Car reviews - Lexus - IS - IS 300h
Value, economy, handling, design, technology, true sporty nature yet trad Lexus values intact
Room for improvement
Foot-operated park brake, fiddly mouse controller, poor rear vision
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7 Nov 2013
Price and equipment
DID you know Australia is the world’s third biggest IS market, behind only the USA and Canada?We obviously love our rear-drive sports sedans, even if Toyota’s ‘Luxury Export US’ branded beauty doesn’t always spring to mind.
Now there’s an essentially all-new model in our midst – the third since the series surfaced in 1999 – with much more contemporary styling and a harder overall edge. Will Aussies respond? The first IS200/300 range was unashamedly aimed at the BMW E36 3 Series of the 1990s, and even showed the Bavarian up when launched since the E46 Series 1 had softened considerably.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the second-gen IS250/350 from 2005 targeted Mercedes-Benz’s W203 C-Class, so prioritised luxury and refinement over out-and-out sportiness. It was at this time that the intriguing straight-six drivetrain was ditched for far-more conventional V6s, like you might find in an Aurion.
The newcomer melds the two previous iterations, using a reworked version of the mid-sized GS sedan’s architecture underneath, with a fresh look designed to lure more youngsters, as well as a body that’s 10 per cent stiffer yet that amount lighter than before.
The biggest change is Lexus’ tilt at the popular European turbo-diesels, in the form of the IS 300h petrol-electric hybrid.
Kicking off from $56,900, the list of standard items is impressive – eight airbags, a pedestrian-impact friendlier pop-up bonnet, dual-zone climate control with touch-sensitive (electrostatic) controls, a seven-inch colour touchscreen with navigation, 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry/start, a reversing camera, DAB+ digital radio, electric seat adjustment, Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, bi-Xenon headlights, heated and cooled front seats, leather upholstery and LED daytime running lamps.
Our test car is the $67,900 F-Sport, which includes a host of goodies such as variable adaptive dampers, different bumpers and 18-inch alloys, and LFA supercar-style TFT instrumentation and seats, among other more minor trim enhancements.
Actually, make that $77,900, since our car also featured the $7000 Enhancement Pack that adds a sunroof, high-end Mark Levinson audio, lane-change alerts, Active Cruise Control, and the company’s Pre-Collision Safety System that ‘prepares’ the belts, brakes and other safety items for an impact.
Sinewy, showy, and striking, yet infused with real elegance, the well proportioned IS’ exterior design boldly reflects Toyota’s renewed emphasis on modern Japanese style.
The same thinking applies inside, and it is a radical departure after the slushy softness of the previous-generation vehicle. Their cabins could hardly look more different.
Keeping in mind there’s no denying Lexus’ commitment to quality the very angular looking dash is a celebration of (upscale) plastic trim, capped off with brushed metallic embellishments and a smattering of carefully sited controls.
It gives the IS a fresh ‘80s star-fighter cockpit ambience, which immediately conjures up images of playful youthfulness and future-tech coolness.
How Lexus’ traditional geriatric audience will adapt is anybody’s guess. Like it or not, the Germans seem dull by comparison. All you need to do is become used to it. Sitting on a 70mm longer wheelbase, and on tracks that are wider by 10mm, the latest IS aims to address one of the key weaknesses of the previous-gen model – rear-seat space.
And so, from a functionality point of view, there is at last space for four adults (it’s ample up front on great seats, though still a tad tight headroom wise on the sculptured rear bench) the driving position is faultless the instrumentation (changeable through a variety of menu choices to suit your mood) is a model of clarity storage options are ample and everything is easy to find once you’ve taken the time to learn the central controller-actuated set-up.
There are heaps of likeable details to drink in, such as the old-school powder-coated radio knobs that feel like they’re made from old Alka-Seltzer tablets the aforementioned slide controls for the HVAC system and the very 1984 Renault 25-style console appearance.
Challenging yet cocooning and comfortable, this Lexus has class as well as personality.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is the fact that boot space is no longer completely sacrificed at the green god alter in this Toyota hybrid sedan, because the electrical gubbins are all located beneath the floor or within the spare wheel well.
The latter’s new role means you now have to learn to use a can of tyre-repair goo because there is no longer a spare. At least it also allows for a 60/40 split-fold rear seat. For the record the boot holds 450 litres – just 30L shy of the regular IS models.
On the minus side, rear vision is limited – though Lexus partly addresses this with the impossible-to-miss central screen and rear parking sensors the foot-operated park brake is an awkward-to-use ‘50s throwback the glovebox isn’t as big as it could be and the controller may be fiddly for some.
Also, the optional radar-based adaptive cruise control system is of the vintage variety that completely switches off when the vehicle in front is travelling below about 50km/h. There are more sophisticated versions in some rival products.
