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.