Unbelievably, the Americans actually do have something called The Social Register with a capital T, S and R. Dominick Dunne, the gossipy novelist and feature writer, once told me: 'The Trumps (this said with a squeal) will get on it before the Kennedys (this said with distaste) and the Trumps are never going to get on it!' Lexus is the Donald Trump of the automobile world, a glittering can-do celebrity who no-one, ahem, really wants to know. Just, you know, a bit gauche.
As a business proposition, the Lexus concept is not all that great. It can be reduced to a single consumer directive: pay serious money for a gussied-up Toyota. Not everyone sees the sense in this: there are still suckers out there who buy BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes and Audis. Yet, as a technical proposition, Lexus is just fine.
The LS400, the one that looks like a cargo cult version of the last generation S-Class Mercedes, would be a splendid car to use for a trip to Rome ... if someone else was doing the driving and you had plenty to read. You get a killer sound system, Siberian air-con and as close to mechanical silence as makes no difference.
In Europe, Lexus comes in three sizes: large, medium and small saloons.
The big one was introduced in 1989 and is now in its third generation, although only experts trained in the abstruse refinements of Zen can distinguish between successive models. Take it from me, it's now behind the curve and there's a new model coming up. Then there's a mid-size Lexus in its second generation, a neat shape that has evolved from an original drawing that Giugiaro proposed to Jaguar. I have never met anyone who has bought one of these cars.
Then there's a compact Lexus, construed, I suppose, to offer an alternative to a 3-series BMW. An international research programme has begun to find people who actually don't want a 3-series BMW, but this is not our problem and, anyway, the Japanese didn't get where they are by being logical.
The IS200 looks very neat. It has a low nose, tiny front overhang, a pert little bottom and (a nice touch admired by all car designers) the wheels fill the arches in a very satisfactory way. These combine to make a car that looks solid and well attached to the load, although, that said, someone also realised it looks a bit anonymous so someone else was sent to do a post-graduate course on 'how lighting elements can articulate vehicle character' and the IS200 was given head- and tail-lights with a jewel-like look-at-me brilliance. They work, sort of.
It also feels very neat. The rear-wheel drive set-up apes BMW, and so does the complicated suspension, which has more links than you can shake a stick at. As a result, the IS200 goes around corners and changes direction in a very pleasing style. There's a very close-ratio six-speed gearbox, which you must not ignore if you need to keep up with deathwish pizza delivery lads. The BMW-style twin cam straight six is smooth and pleasant, but at 150hp it is not significantly more powerful than, say, a Suzuki 750 bike. Thus, the IS200 is by no means a fast car, but it is an agreeable one, dynamically.
The problem is with the interior. This is something the Japanese never seem to get right. Amazing for a culture whose sensitivity to effects is betrayed by a vocabulary that has expressions for the precise patination of worn stone, there seems no understanding of how to achieve delight inside a car: Lexus makes leather feel synthetic and elsewhere uses the sort of plastic that has been unavailable in the west since the market for Taiwanese reverse-engineered transistor radios imploded in 1978.
In general terms, the passenger environment is decent enough, but not very special, unless you include a gesture of bizarre eclecticism: in front of the driver is a hideous angular binnacle apparently based on a concept by Polish Constructivists to make a monumental memorial to the party workers of Vladimir Volynsk. This is very special indeed. Inside the binnacle, instruments are arranged like a sports chronograph. I can see what they were getting at, but - again, trust me - it doesn't even nearly work.
The godawful interior is the Lexus dilemma in miniature. Put at its most polite, it is an 'alternative' to BMW. If the 3-series did not exist, we would be grateful for the Lexus IS200, but as things stand it is just, you know, a bit gauche.deg
Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.