H-BOMBINGThe hybrid IS 300h is Lexus' riposte to not having a diesel offering in the compact executive sector. It's quite an argument - as Andy Enright reports.
Ten Second Review
The Lexus IS 300h is different. While the German marques play catch up with hybrid technology, Lexus is pushing the game forward with a car that has its own identity and is all the better for it. And did I mention 99g/km and 65.7mpg? Still want that diesel?
It's almost become a press launch in-joke. Whenever Lexus launches a new model line, some journo will end the press conference with a question wondering how Lexus is going to survive in the UK without a strong diesel line up. It always presages many furrowed brows from the cabal of Japanese engineers present followed by a lengthy diatribe on the advantages of petrol/electric hybrid technology, usually met with open scepticism from the press corps.
But having seen the hybrid IS 300h compact executive saloon, I'd say that perhaps we should reserve our cynicism, healthy or otherwise. Here is a vehicle that, at a stroke, rights almost all the wrongs of the old Lexus IS. That was a model line with a horrible diesel engine, was cramped in the back, delivered emissions and economy figures leagues behind its German rivals and featured an interior that was well built but seemed to be styled in a way to best disguise that fact. This latest version is something completely different and the answers it fronts up with look very convincing indeed.
With over 50 per cent of the compact executive market being diesel powered and that figure growing year on year, diving straight in with no diesels on offer in the IS range would appear to be an act of the grossest folly but the IS 300h is Lexus' preferred alternative to a diesel. It makes decent numbers. Between its 178bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and its 105kW electric motor, you end up with a peak power figure of 220bhp. The engine benefits from a D-4S fuel injection system, Dual VVT-i intelligent variable valve timing and a high-efficiency exhaust gas recirculation system for maximum power and efficiency and the rear wheels are driven through the hybrid powertrain's E-CVT transmission. It'll get to 62mph in 8.3 seconds and run onto a 125mph top speed.
The suspension and steering have been revised to improve how the IS drives and there's a new Drive Mode Select system that allows the driver to choose between Eco, Normal and Sport modes, the latter sharpening throttle response and offering a sportier steering setting. With a petrol-powered car you enjoy quieter running, no clatter on start up, quicker defrosting in winter and cleaner refuelling.
Design and Build
The IS 300h follows in a line of really handsome IS models. You can see the DNA from the basic proportioning of the second generation car but everything is sharper, tauter and more muscular than before. It's a striking piece of metalwork. The front end features two different front grille treatments - a more sedate take on the Lexus spindle grille in the SE, Luxury and Premier trims and a bolder mesh grille on the F Sport variant. SE models get rather underbaked 16-inch alloys, the Luxury models get 17-inch rims while the Premier and F Sport versions ride on 18-inch wheels, with five spokes in the case of the former and ten for the latter.
The IS features a number of design cues first seen on the LF-CC concept car including the extrovert rear lights that swoop downwards into the flanks of the car and the F-Sport's curved front spoiler. The interior features a chunky centre console and elements borrowed from other models in the Lexus range, such as the analogue inset clock and big LED display. It's a conspicuously more styled interior than the rather functional cabin of the second generation car and the mix of materials used as well as the contrasts of colour and texture generate a far more upmarket feel. Design literacy is taken for granted in this sector.
Market and Model
Shop for a Lexus and you tend to expect a lot of toys to play with and you won't be disappointed by the value proposition offered by the IS 300h. Even the entry-level version, which opens at around £30,000, has a quota of extras that can put German rivals to shame. You might want to upgrade the SE's 16-inch alloys but otherwise it's doubtful you'll be disappointed with the Drive mode select system (Normal, Eco & Sport - plus an additional EV mode on this IS 300h), cruise control, a smart entry and start system, dual zone air climate control and power-fold heated mirrors. Then there are HID headlights with dusk sensing, eight airbags, plus a DAB digital radio and Bluetooth connectivity.
Step up to the Lexus IS Luxury trim and you'll find Lexus Park Assist, rain-sensing wipers and 17-inch alloy wheels. The Premier model really does get all the gear thrown at it and is priced accordingly at getting on for £40,000. Here you get auto folding door mirrors, eight-way power-assisted leather seats with heating and ventilation, an electrically operated steering column and some really tasty infotainment functions. These include a 7-inch full hard disk-based sat-nav system with rear view camera and dynamic services, plus a Mark Levinson 15-speaker stereo with 5.1 channel surround sound. The F Sport gets sports suspension with a lateral damping system, a sports body kit, LFA-style instrument meters, aluminium pedals and F-Sport leather trim for the steering wheel and gear stick.
Cost of Ownership
Buying a car in this division ought to be a high involvement decision. Buyers should be armed with the facts but all too often are instead armed merely with hearsay and skewed badge loyalties. So here are the facts about the IS 300h. If you had £30,000 to spend and bought one of these, you'd be getting a car that emits just 99g/km of carbon dioxide per kilometre and will eke 65.7 miles from a gallon of unleaded. Spend that same thirty grand at an Audi dealer on a car with a CVT gearbox and the best you'll manage is 58.9mpg and 127g/km from the slower 143bhp A4 2.0 TDI SE. That's some way off Lexus' mark. Free road tax and congestion charge exemption are yours in the Lexus but it's worth bearing in mind that it's only the SE trim that dips under 100g/km. The IS 300h Luxury grade is rated at 103g/km, while the IS 300h F Sport and Premier grades are good for 109g/km, qualifying for zero first-year VED charge.
Residual values of the IS have always been good, propped up by the model's brilliant reliability and customer satisfaction metrics, as well as modest insurance ratings. This car looks set to continue that form line.
I'll be the first to concede that I thought Lexus was manoeuvring itself up a blind alley by turning its back on the diesel engine but the IS 300h has me convinced otherwise. It offers the best of almost all worlds. You get the smoothness and cleanliness of a petrol engine, with the economy and torque response of a diesel. The hybrid technology is now mature, as thousands of cab drivers with quarter million mile Priuses will attest. If you get better performance, better economy and lower emissions from a car that's better equipped and more affordable than rival diesels, you have to ask yourself why you'd shop elsewhere.
It's been a long time since we've had a genuinely credible rival to break up the BMW 3 Series, a Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 triumvirate. The Jaguar X-TYPE, the Volvo S60, the Alfa Romeo 159 and the first two generations of Lexus IS all tried and largely failed. This one deserves better. Do the homework and you'll see why.