2017 Lexus IS review

The face-lifted 2017 Lexus IS range promises more comfort, safety and equipment. But is there enough in the luxury sedan range's tank to justify a hike in pricing?

“This is a lot more than a regularly scheduled mid-cycle upgrade,” says Lexus Australia chief executive, Peter McGregor, of the revamp of the 2017 Lexus IS range.

If a quick punt around the fine if rain-soaked highways and byways around Victoria’s Yarra Valley is anything to go by, expectations of broad-stroke changes should be treated with moderation. There are eight keys changes outside the car, 15 others inside, and numerous changes in the addenda - but to say that the familiar three-powertrain, three-trim level range attacks revolution with broad strokes, is more than a bit of a stretch.

The face-lifted third-generation range is a lot of the same, if treated to a massage of incremental improvements here and there to lift its game and nudge the breed along with a pat on the bum.

If you thought it’d be tough styling a more aggressive front fascia, think again. The changes are proper face- and tail-lifted – the core panel work remains unchanged – and it’s a more angular approach than designs past. It’s perhaps a little more at odds with the more curvaceous look of the middle of the car and, undoubtedly, it’ll appeal to some buyers in the very same ways that it won’t with others. Taste is subjective, of course, but while the revised look doesn’t lack for drama, it’s not a marked departure from the 2013 third-gen redesign.

Prices are up slightly (under $1000) across all nine variants that enters with the IS 200t Luxury, at $59,340, and tops out with the IS 350 Sports Luxury, at $84,160. At this stage, there’s no stove-hot IS F version in range.

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Have to hand it to Lexus: the Japanese brand does put considerable effort into the cabin space. That said, with first impressions, it is tough to spot the “15 changes” outside of the larger and patently clearer 10.8-inch screen. Designers really take fussiness-equals-prestige as a mantra and you can spend all day getting lost in the various lines and curves.

Our IS 300h F Sport test car gets rich claret-coloured leather, red stitching and diamond-patterned aluminum trim that is convincing to view, if a little lacklustre to touch in areas. The quality of the seat leather – the craftsmanship of the seats themselves – is a class act, but some of the touchpoints and conspicuous areas such as the upper door trims are hard and plastic-y. That said, the F Sport seats blend long-haul comfort and body-hugging purpose superbly.

The new, chunky multifunction steering wheel presents well and feels suitably sporty in hand, though little effort has been invested into modernizing the great many buttons and switches that’ve come kicking and screaming out of the 1990s. This ‘old-school’ approach to buttons is cured with the vastly more modernized take seen in the forthcoming LC 500 flagship coupe and, frankly, it can’t come soon enough.

Lexus also tends towards oversized labeling of the controls as well as pop-up messages inside the central roundel digital instrumentation, though the F Sport instrumentation offers the cabin space’s grand party trick: the roundel is motorized, gliding right or left depending on what information is revealed on the digital screens beneath it. It debuted way back on the LFA supercar and remains impossibly cool today, trickled down into IS.

The infotainment remains inherently clumsy and really hasn’t improved in useability. It’s distracting to use so it’s no surprise that it locks off access to many of its functions on the move - which, for passengers at least, is quite frustrating.

The second row’s seating is deeply bucketed – an almost 2+2 arrangement – with ample knee room if a bit limited in head room. The pronounced hump in the seatback and the huge tailshaft tunnel does limit its pitch as a proper five-seater. There are some areas where Japan struggles to keep up with the Germans: climate control is just two-zone with simple rear vents, and the optional sunroof isn’t a patch on rivals’ panoramic designs.

The 300h F Sport can be serenely quiet with minimal tyre noise if the road surface is smooth, but on the lumpy, coarse chip routes in and around Victoria’s Yarra Valley, the adaptive suspension - even in its more pliant ‘normal’ damping mode - can impart a terse and fidgety ride, and the front end can knock and thud over Australia’s more severe blacktop acne. While a little one-dimensional in tune, its ride is, like a great many luxury cars at any price, nicely compliant at speed, where sheer mass settles the body, yet its ride composure drops off the slower the road speed becomes.

