Lexus is a boldly Japanese brand. It builds luxury cars on its terms, and doesn't seem too influenced by what's going on in Europe.
Sure, some design traits may have been borrowed, or 'used with licence', but the core of its offering is traditional and authentically Japanese.
Nothing more so than its electrified offerings. Lexus has been stoking this fire for 15 years now, and was the first luxury brand to offer a hybrid vehicle back in 2006. If you want a nugget of information to show Lexus is true to its roots, that's one for the pile.
Australia has been receptive, albeit conservatively. From 2006 to 2015, Lexus reached a milestone of 15,000 hybrid vehicles sold in Australia. In just over the five years since, it sold another 15,000.
Of that 30,000, 8775 have been hybridised versions of its RX medium SUV. Following closely behind is the dedicated hybrid-only CT hatchback range at 7787, and then in third place its baby NX SUV at 6151.
In fourth place lies what we're driving today – the IS medium sedan. Its hybrid-only sales volume sits at 2574, just 40 per cent of spot three.
Despite being significantly less popular than the dedicated hybrid and two SUVs, there's a lot going for the small-sedan alternative.
|2021 Lexus IS300h|
|Engine||2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol/hybrid|
|Power and torque||133kW at 6000rpm / 221Nm at 4200–5400rpm (petrol), 105kW/300Nm (electric), 164kW (combined)|
|Drive type||Rear-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||5.1L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||6.8L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up/down)||450L/NA|
|Turning circle||10.4m kerb to kerb|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (2016)|
|Main competitors||BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4|
|Price as tested (excl. on-road costs)||From $64,500|
The 2021 Lexus IS300h sits in the middle of a three-wide range, and is offered in two guises – Luxury and F Sport. The Luxury model, as we're testing today, is priced from $64,500 before on-roads. Upgrading to the F Sport version will cost $8500 extra, at a total of $73,000 neat, also before on-roads.
Beneath the hybrid range lies the more-powerful IS300, also offered in the same two guises. Prices here start from $61,500.
Sitting proud up top the trifecta is the V6-powered IS350, available only in F Sport trim, for $75,000 flat. That makes the most powerful version, also the antithesis of the hybrid, just $2000 more when compared spec-for-spec.
With the wider range now understood, what's a middle-of-the-road Lexus hybrid sedan like to drive?
Before you assume, the most standout point of the drive isn't the fuel economy. The official combined figure is 5.1L/100km, and our test car hovered in the sevens around town, settling on 6.8L/100km after a run on the highway. Not good against the official claim, but fair amongst its peers.
What's more standout is the quality of the drive. Even in the greenest of green trim levels, it retains the spirit of an engaging, rear-wheel-drive sedan.
As is the Lexus fashion, the calibration of controls is spot on. The steering weights up nicely, and feels poised and accurate. Pedal response is good, despite being hooked up to a constantly variable transmission (CVT), and transitions between EV mode and internal combustion are undetectable.
The unintrusive nature of the switch-over is the product of 15 years of practice. Given the myriad amounts of throttle pedal you can task the engine with before it comes alive, there's no question the CVT is critical to the formula.
I'll give you an example to explain. Imagine you've taken off from a set of lights in your Lexus IS300h. Likely, it would be accelerating up to 20km/h purely in EV mode with the internal combustion engine switched off.
If all of a sudden you wish to input 100 per cent throttle, the engine will need to turn on and play catch-up. Given CVT transmissions are infinitely variable, as the name suggests, and contain stack-loads of slip, they're well suited to gently feeding in the requested amount of torque, which in this scenario would be close to maximum.
Some dual-clutch transmissions struggle with setting off from a standstill smoothly, let alone trying to manage 100 per cent throttle, on the roll, one step behind the driver. It goes to show how critical the CVT is to the Toyota 'hybrid synergy drive' philosophy.
In general driving situations, however, a dual-clutch would better suit. They're quick shifting and less aloof. The CVT feels quite elastic, and does seem like it saps torque. If you flick it over to manual mode, or sport mode, it feels equally as dull, just with a new layer of control.
As is the case with everything, there are trade-offs, good sides and bad – and the Lexus's CVT offers the better balance of good versus bad. While it's not aligned in theory to the ethos of a rear-wheel-drive sedan, what it does offer instead is calmness, serenity and peace. All things the likely buyer of a hybrid wants, and for $2000 less than the V6 version.
Ride and handling are spot on for the segment. The IS300h Luxury features single-stage dampers, with adaptive items reserved for F Sport models only. Regardless, the suspension system in the regular models has been fettled with for the update, and now features things like a "re-engineered bound stopper" and "new swing-valve short absorber design". Jargon to the side, it translates to a smoother, more forgiving ride than before.
Even over really terrible pieces of road, at pace, with steering lock dialled in, the Lexus felt composed. It showed no sign of bump steer, nor running out of suspension stroke to iron out the tatty road surface. Sometimes sports sedans tend to crash and bounce off the final compression point of the suspension. No such behaviour here.
Don't think for a second it then deserves HMAS across its hull. The IS still remains direct and, dare I say it, engaging to hustle along a challenging back road. Its compliance is the best part, as this alone spurs confidence in your ability.
