Car reviews - Lexus - IS - sedan range
Cabin is a quantum leap, refinement, more rear legroom than before, risque styling, handling balance, longer warranty than the Germans
Room for improvement
IS300h’s run-flat tyres hurt the ride, outdated 2.5 V6, foot-operated park brake, still some cheap interior details
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11 Jul 2013
FOR all its worth, the previous IS fell just short of the bar against the mighty Germans. Lexus says it has addressed most of these bugbears and, short of the average base powertrain, it has.
We were immediately taken with the new cabin. The old IS was well-made but drab inside, and tight for space.
The new cabin is neither, with far better rear knee- and head space (thanks to a 70mm longer wheelbase) and much of the panache found in the larger GS.
The company claims the new IS offers 170mm of clearance to the front seatbacks compared with 136mm for the A4, 113mm for the 3 Series and 104mm for the C-Class.
Highlights include the supple ‘foam-injected’ seats (foam is pumped into a leather shell, rather than the leather being stretched around pre-set foam, something Lexus says makes its seats more supple), the well laid-out instruments, the haptic-feedback ventilation dials, nifty LFA-style rotating gauges on the F Sport versions (a gorgeous touch), chunky steering wheel and computer mouse-style Remote Touch controller on the transmission tunnel – Lexus’ take on BMW i Drive.
Standard equipment edges the Germans, including satellite navigation, reversing camera, pop-up hood (for pedestrian safety), smart entry with push button start, heated and ventilated leather accented front seats, digital radio, eight airbags (10 on up-spec models) and Bi-Xenon HIDs.
The base audio system has eight speakers, while two USB inputs are also standard - handy if you want to pump tunes from a USB thumb drive while simultaneously charging your phone.
The optional Mark Levinson system (standard on the Sports Luxury versions) is an absolute corker.
According to Lexus, you’d have to spend 20 – 30 per cent more to get the same levels of kit on an Audi A4, BMW 3 Series or Benz C-Class.
Indeed, this high level of kit, plus the Japanese brand’s longer than average four-year warranty and its famously high levels of service make it a decent value proposition.
The downsides? The cruise control stalk on the steering wheel is straight out of a Toyota Corolla, the foot-operated parking brake is an ergonomic shocker and the grade of black plastics used on the door trims and underside of the dash is only passable.
Consider also that high grades of the new VF Commodore come with extras over and above IS such as a head-up display.
To powertrains. As we know, Lexus doesn’t do diesel. Instead, the Japanese luxury brand thinks petrol-electric hybrids are the future of its business.
So much so, it predicts half of all its sales could be hybrids by 2018.
But for all the talk, it’s never had a petrol-electric offering on its volume-selling IS line. Until now.
The new IS300h is clearly the headline act of this regenerated range, because on paper it gives Lexus a rival to oil-burning Euros such as the BMW 320d, Audi A4 2.0d and the Mercedes C200 CDI.
Under the bonnet is a 2.5-litre petrol engine, paired with a small electric motor under the rear loading floor, powered by an old-school but space-saving nickel-metal hydride battery. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a CVT automatic.
Claimed fuel use of 4.9 litres per 100km is marginally higher than the BMW and Audi, and slightly lower than the Benz. But, in hybrid style, the Lexus is more frugal than any in stop-start city environs.
We averaged around 8.0L/100km, but in fairness we were giving it some stick, and the country roads we drove on are not its natural habitat.
With 164kW/300Nm on tap, the IS300h is hardly underdone. The powertrain feels lively enough, and signature Lexus refinement and sound-deadening even filters out any noticeable drone emanating from the CVT.
It still lacks the thump in the back of a torque-rich Euro diesel, but at least you won’t get your hands dirty at the bowser.
The car will operate in silent full electric mode below 40km/h, but Lexus has taken steps to actually increase engine noise at higher speeds.
There is a dial next to the steering wheel that sends an artificial engine ‘note’ through the speakers, albeit a highly synthesised one.
To free up cargo space (its a decent 450L boot) and retain the regular car’s 60:40 folding rear seats, Lexus has had to ditch the regular space-save spare for a patch kit and run-flat tyres. As ever, they’re overly firm and emphasise an inherent busy-ness in the ride at lower speeds.
The IS300h commands a $3000 premium over the regular IS250 at both Luxury ($58,900) and F Sport ($67,900) specification levels.
Ultimately, it’s money well spent despite a few shortcomings, as it makes the petrol version feel old hat. Largely because it is.
The 153kW/252Nm 2.5-litre V6 is more than a decade old, and is unchanged from the old version.
It still has a lovely deep gurgling note and is smooth as butter, but isn’t the punchiest thing around and can struggle with the IS’s 1650kg weight. We also couldn’t keep fuel use below 12.0L/100km.
We spent more time in the (also unchanged) IS350, with its 233kW/378Nm 3.5-litre V6.
New to this variant is an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters lifted from the old IS F dynamo.
It’s smooth and nigh-on imperceptible in most environs, with its only weak spot an occasional but unfortunate propensity to shift up of its own volition even in manual mode. It can easily lead to a double change if you flick the right-hand paddle at the same time as it wants to upshift.
All three variants have been calibrated to match the dynamic Germans, and they come mighty close. We compared the old IS to the new back-to-back, and found this version to be a mite more composed, and more eager to turn in.
It corners with balance – you can even flick the tail out if you can keep off the throttle mid-corner – while in optional Sport + mode (on the F Sport versions), the firmer adaptive dampers keep the car planted and the Bridgestones firmly on the black stuff.
The steering is fast and accurate, but the rack-mounted electric box kills much of the feel-and-feedback. Still, the rear-drive IS is the best-handling Lexus we’ve piloted (bar the insane LFA supercar).
That, plus the winning cabin, edgier exterior design and plethora of standard features makes the new IS a more worthy contender to the mid-sized crown than ever, average base engine aside.
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