In stark contrast to prestige euro manufacturers’ quest to deliver the ultimate in fuel efficiency, Japanese brand Lexus continues to keep a conspicuous distance from the black pump with models like the IS300h.
Instead of adopting modern wallet-friendly, turbo-diesel powertrains, Lexus remains committed to its petrol-electric hybrid technology to satisfy buyers bent on stretching their petrodollar further in their luxury ride.
In the junior executive segment they’ve got the $65,000 IS300h F-Sport with all the bells and whistles, and currently the only genuine alternative to the formidable German trio comprising the $67,800 Audi A4 TDI quattro S line, $63,800 BMW 320d and $70,400 Mercedes-Benz C250 Blue-TEC – all of which offer high-value cachet and thrifty fuel consumption to the luxury set.
However, UK luxury car company Jaguar is also set to join the fray with their all-new XE series sedan, which will sit below the larger XF and XJ models, and due to arrive in Australia later this year.
The IS300h’s answer to the frugal diesels is a 2.5-litre Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder petrol engine producing 133kW of power at 6000rpm, and 221Nm of torque from 4200-5400rpm. The electric motor adds a 105kW/300Nm boost right from the get-go.
Both power sources combine to make 164kW as a “maximum system output” and drive through the rear wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
On paper, the Germans hold a slight edge when it comes to straight-line acceleration, though the Lexus isn’t far behind, despite tipping the scales at a solid 1720kg – nearly 300kg heavier than the relatively lightweight BMW.
While the 320d and A4 TDI can sprint from 0-100km/h in 7.5 and 7.9 seconds respectively, the IS300h needs 8.5 seconds, with claimed 4.9L/100km fuel consumption. That’s better than the Audi’s 5.3L/100km, but still shy of the BMW’s claim of 4.6L/100km and the Benz’s 4.5L/100km.
I can only imagine how efficient and quick this car might be if it were built with the same attention to lightweight construction as the BMW.
In the real world though, those acceleration times mean little. The extra torque boost from zero rpm in the IS300h ensures there’s more than enough poke to leave most rivals standing at the lights, should a quick left-lane merge be necessary.
There’s no low-rev diesel clatter, either. Instead, the blend of electricity and petrol is smooth and refined – especially when driven sedately around town. It’s also impressively quiet inside the cabin, too, thanks to the car’s superb insulation.
I’m still not a fan of the cost-saving continuously variable transmission (CVT), but the Lexus version is one of the best examples on the market, offering simulated ratio steps and a level of refinement that is hard to fault. It’s still not as refined or engaging as a silky-smooth ZF auto, but at least there’s Sport and Sport Plus driving modes that offer quicker throttle response and more aggressive acceleration.
Ride quality, though, is firmer than one might expect from a Lexus badged sedan, even if it does wear an F-Sport badge.
It’s crashy over broken road and not able to absorb larger bumps as well as some rivals – even in Comfort mode.
I’d suggest the F-Sport, packaged with standard-fit dampers, might be a more comfortable set-up, particularly for this hybrid model.
That said, the F-Sport’s stiffened chassis makes for confident corner carving when the opportunity arises, and the steering is relatively quick, but it still doesn’t inspire in the same way lighter rivals do.
While we didn’t subject the IS300h to any long-range trips, fuel consumption on a diet of daily commuting, complete with the odd lead-foot moment, remains impressive, given the car’s substantial weight penalty.
I’ve clocked up over 500 kilometres in the Lexus, and no matter how hard you drive, its difficult to use more than 7.4L/100km. If you’re extra-light on the throttle in the Eco mode, then consumption is likely to fall below 6.5L/100km, though still shy of factory claims.
Obviously it comes down to your driving style and the road conditions, but if you’re mostly city/suburban bound and not usually in a mad rush, then the Lexus presents a very good case, particularly in the big smoke.
To counter the good looks of the latest C-Class, as well as the clean lines of the Audi and BMW, the Lexus (especially F-Sport variants) is blessed with an undeniably striking design; complete with trademark swoosh-style daylight running lamps. However, its design tends to polarise, but I happen to like the fact that it’s distinctive, edgy, and appreciably different from the German brands.
Inside, it’s the same story, and again, a very different take on the luxury theme than rival models employ. While it’s less attractive than the C-Class and not as clean as the Audi and BMW, it does feel special and most of the materials are first class and nice to the touch.
The LFA supercar-inspired rev counter that slides across the digital screen is especially cool, and you can vary the on-screen information via a touch of a button on the steering wheel.
I really like the touch-sensitive metal strips that you slide your fingers along to change the climate control temperature. It’s easy to get use to this kind of novelty. It’s very aesthetically satisfying, and in stark contrast to large rubbery knobs.
However, I’m not a fan of the out-dated mouse-style infotainment controller, or its mouse-pad style replacement that you’ll find in the new Lexus NX SUV, which while better, still isn’t as intuitive as the rotary controllers used by the German makes.
The build quality and attention to detail, though, is simply exquisite. Take the electric windows – they slow down before sealing with a hiss, rather than the usual clunk. Nothing in this class comes close.
The sports leather seats are sublimely comfortable – a perfect blend of armchair comfort and support, and good for long stints behind the wheel.
The Lexus IS300h is by no means perfect – it’s heavy, not particularly dynamic, and the ride is a little bit too firm for my liking.
However, despite its substantial weight penalty, fuel efficiency is up there with the most frugal European diesels. It’s also wonderfully sumptuous inside and comes with a class-leading inventory of standard equipment - all at a thoroughly competitive price-point.
So, in less than a few months it’s going to be a five-way battle for the all-important volume end of the luxury market, with the Lexus lining up as the only petrol-electric hybrid challenger against the Bavarian onslaught.
How the IS300h will fare – only time will tell.
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