Engine and transmission
The good news is the IS 300h’s series parallel hybrid system is capable of averaging just 4.9 litres per 100km and 113 grams of carbon dioxide pollution per kilometre – an effort that excels even in the face of modern Euro turbo-diesels.
And so what’s the bad news? There isn’t any, not really. This is the IS to have, full stop.
Driving the rear wheels via a unique electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission dubbed E-CVT, the hybrid employs a variation of the Camry’s impressive 133kW/221Nm 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine (so you’ll know it will be ultra reliable). Mounted longitudinally, it works with a 105kW/300Nm 650-volt electric motor, for a total power output of 164kW. What all this means is that, should you select Sport instead of Normal or Eco, the IS 300h will shrug off is relaxed demeanour, leap forward off the line in a very un-hybrid manner (8.5 seconds to 100km/h is the official figure), and keep the momentum coming on strong all the way to… well, on a special proving ground in Melbourne, we saw 160km/h come up extremely quickly.
And when we needed to chauffer tired and grumpy old people around, the engine was barely turning over at 1600rpm when cruising quietly at 100km/h.
We averaged between 6.6 to 7.2L/100km over our week with it, which is extremely impressive considering the Lexus’ breadth of capabilities.
Note that the ‘sound symposer’ provides an awesome electric sports sedan soundtrack when switched on, drowning out some of the e-CVT’s low-fi drone that is evident (but not overly so) in Normal modes.
All-in-all, then, why would you bother with the V6-powered IS?Perhaps more pertinently, why would you settle for any old four-cylinder turbo-diesel?
Ride and handling
Just as unexpectedly, while the electrified power steering system is sharp and responsive but a bit muted in feel at lower speeds, when you’re on the pace, the helm really starts to interact with the driver, for fast and confident handling. And we mean it. On that private track, we absolutely thrashed the Lexus around, and the Japanese sedan just didn’t put a foot wrong. Quick to change direction, in fast corners, the car would carve through with impressive stability and poise, yet if you’re up for a bit of tail-out fun the intelligently tuned ESC system will give the hybrid some slack.
Throw in fabulous wet-weather grip and reassuringly strong brakes, and the IS 300h lives up to the sports sedan mantra.
However, on the standard run-flat tyres, the F-Sport version’s ride around town can feel a bit tetchy – though on the open road, it has no problem absorbing the larger bumps and undulations.
F-Sport tyres are 225/40R18 items up front and 255/35R18 on the rear wheels.
Safety and servicing
Though there is no ANCAP crash-test rating for the latest IS, the company expects it to score a five-star result.
Lexus goes once better than Toyota by offering a 48-month/100,000km warranty with roadside assistance, though there is no fixed-price servicing on the IS.
The hybrid battery comes with its own eight-year warranty.
Lexus has engineered a four-cylinder petrol-electric hybrid that adds up well beyond the sum of its (many) parts.
The IS 300h makes the most of its stronger yet lighter body, by being a peaceful and economical luxury car one moment, and an edgy driving machine the next.
Yet the newcomer also has a strong dose of newfound Japanese character, in a high quality and reliable package that should give years of fault-free service.
All the driver need do is choose the mode he or she is in the mood for. This is the IS 300h’s greatest achievement. You could say it is like a virtual sports sedan – fiery, frugal, and yet fun.
If you’re about to buy a BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, or Audi A4 diesel, make sure you drive the IS 300h first. It hits the right balance between sporty and luxury, with personality to boot.
BMW F30 318d (From $57,800 plus on-roads).
Refined and efficient to the point of sterility, the 318d is toweringly capable with exceptional talent. Just ensure it has the circa-$2K Adaptive M Suspension option, to give it back some of that BMW driving personality.
Mercedes-Benz W204 C200 CDI (From $61,400 plus on-roads).
The ageing C-Class is still one of the best real-world sedans, walking the fine line between comfort and dynamics in a spacious and classy package. Only some slight diesel gruffness detracts.
Audi A4 2.0 TDI (From $57,900 plus on-roads).
Now with a few wrinkles, the A4 is best represented in base front-drive guises from a dynamics and comfort point of view, and adds exceptional design and quality to a roomy package. But it trails the others here overall.
MAKE/MODEL: Lexus IS 300h F-Sport
ENGINE: 2494cc 4-cyl petrol/electric series parallel hybrid with Nickel-metal Hydride battery pack
LAYOUT: RWD, longitudinal
POWER: 133kW @ 6000rpm/164kW combined
TORQUE: 221Nm @ 4200-5400rpm
ELECTRIC MOTOR: 105kW/300Nm
TRANSMISSION: CVT automatic
TOP SPEED: 200km/h
SUSPENSION f/r: Double wishbones/multi-links
STEERING: Electric rack and pinion
BRAKES f/r: Discs/discs
PRICE: From $67,900 plus on-roads
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