big van, but I don’t do it that often, and performing three-point turns in not exactly deserted side streets is definitely not often on the menu…

The main client for my Ford Transit launch report was Motor Trader magazine, and being an industry title, compiling such reports are as much about interviewing senior management as about driving the car – or van. You hope for some interesting comments, some revelations about the state of the company, plans for their dealer network, that sort of thing. In the atmosphere of a car launch, with said execs surrounded by journalists and out of their comfort zone, all things are possible.

Not on the Transit launch, however. Ford Chairman and MD Mark Ovenden couldn’t have been feeling more comfortable, because quite simply, the Transit is one of the strongest nameplates out there.

This 'street' was evidence of the money Ford spent on the Transit launch – not just for us though, six weeks of dealers would follow us...

This ‘street’ was evidence of the money Ford spent on the Transit launch – not just for us though, six weeks of dealers would follow us…

His presentation on the new model opened with a stack of superlatives. The very first Transit was launched 48 years ago – and the Transit has been the UK’s best-selling van ever since. Today one in four vans bought is a Transit, it outsells its two nearest competitors combined, and also cars such as the BMW 3-Series, the Nissan Qashqai, this van being the sixth best-selling vehicle of any type in the UK…

Mr Ovenden told me the market is now more competitive than ever and at Ford they are not complacent. Well they could have reason to be, because the new Transit is significantly better than the old one. It has more load-carrying ability, more efficient engines, it’s cheaper to run, and it has lots of tempting tech features too.

And, especially for an occasional white van man like me (actually the Transits I tried were red and silver, but never mind) it’s very, very easy to drive. And easy to do three-point turns in, even in Spanish side streets. That’s a wrap….