The first Lexus fully conceived for Europe, the IS200, will go on sale in May 1999 via a new network of exclusive Lexus dealers.
Toyota Europe plans to sell 10,000 IS200 units next year, boosting Lexus sales to a total of 18,000.
'For the year 2005, Lexus plans to sell 50,000 cars in Europe, with the IS200 accounting for roughly 50 percent,' said Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Toyota Motor Europe.
Last year Lexus sold just 3,500 units in Europe. This year it expects to sell 8,000, of which 3,200 will be in the UK. Now, 200 of the Toyota dealers in Europe also handle Lexus. With the arrival of the IS200, the network will split apart from Toyota. Lexus dealers will have exclusive stores.
'From now to the end of the year we are revising some dealer contracts,' said Diaz Ruiz. 'Toyota and Lexus have two different types of customers.'
Lexus dealers are building new stand-alone dealerships. At first, the number of Lexus dealers will shrink, as franchises are removed from some dealers. The network begins next year with 50-60 stores. By May, when the IS200 arrives, there will be about 100, and 150 by the end of the year.
'We have to provide profitability,' said Diaz Ruiz.
By the year 2005, Diaz Ruiz wants 300 exclusive Lexus dealers. By then, the line will have expanded to include more niche vehicles, he said. They could include coupes and the RX300. Lexus staff in the UK field more requests for the sport-utility than any other Lexus not sold in Europe.
The UK is the second largest market for Lexus, after the USA, where 150,000 will be sold this year. In Japan, the cars are sold as Toyotas. By 2005, Germany is expected to be the biggest market in Europe.
The IS200 will compete in the lower luxury segment against the Audi A4, BMW 3 series and Mercedes C-class. It measures 4400mm long and 1720mm wide, on a 2670mm wheelbase.
The longitudinal straight 6-cylinder, 24-valve, 2.0-liter engine drives the rear wheels. Intelligent variable valve timing gives the engine 155hp. The standard transmission is a 6-speed manual; a 4-speed automatic is optional.
Diaz Ruiz refused to give a price indication for the IS200, but sales executives in the UK and Germany estimated at around $35,000-$38,000.
The IS200 will be produced in Japan, where a version will be sold through the NETZ network as the Toyota Altezza.
There are no plans now to export the IS200 to the USA.