Fourteen years and two full model generations into its life, the Lexus IS remains a bit-part player in Europe’s lucrative compact executive class.
At the peak of its popularity in 2007, Lexus sold 15,000 examples of this premium four-door on this continent – 9000 of which went to UK homes. That’s still a fraction of the sales volume of German rivals the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series, but it demonstrates what the press had been telling Lexus for years: that the IS would be easy meat for its opposition until it was blessed with a credible low-emissions engine.
The new third-gen IS could at last make bigger inroads into this class’s German hegemony, however. It’s certainly armed to, becoming the fifth model available in Europe from Toyota’s luxury brand to be offered with hybrid-electric power – and the first saloon in its class with carbon emissions of less than 100g/km.
For that fact alone - combined with very competitive pricing - the IS demands serious consideration by Britain’s many thousands of company car drivers.
With Lexus having abandoned diesel engines altogether, there are actually two derivatives of the new IS – but really only one that’s a sensible ownership proposition.
The petrol-only IS250 may be £3000 cheaper than the IS300h, but its naturally aspirated 2.5-litre engine may as well run on steam for all the efficiency it has compared with the downsized four-cylinder turbo petrols that now populate this class. It’s smooth in operation and reassuringly familiar in some ways, but would cost you almost twice as much on road tax than some rivals, and will probably consume a good 25 per cent more fuel than it should.
On paper, the IS 300h couldn’t be more different. Powered by a 2.5-litre, 178bhp four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a 141bhp rear-mounted electric motor, it has a maximum ‘system output’ of 220bhp. But while eclipsing the IS250 by only a handful of horsepower, it emits half as much carbon as its range mate: as little as 99g/km in the case of the entry-level IS300h SE.
The IS’s cabin is immaculately made and feels genuinely luxurious. The bottom two spec levels don’t come with leather upholstery as standard, but a basic IS300h SE does get cruise control, a 7in media display, a DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate control, keyless go and xenon headlamps. Plenty for less than £30k. Material quality is peerless in the class, and partners with the IS’s excellent rolling refinement to create a very relaxing ambience. Second-row headroom is the only limitation on practicality.
New panel-joining techniques and extensively re-worked chassis and steering systems have enhanced the Lexus' handling quite a bit compared with where it was. A lower driving position represents progress along similar lines, as does a steering column that adjusts more widely.
You can sit comfortably in the IS, and carve your way along a twisting road quite precisely, enjoying respectable cornering balance and keen steering response. Feedback levels, through both the steering and brake pedal, are good, and body control is skillfully balanced against ride comfort – particularly if you option the Adaptive Variable Suspension system, delivered through adaptive dampers, available on the IS300h F-Sport.
But there’s no mistaking the IS for a sports saloon. The hybrid’s powertrain – entirely suited to calm, wafting efficiency – feels immediately out of its depth when you call for maximum power. Any proportionality between road speed and engine speed disappears, and the latter begins to rev noisily without ever serving up the acceleration you’d associate with its apparent effort.
It’s at least in part a problem of perception: the IS300h just never seems to be able to get out of its own way. But neither ‘Sport+’ mode on the Drive Model Select system, nor manual mode on the transmission, makes much of a difference. That sought-after sporting dimension to the car’s performance just isn’t present. And the IS250 isn’t much more fun to drive either, lacking the mid-range torque for stirring acceleration.
Which is why Lexus looks a bit foolish in attempting to sell this car as a viable alternative to a sporting business saloon. The IS lacks the involvement to keep keener drivers interested, and so it doesn’t have the sheer breadth of ability of the best cars it’s up against.
Sold more appropriately – in appreciation of its quality, appealing design and remarkable refinement, as the class's standout low-emissions luxury option – the IS should still find plenty of happy homes. We can only hope owners judge the car better than its maker has.