Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the launch of Lexus as a new global prestige car brand. In terms of market value, it is now one of the ten largest Japanese brands and the freeways of America positively flow with Lexuses.
But, in the UK and Europe, prestige car buyers seem to be more traditional in their choice of marque, preferring to drive behind Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Jaguar badges.
But, it is exactly that challenge that will keep Lexus focussed on building a car that makes a convincing case to European and UK buyers. Even with more than a million IS sales behind it, Lexus is not resting on its laurels. Last year a new IS 300h was unveiled to put even more pressure on the BMW 3 Series.
Having decided not to offer a diesel option in the IS range, the hybrid IS 300h offers another route to greater economy and lower emissions – the latter being particularly important for company car drivers.
With the IS range Lexus has gone for the current vogue in coupé-style rooflines. In ’designer speak’ it gives the Lexus an “athletic stance”. The design team also sought to give the latest IS a more confident look. This included a bolder version of the love-it-or-hate-it Lexus corporate “spindle” grille, adjusted to give the impression of a lower centre of gravity.
This more edgy front end is in marked contrast to the more classical executive saloon lines, of the car’s profile. The gaping air intake appearance gives the IS a more aggressive style. To my eye this front-end treatment ends up looking a tad fussy.
Good to see that one of the original Lexus trademarks – the steering wheel and seat that move to ease entry and exit – is still alive and well in the IS. It’s a little bit of “theatre” to welcome you into the car.
Once you are behind the wheel and have found – and stored – your ideal settings for seat, steering wheel and mirrors, you can start to appreciate the build quality in the comprehensively equipment at your finger tips. In the test car in Premier trim, it’s unmistakably luxurious. But, like the exterior, to my eye it lacks the ultimate charisma of the best European designs.
Pickiness apart, this is a good place to be. The driving position is very comfortable and the controls well thought out. Only the rotary multimedia controller struck me as something that would take a little practice to become familiar.
The dashboard is dominated by a high-resolution 10.3-inch display, while a split screen means you can display different information simultaneously. Connected to this is a sound system equipped to an equally high specification, with no less than 15 speakers to deliver surround sound. In these connected days, you can opt for in-car WiFi.
Space in the good and the Lexus IS 300h is a genuine luxury saloon with space for four or five passengers. Round the back, at 450 litres the boot is as large as you would expect for a prestige saloon, although the spare wheel is sacrificed for battery space on this hybrid version.
The hybrid technology in the Lexus IS 300h combines a 178 bhp 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle engine with a 141 bhp electric motor.
It is all too easy to take this hybrid technology for granted because it just works. You step into the car, press the button and a green light tells you the car is ready. If you set off at low throttle, chances are you are only using the electric motor and (providing you have enough charge) you can even select to continue in EV (electric vehicle) mode.
But, more normally you would let the car choose the ideal mode. As anyone who has driven a hybrid knows, this works its magic almost imperceptibly – constantly switching between the electric and petrol motor as required, or working both in tandem when power is demanded. The petrol motor generates electricity to keep the batteries charged and the car also recovers energy when braking.
The payback for owners is that the Lexus IS 300h boasts a combined fuel economy of 61.4 mpg and CO2 emissions of just 107 g/km. In the real world you can get over 50 mpg with a bit of restraint. But, my overall average was around 35 mpg, which is good for a fairly large saloon, especially as it included quite a bit of city driving and with extensive use of the ‘sport’ settings.
Performance is respectable enough to hold its head up in the company of other European executive expresses. Select sport mode or press the accelerator and petrol and electric motors combine to deliver a speedy response. Acceleration 0-60 mph takes just 8.4 seconds and, on a German autobahn the IS 300h would apparently continue on up to 125 mph.
The gearbox is an electrically controlled CVT. Unlike some other hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, this Lexus Hybrid Drive does offer the chance to manually select gears within the CVT range. So you can choose to use the paddles to drop to a lower gearing to stabilise the car in a corner. The manual control is over-ridden if you then decide to accelerator hard. But, this gearbox isn’t a match for a good torque-converter automatic, or a dual-clutch system.
Thanks to a late fall of snow, blown in from Siberia by the ‘Beast from the East’, I was even able to try out the ‘snow’ mode. This eases the initial bite of the brakes to reduce the danger of them locking and skidding. Other settings are designed to improve traction. Although it didn’t stop the IS 300h from slipping on the white stuff, the various electronics kicked in to ensure that we made our late night journey without much drama and even managed to ascend the final snowy hill to home.
The design team at Lexus has spent considerable effort to beat the Europeans at their own game, with chassis improvements – notably a new multi-link set up at the rear. The electrically-powered steering has also been tuned up to provide more feedback. The result is indeed a car that is better handling, feels sharper and makes the driver feel more involved.
At the same time Lexus certainly has bags of refinement. If you want a car you can waft around in comfort, then the Lexus IS 300h could be ideal. But, there are times you might crave even more feedback and tighter control.
But, there are sports models of the Lexus IS, particularly the Lexus IS 200t F Sport, which deliver a more sporty character and greater power. It would be interesting to see if the Lexus IS 200T F Sport with Adaptive Variable Suspension, would be the answer for those who want more dynamic handling.
It is quite ironic that cars, like the Lexus, are becoming so quiet and refined that drivers are craving a little more engine noise. The IS 300h, like so many cars now, lets you choose how much engine noise you want to hear and, on the IS 300h, this is fed into the interior through the loud speakers.
It is quite remarkable, when you consider the hybrid technology in the Lexus IS 300h, that it competes well on price with similar cars from BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz, without additional electric powertrains. So, if you are looking for a prestige car that waft four to five people around in great comfort, with low emissions and good fuel consumption, the Lexus IS 300h is now an even more convincing option.
Lexus IS 300h PremierSpecification
Carbon dioxide emissions: 107 g/km
Combined fuel economy 61.4 mpg
Top speed: 125 mph
0-62: 8.4 secs
Power 178 bhp (petrol engine) 141 bhp (electric motor)
Engine size 2494cc petrol
Boot capacity 450 litres