Inside, the cabin continues to abide by a Japanese mantra, showing only small touches of European-led modernity. The biggest of which is an updated 10.3-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The whole shebang is controlled by another Euro-centric device – a touchpad that features haptic feedback. This means your commands are acknowledged with a physical sensation, much like pressing a button. It makes the system easy to familiarise yourself with and to use while driving.
Mercedes-Benz employs a very similar system, which has its pros and cons. While the Mercedes-Benz system feels more intuitive to interact with, it falls down in one key area. If you flick to Apple CarPlay in a Benz, the haptic feedback system switches off, as it was never programmed in conjunction with smartphone mirroring. In the Lexus, it continues to work, regardless of the environment.
Horses for courses, but it's great to see Lexus moving away from the previous, awful joystick, and to something that's more aligned to the best in the business's efforts.
Keeping with the theme of Benz, any of its latest cars will impress in the showroom with fancy ambient lighting, ornate switchgear and excellent digital displays. The Lexus may not. Its cabin vibe looks old-fashioned in comparison. Faithful to its country of origin perhaps, which praises ergonomics similar to how the Germans praise, and have even dictated, modern design.
Firstly, there's a sea of buttons for all controls. While it looks old-school, and possibly not to your high-tech taste, it retains excellent functionality. Take managing the climate-control system as one. Myriad buttons mean it's easy to control fan speed, position and temperature. One could argue the individual temperature control screens for each zone also look antiquated, but then again, they're dedicated, which makes them far more legible compared to being buried in the infotainment screen.
As is the trait with functional design, sometimes aesthetic qualities come off second-best. If you're into Birkenstocks, you're probably into this interior.
Vehicle instrumentation relies on a classic set of dials. Once again, no fully digital instrument cluster in sight. Given the customisation and sound usability found in the best instrument displays on the market, Lexus has no ergonomic leg to stand on here. It needs to get with the times and offer its own, equally modern take on how its cars display information to the driver.
In terms of cabin material quality and presentation, there's a nice air of solidity. The doors close with a reassuring thud, grained surfaces are consistent and soft, and everything else is tightly gapped and aligned. Storage is sub-par. Two large cupholders in the centre console area are great, but the door bins are shallow, as is the centre armrest area.
Lexus uses vinyl to clad seats at this grade, but thankfully the quality straddles leather well enough to play make-believe. The seats themselves are comfortable, feature electric adjustment, heating, and height-adjustable lumbar support also.
Our test car was fitted with a no-cost-option saddle brown interior, which I thought was quite dashing. Maybe I'm showing my age? Let me know in the comments below.
In terms of driver-assist systems, the Lexus gets the lot. The usual acronyms are there, which I'll break out for you: autonomous emergency braking with day and night pedestrian and day-only cyclist detection, lane-tracing assist, road sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring, reverse automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control are the big ones.
Another active feature is Lexus Connected services, which gives the car a cellular data connection. Via one touch of the red button on the roof, an SOS call is dialled. In the event of an accident, the car will do it itself.
The other main luxury in our test car is a small opening sunroof, which comes as part of the $2100 Enhancement Package 1. There's another option offered, aptly named Enhancement Package 2, which adds a genuine leather interior, 17-speaker premium audio, 19-inch wheels, the same sunroof as Pack 1, and a handful of other small items. This package costs $5775.
In the back, it feels quite compact. As a 183cm occupant behind my own driving position, my knees were grazing against the rear seat backs. Toe room was satisfactory, but head room quite slim.
Getting in and out can be tricky, as the hip point is quite low. Consider the Lexus IS300h more of a four-seater, too, as an awkwardly large transmission tunnel makes the rear middle seat uncomfortable. In order to use the seat, your short-straw-drawing friend must perch their legs either side of the tunnel and annoy the other two rear passengers. It's not a good experience during long-distance journeys.
Two large convertible child seats will happily slot in across the back. There isn't much length to play with, so if you enjoy sitting comfortably as a front passenger, expect a kick in the back from your child behind.
This point becomes more noticeable with the child seat flipped to a rearward-facing position, as the front passenger seat must be adjusted quite far forward to allow room. The last mentions for the back row go to a pair of air vents and a fold-down armrest, which has two cupholders.
Boot space is great at 450L, but it suffers from the usual sedan woes. Its small opening makes it hard to stow large objects, such as large boxes from your favourite MDF merchant. Another is the space being deeper than it is wide, which means you have to climb halfway into the area to push things up against the seat back. The second row also folds in a 60/40 split.
Given this is the hybrid version, there are batteries in the car. They occupy the space under the boot floor, which means there's no spare wheel, just a tyre repair kit instead.
Traditionalism isn't outdated. The 2021 Lexus IS300h offers a unique take on the small-sedan sector, and does so using fundamentals still critical to everyday motoring – excellent ride quality, smoothness, and simple-to-use controls.
While it doesn't cram in fancy European-style trinkets, it does cram in excellent hybrid vehicle technology. This stuff will save you money, is better for the environment in the long term, and functions imperceptibly, too, so as to ice the cake.