What is it?
The car that completes the gradual hybridisation of the Lexus range. The new IS executive saloon becomes the final piece of the jigsaw. There now isn’t a model from the Japanese luxury brand that doesn’t come with at least the option of petrol-electric power.
The firm’s flirtation with diesel is over. A few petrol-only models remain, but they’re dwindling in number. And so – 14 years and three generations into the life of the car that really launched Lexus as a fully fledged European premium automotive brand - ‘Hybrid Synergy Drive’ becomes the weapon that parent firm Toyota wields for a renewed assault on the BMW 3-series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class.
It’s a bid that should attract plenty of attention – albeit, says Lexus, perhaps only five thousand UK sales in a full year. Having added 75mm to the overall length of the IS saloon, and taken the usual painstaking approach to redesigning it from top to bottom, Lexus has developed an all-new hybrid powertrain for the IS saloon, which mates a 2.5-litre four-cylinder 178bhp Atkinson cycle petrol engine with a 141bhp electric motor, both feeding the rear wheels.
The IS300h’s petrol engine, like all of Toyota and Lexus’ hybrid motors, runs on the Atkinson combustion cycle for a high expansion ratio and increased efficiency. Fitted with a new fuel-injection system with injectors positioned both in the chamber and in the port, it also has exhaust gas recirculation for reduced operating temperature and high thermal efficiency. There are low-friction piston rings fitted, as well as a low-friction timing chain, low-friction valvegear, and an intelligent oil pump. It runs at a very high compression ratio of 13.0:1. Meanwhile, power for the 141bhp, 221lb ft, rear-mounted electric motor comes from a 230-volt, 192-cell Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery pack.
It's satisfying to find the IS300h free of many of the compromises we’ve seen in hybrid saloons before. In entry-level SE trim, it’s hardly any more expensive than a mid-spec 2.0-litre diesel Audi A4. No longer must owners stomach an unpalatable premium for the privilege of occasional zero-emissions running. The performance stats are competitive, too. The boot is all-but as large and usable as any rival’s. And then come the numbers to really lure you in: 99g/km of CO2 and 65.7mpg on the combined cycle. The former stands to save a company car driver three figures on his annual tax bill, even compared with an equivalent BMW 320d Efficient Dynamics, via Benefit in Kind liability at just 11 per cent.
Yet in spite of the headline-making efficiency it offers, the new IS300h isn’t a martyr to the cause. Apparently. “It’s a car to change your mind,” says Toyota head honcho Akio Toyoda - about hybrids and about Lexus.
Using new joining techniques and lightweight materials, the company says it’s added significantly to the torsional stiffness of the IS’s body-in-white without adding to its weight. Stiffer anti-roll bars make the car 20 per cent more roll-resistant at the front axle, while a new multi-link suspension set-up has added 15 per cent more grip at the rear. New steering and braking systems are alleged to bring quicker response, smoother control and greater feedback.
What is it like?
Given that billing, the IS300h is a vehicle of disappointingly few surprises. This is a car good at all of the things you’d expect a Lexus saloon to be good at. Much improved in many of the ways it needed to be improved, as well. But it’s that hybrid powertrain that’s at once hero and villain in the car; outstanding selling point and chief restricting factor all at the same time.
Gallons of ink has been spent over the years in praise of Lexus’ interiors. The IS’s cabin certainly doesn’t let the side down the way it used to. The 85mm of additional legroom has turned a tight passenger compartment into a fairly roomy one that now only really lacks the second-row headroom to accommodate tall adults. The leathers of our test car were lavish and perfectly seamed, the fascia fittings soft-to-the-touch, attractive and, above all else, substantial.
The driving position’s low enough, at last, with a steering wheel you can finally position just about where you want it. But the luxurious minutiae in here are the things that you really notice. The hefty, expensive feel of the switchgear, and the way the electric windows slow as they motor closed for a delicious softened thud. It seems the legendary plushness of the LS limousine may have finally filtered down to a mass-market price point in this car.
The limo theme continues once you move off. Noiseless on battery power and whisper quiet with the combustion engine running at low revs, the IS300h brings incredible refinement to an area of the market not accustomed to it. Superb though it is in other ways, a BMW 320d is not a quiet car. A Mercedes C220 CDI fully qualifies as clattery at times. By comparison, this Lexus seems as hushed as The Red October. And with Lexus’ optional ‘AVS’ dampers set to ‘normal’ – the comfortable setting – our F Sport test car rode very smoothly indeed, both at town speeds and on the motorway.
The car does luxury and economy – a shade under 50mpg on our real-world test route - much more successfully than handling entertainment. Still, you can appreciate the strides made by Lexus to add bite to the dynamic mix. There’s crispness to the steering when you turn in to a corner, and more grip, feedback and poise as you sweep through the bend than the last IS could conjure. On directional precision and balance, the car seems a match for a C-class, and more than a match for an Audi A4. But between that handling and ultimate dynamic satisfaction sits a powertrain ill-equipped to keep up.
The E-CVT’s manual mode, which should lock up when engaged to give you closer control of your speed, spends more time slipping than anything else. Compared to a good auto’ box it’s unresponsive and distinctly discouraging when you’re in the mood to tap into the IS’s performance reserves. I’m sure it must be delivered somewhere amongst all the revving and slurring, but you never really feel like you’re getting all of the available 220bhp of ‘system horsepower’ from the IS300h – even with your right foot flat to the floor.
Should I buy one?
This car’s glaring lack of sporting involvement remains a key problem from a Lexus hybrid, because it robs the IS of a dimension of dynamic appeal that’s vividly available in its competitors.
To give it its due, it comes up short almost nowhere else, and for its immaculate cabin, remarkable refinement and improved handling, deserves much greater success than any IS to date.
But – just as the last generation car did when it was launched, before a diesel option was added – the Lexus IS will need a more rounded low-emissions powertrain to be taken seriously by most buyers in the compact executive market. And that’s not something it’s likely to get until greater diversity comes to Toyota’s hybrid technology offering.
Lexus IS300H F Sport
Price £33,495; 0-62mph 8.3sec; Top speed 125mph; Economy 60.1mpg; CO2 109g/km; Kerb weight 1620kg; Engine type, cc 4cyls, 2494cc, petrol; with hybrid assist; Installation Front, longitudinal, RWD; Power 220bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 163lb ft (IC), 221lb ft (w/electric motor); Gearbox E-CVT