In terms of soundtrack and general vibe, there’s not as much ‘sport’ as you might expect from the most driver-centric trim level of the available three. Sink the boot and its sound all the part like a large vacuum cleaner, and while acceleration is workmanlike – Lexus quotes a 8.5sec 0-100km/h time – the CVT transmission pins the petrol four’s rpm point and there’s little actual sense of acceleration. The auto has six-step faux ‘gears’ but punch up and down the paddle-shifter and there’s precious little change in forward progress, be it actually or sensationally.

In whole-system terms, the petrol-electric hybrid powertrain generates 164kW combined and 300Nm. It does slip between either propulsion modes, or together in unison, seamlessly and quietly enough that, more often than not, it’s difficult to discern weather the motor or the engine is doing the heavy lifting until internal combustion pause in fully electric mode.

Adding the CVT simply relinquishes control of the powertrain further from the driver, which isn’t what you want, really, in a driver’s car. Opting for the Sport drive mode does heighten response, if adding nothing in pulse-raising engagement. Nor does there seem to be the expected trade-off in efficiency: the 300h breed comes with a claim of 4.9L/100km frugality, though our test car struggle to drop below eight-litre consumption across a properly mixed-condition drive loop.

The 300h hybrid application has its worthy place in the IS range, but it is not congruent with the F Sport message. Its leisurely manner might be far more convincing in lower Luxury or higher Sports Luxury trims, but apart from an unnecessarily hefty steering weighting, those beaut seats and instrumentation, there’s not much ‘sport’ going on. In particular, the 300h F Sport’s 1720kg kerb weight seems ever present, dampening what talent might otherwise be at play in this $70,310 (plus on-roads) version.

Much more convincing and genuine is the 200t F Sport, the other variant we sampled at launch. At $67,480 list, it’s a little more affordable, if - as we’d discover - markedly more convincing and enticing an ‘F Sport’ proposition than the hybrid version wearing active wear. That’s good news, given that Lexus Australia reckons sales projections have half of all IS buyers opting for the turbocharged 2.0-litre version.

Outputs are a healthy 180kW and 350Nm – superior to the hybrid on both output counts – and tied to an eight-speed auto any trim level you opt for will hit 100km/h from a standstill in seven seconds flat while returning a decent 7.5L/100km combined consumption.

No surprises, then, that the 200t feels patently swifter to march than the 300h, and once you dig into the throttle it has better driveability and a helluva lot more sporting character. Its powertrain calibration isn’t exactly razor sharp – the auto’s upshifts slur noticeably even in Sport mode – but it’s certainly a more responsive and engaging driving experience.

At 1680kg, a mere 40kg separates the turbo from the hybrid, though the 200t feels noticeably lighter and more dynamic, as if the revised spring, damper and anti-roll bar tunes of this update were more tailor-made for this variant. It also steers more accurately and with a lighter feel in the front end, as if all of the 40kg benefit is placed right over the front axle line.

If the 200t is any less comfortable at a leisurely cruise-controlled highway jaunt than the 300h, the differences are negligible. Yes, the terse suspension tune loses some compliance as road speed drops, but it’s quiet and solemn when you need it to be.

If there’s an overbearing bone to pick with the entire range it’s that the changes are subtle enough across the board that, some trinkets apart, it's difficult to pinpoint much of an evolution. Yes, one headlining update is that every version gets the Lexus Safety System+ suite of features, which includes pre-collision safety protocols, lane departure warning, Sway Warning (or fatigue detection), active cruise control and automatic high-beams.

That said, even outside of the premium segment, most of these features are considered minimum essentials and the final two features, as nice as they are, are mere conveniences. That blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert is only standard on F Sport and Sports Luxury makes the non-equipped base Luxury version look less than brimming with contemporary safety kit.

The jury is out on the 233kW/378Nm 3.5-litre V6-powered 350 versions, and we didn’t get to sample either the base Luxury or top-shelf Sports Luxury trim levels. However, we look forward to getting more of the nine-strong 2017 Lexus IS range through the CarAdvice garage soon enough.

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