Lexus’ transition from a precise but dull luxury brand to a maker of edgy design-oriented pieces of aspiration is now well advanced, thanks in large part to the IS.
This third-generation medium sedan launched in 2013 as a driving force behind the company’s transition. Now this Japanese 3 Series and C-Class rival has been given its mid-life update to make it a more competitive alternative than ever.
Lexus calls the MY17 improvements to its all-time Australian top-seller “substantial”, citing the tweaked design, better screen in the cabin and more safety gear, while downplaying some small price hikes.
Here we test perhaps the least well-regarded member of the IS range, the Lexus IS300h hybrid, in flagship Sports Luxury spec. The car tested is the second-most expensive offering in the range at $81,160 plus on-road costs (up $620 over the MY16 model).
Those on a budget can get the less well-equipped IS300h Luxury for $61,890 or the F Sport with hybrid drivetrain for $70,310.
This petrol-electric model is Lexus’ answer to diesel-powered rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz C250d, BMW 320d, Audi A4 2.0 TDI and Jaguar XE 20d, in that it’s an economy-focused drivetrain that doesn’t skimp on power and torque (claimed).
BMW and Mercedes-Benz also offer much more advanced plug-in hybrid (PHEV) offerings — the 330e ($71,900) and C350e ($75,300) — that can both travel on pure electric power for daily commutes, unlike the older-tech Lexus. Ditto the smaller Audi A3 e-tron hatch.
There’s a bit going under the Lexus’ familiar sharp silhouette, which itself gets a claimed eight main changes led by the new front bumper and grille, revised headlights, and wheel design. Love or hate, the Lexus IS is bold and dynamic, and has a distinct character.
The first thing that grabs you inside the familiar ensconcing cabin is the crisp new 10.3-inch screen in place of the old 7.0-inch unit, bringing Lexus into the current era, some subtly new switchgear (such as the wheel buttons), and a nicer new analogue clock.
The oft-derided Lexus Remote Touch controller — that mouse-like toggle that controls the infotainment, much like BMW’s pioneering iDrive system — has been improved too, with back and enter switches on the extended palm rest, giving the driver simpler controls.
Our Sports Luxury also get slick ‘laser-cut’ wood ornamentation which, while not as modern as the F-Sport spec’s get-up, is certainly a point of difference over the glossy black or polished steel used in rivals.
The material quality and tactility remains brilliant. Everything closes softly, and the plastic and leather used is first-rate. Also good are the soft and supportive electric (heated and cooled) seats, deep-pile carpets, bulletproof fit-and-finish and sublime steering wheel.
It’s altogether more cosseting than the Germans and the Brits, and has signature Japanese attention to detail.
However, the infotainment toggle is still fiddly at times, and the menu and navigation graphics feels old-hat next to a modern Audi A4 that overlays Google Maps. Additionally, there’s clear use of Toyota switchgear in places.
We’re also suckers for the F-Sport spec’s LFA supercar-inspired gauges instead of the Sports Luxury’s uninspiring instruments, and the lurid red leather seats. Oh well.
A traditional Lexus strong suit is value for money. There’s little doubt the IS comes well equipped. Top-end niceties include a thumping Mark Levinson 15-speaker sound system, keyless-go, sunroof, heated/cooled seats, electric rear sunshade and 18-inch alloys.
Part of the IS update also brings more safety tech to the range, which has 10 airbags and a five-star ANCAP crash rating. All versions (not just the Sports Luxury) get autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, active cruise control (that doesn’t stop to zero, so is best for non-congested freeways), automatic high-beam (the Sports Luxury gets full LED headlights that are great in the country), blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
What about cabin room? The Sport Luxury’s sunroof eats into what is already an uncomfortably small amount of headroom for anyone north of 190cm. However, the supportive seats, lovely materials and air vents make it comfortable for shorter occupants.
Boot space is 450 litres, which is modest though sufficient for a few suitcases. And unlike some hybrids of earlier eras, the rear seats flip-fold 60:40 to free up a longer cargo area.
Under the bonnet/boot is a series hybrid drivetrain comprising a 133kW/221Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine running an Atkinson cycle, paired with a 105kW/300Nm electric motor and rather old-hat nickel-metal hydride battery rather than a lithium-ion array.
The combined output is 164kW, which when matched to a CVT with six stepped ratios and paddles, and the portly 1720kg kerb weight, renders the car brisk enough, but far from inspiring in a straight line (0-100km/h in 8.5sec) or punching through corners, though it’s relaxed on freeways.
It’s altogether less punchy than a German diesel rival, and not really any more refined, though at least you won’t have to wear gloves at a diesel bowser, and the NOx particulates are less of a problem.
Around town, the car can be run in an Eco mode on pure electric power, but only below 50km/h and at partial throttle, before the engine kicks in. The setup is not as elegant as BMW’s plug-in hybrid 330e ($71,900) that can also do daily commutes as a pure EV.
Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption is 4.9L/100km, which is excellent, and a hybrid’s strength is urban stop-start traffic where the motor can do its work. We managed a decent 6.0L/100km without trying.
But again, the 330e and C350e are about twice as efficient, and have the eco-friendly bragging rights, while the diesel rivals slurp no more fuel than the Lexus yet offer a greater surge of torque. This puts the IS300h in a sort of technological no-man’s land.
Additionally, the cheaper IS200t in this specification with its lovely 180kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine and eight-speed auto, sitting in a lighter body, seems a sharper bet. Fuel use is 50 per cent higher, but the 0-100km/h time is cut by 1.5sec, which suits the Lexus’ sporty looks better.
Dynamically, the Lexus’ rear-wheel drive set-up is clearly designed for sharp handling, because it sure doesn’t help cabin packaging.
The IS sports double-wishbone front suspension and a multi-link set-up at the rear. The dampers are tuned to offer a cosseting ride that irons out bumps and corrugations, though the body settles after sharp hits well enough and doesn’t lean through corners.
The electro-assisted steering is speed-sensitive, and offers adjustable resistance levels, while the wheel itself is absolutely beautiful.
That said, the IS300h feels all its 1700-odd kilos mid-corner, so while the IS is indeed a relatively good steer, it doesn’t dance like a 3 Series or turn-in like a Jaguar XE, while the braking is a touch numb on initial application and the foot-operated park brake is just crap.
Okay, we hear you — the Lexus IS300h isn’t meant to be a sporty car. That’s the IS200t F Sport. Fair enough, though we’d argue the swooping coupe-like design demands more dynamism. Yet to its credit, the refinement is brilliant. The car doesn’t merely lope over hits, it’s also super-quiet at all speeds against rivals, and as such is an outstanding long-distance cruiser.
But so are its rivals, and they offer more advanced powertrains.
None of this means the Lexus IS is unappealing. Its cabin is sublime, the quietude and refinement top notch, and the equipment offered for the money is outstanding. It also comes with great dealer servicing and care programs (such as an eight-year battery warranty), and will give you trouble-free luxury motoring with a big dash of style.
But the IS300h hybrid is not the strong suit of the range, especially in the Sports Luxury spec north of $80k. Which is why I’d give the IS200t F-Sport a very commendable 8/10, but can’t go beyond 7/10 for the petrol-electric IS300h.
Buy an IS by all means, but not in this specification. If you want to be green, get a German PHEV. And if you just want to save fuel bills and don’t mind dirty hands and NOx, look for a diesel. Regular hybrids are old hat at the best of times, more so in the luxury class.