Lexus IS 300h review
For a while now, the Lexus IS has been an alternative choice for compact executive saloon buyers. Since it has been around, the traditional German choices from BMW, Audi, and Mercedes have topped the pecking order, while Jaguar's XF has come along and gone mainstream in a relatively short amount of time. Now though, the market is turning towards Lexus' strengths - moving away from diesel and towards hybrids. Having spent many years quietly refining their product, have Lexus' engineers played the waiting game to perfection? NGC tests the latest IS 300h to find out.
Review by Chris Lilly
Under the bonnet of the IS 300h sits a 2.5 litre four-cylinder petrol hybrid powertrain, providing a maximum 220bhp for the driver to work with, and up to 300 Nm of torque. The result is a Lexus that can get a shift on, without ever being fast. The 0-62mph time of 8.3 seconds perfectly sums up the performance potential. It never feels short on power, but equally you will rarely feel as though acceleration is tackled with vigour. The main culprit behind this is the CVT gearbox used by Lexus - and parent firm Toyota - in its hybrids. It's a very efficient system, but sounds harsh when accelerating hard, and removes the sense of speed that is achievable in in-gear acceleration. The natural torque of the electric motor filling in the low-end power band for the petrol engine means the Lexus can pick up the pace fairly quickly. It's best to be driven in a more relaxed frame of mind though, leaving the hybrid powertrain to waft along, with the IS 300h a very refined drive when driving to its strengths.
The IS is a surprisingly good drive down a twisty road. It's not going to give drivers the same satisfaction as a BMW 3-Series of Jaguar XF down a great driver's road, with a lack of feedback limiting the amount of sporty appeal on offer. However, there is a good amount of grip available, the steering is well-weighted and accurate, and the suspension is nicely set-up to keep things level in the corners. With the powertrain's natural traits, there are going to be few opportunities for the driver to really push the IS 300h along, but when you do, the stiff chassis has enough about it to comply. Again, stick to a different habitat and the IS performs better. On motorways and dual carriageways for example, the ride is compliant but not too soft that the Lexus bounces along every time you hit a bump. Here the IS might not have the natural comfort of a Mercedes C-Class, but it can keep up with the rest of its rivals as a long-distance drive. Around town, the stiffer suspension means it handles well around tight corners, but again the Mercedes will pip it for comfort over rough surfaces. Considering the C-Class beats a lot of cars for comfort, even much more expensive ones, this is no point of shame for the Lexus.
With a refreshed design for this year, the Lexus IS looks sharper than before, and is certainly striking. It's also distinctly Japanese, and is a nicely-styled saloon, especially in F-Sport trim. Split front headlights look a little odd on some paint jobs, but the angular front end sweeps dramatically back to a sharply styled rear. Load space in the boot is adequate, but doesn't match some of its rivals. Unlike the three German models, the IS isn't available as an estate either, for those who need a more practical boot. Occupant space is better and will seat four adults comfortably. The sloping roof-line might catch out tall passengers in the rear, but leg and shoulder room are pretty good. Since the IS is rear-wheel drive, the transmission tunnel means only little'uns can sit in the centre of the rear bench. Those up front have no problems at all, with lots of room despite a fairly large centre console.
COMFORT & CONTROLS
The IS is well set-up for comfort, with the hybrid model especially a quiet and refined drive when driven to its strengths. The driver's seating position is good if not the best around, and seats all-round are comfortable and supportive - a long-standing Lexus strength. Despite a much larger screen than before, the IS is still a bit of a button fest. It's a shame really because the cabin is nicely designed otherwise, it's just that the large number of controls detract from this fact a little. The infotainment system can be a bit fiddly to navigate around, and the lay-out isn't as intuitive as it could be. What is a nice piece of thinking though is the drive mode selector, which twists one way for Eco, the other for Sport, and is pushed for Normal. Whereas many other systems require you to scroll through, or bring up a menu before selecting the one you want, with one option for each function, the switch over between settings is almost instant - handy if you're in Eco and want to quickly switch to Sport to overtake someone. Despite not being the nicest set of instruments to look at, the IS's cabin feels exceptionally well built - a statement backed up by many years of reliability and customer satisfaction awards.
MPG & RUNNING COSTS
The best of the IS 300h range is officially quoted as returning 67.3 MPG and a CO2 figure of 97 g/km in its most efficient trim. In real world conditions, the reading on the trip computer of the test car showed an average of 48.6 MPG at the end of my time with it, though the Lexus can regularly reach figures of 50 MPG easily with some sensible driving. In terms of car tax, the IS 300h will cost Â£110 for the first year rate - included in the OTR - of the most efficient model, or Â£130 depending on trim. No matter the trim picked, it will then cost Â£130 a year thereafter, with all rates including the Â£10 Alternative Fuel Discount.
The hybrid powertrain is the largest bit of green technology for the IS range, with the 105 kW electric motor, nickel metal-hydride battery, and brake energy recuperation allowing the Lexus to run in electric-only mode for short periods. There is an EV mode button to force the car to remain under electric-only power for as long as the battery capacity allows. There is also an Eco mode which maximises engine output, throttle response, air-conditioning, and gear selection for the most efficient settings. There is a section of the infotainment system that feeds back on fuel economy performance, and - unless in Sport mode - the 'rev' dial shows 'charge', 'eco', and 'power' sections to let the driver know how economically they are driving. According to our calculations, the tested has a Next Green Car Rating of 36.
The IS line-up ranges from well-equipped to almost decadent, which is as you would expect for an executive model. Standard features on the entry level SE trim include 16-inch alloys, drive mode select, cruise control, LED headlights, and 7-inch infotainment screen with DAB, Bluetooth, and USC connectivity. Executive Edition adds 17-inch alloys, Lexus Navigation, reversing camera, automatic wipers, folding rear seats, and Lexus Safety System +. It's a good value trim option and aimed squarely at company car drivers. Higher up the range still are features such as 18-inch alloys, front and rear parking sensors, electric seats, leather trim, Lexus Premium Navigation, and a Mark Levinson stereo.
The IS 300h can't quite stack up against the diesel alternatives offered by its rivals in terms of fuel economy, but it comes mightily close. With a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding diesel cars currently, the hybrid IS is both a good option and will be far more future-proof for the next few years. The car's stylish, decent to drive, and comfortable. It won't suit everybody, but it you're a company car driver heading in and out of cities regularly, it's a must to consider.
Model tested: Lexus IS 300h
Body-style: Compact executive saloon
Engine / CO2: 2.5 litre hybrid petrol / 97 g/km
Trim grades: SE, Executive Edition, Sport, Advance, Luxury, F Sport, Premier
On-road price: From £29,995.
Warranty: Three years / 60,000 miles
In the showroom: Now
Review rating: 3.5 Stars