L-FINESSEDThe third generation Lexus IS has its own take on compact executive saloon motoring. You might like it. Jonathan Crouch drives one.
Ten Second Review
The Lexus IS has a simple mission. It needs to be a car that you'd enjoy owning more than a Mercedes C Class, an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 series, the three leading choices in the compact executive saloon segment. Lexus used to simply try and copy these class leaders but with this third generation IS, they've been a bit cleverer, primarily through the offering of petrol/electric hybrid power rather than the kind of 2.0-litre diesel engine business buyers will be used to. It's a refreshing approach for people in search of something just that little bit different.
Here's an interesting car, the Lexus IS. For many potential buyers, its main appeal lies not in what it is but in what it isn't. Namely a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes, these being the three Teutonic heavyweight brands who dominate the compact executive saloon sector in which this Japanese contender competes. As a result, our company carparks are overflowing with 3 Series, A4 and C-Class models, with the cars in question nearly all powered by clattery diesel engines and mainly driven via the kind of over-firm sporty set-ups that the magazines insist buyers should have. If though, you're fed with these predictable choices and want something that reinterprets what a car of this kind should be, then this, I'd suggest, is where you need to start your search.
Almost everything about this IS is different from the norm in its chosen segment. The styling, the single saloon bodystyle, absence of manual transmission and, perhaps most notably, the fact that no, you can't have a diesel. Here instead, you get a unique four-door look, an auto gearbox and an overwhelming emphasis on petrol/electric hybrid power with its sensible running costs and limo-like silent start-up. The result should be a car to change your mind: about hybrid power, German brand domination - and Lexus itself. Let's try it.
Lexus will offer you a pair of engines in this IS and they're both 2.5-litre petrol units, though that's where the similarity ends. The more conventional of the two is found in an IS 250 model powered by a 2.5-litre V6 developing 204bhp and driving the rear wheels via an ordinary mechanical six-speed automatic transmission. It's a pleasant enough thing, with decent refinement and crisp acceleration that'll see you to 62mph in 8.1s en route to 140mph - but you'll almost never see one. These days you see, few people buy thirsty V6 petrol engines in cars like this.
The variant that attracts all the interest in the IS line-up is the model I tried; the IS 300h petrol/electric hybrid. Unlike the brand's slightly smaller CT 200h hybrid model, it's more than a smartened up Toyota Prius, instead based on a proper large Lexus, the BMW 5 Series-sized GS 300h. True, the 2.5-litre engine used may only offer four cylinders but it does develop 178bhp, with a further slug of power contributed by an electric motor, resulting in a combined 220bhp output. That's enough to easily match the performance of the rival 2.0-litre diesel models at which this car is aimed, 0-62mph occupying 8.3s on the way to 124mph.
You access that performance via a thrashy, rubber belt-driven CVT auto gearbox which doesn't help this car's sports saloon aspirations. On the plus side, handling's much sharper than before, the steering's great and you get a 'Drive Mode Select' system that allows you to tweak engine output, throttle response, gearshift times and even the air conditioning to suit four different driving modes. Plus there's an electric-only EV setting on the hybrid so that you can trickle along on battery power for short distances.
Design and Build
Lexus has decisively shifted from bland to bold with this third generation IS. Doubtless there'll be a few who don't take to this MK3 model's more extreme styling but my guess is it'll win a good deal more admirers thanks to its more assertive persona. At the front there's the signature Lexus spindle grille flanked by xenon headlamp clusters underlined by daytime running lights fashioned in the 'L' of the Lexus logo. It all delivers a highly distinctive visual signature that's even more dramatic if you've an F Sport model with a mesh front grille and a swoopier front spoiler.
Get inside and you'll find that the extra space the bigger wheelbase generates has been well used. Whereas the old IS was pretty cramped at the back, this one offers best-in-class standards of kneeroom, though headroom's not as impressive. Up front, the cabin feels better built, with higher quality materials, than anything else in its class. As with bigger Lexus models, the dash is split into distinct display and operation zones, the upper display section dominated by a 7-inch LCD infotainment screen. If that includes satellite navigation, then operation can be marshalled by the eight-way moveable 'mouse' you'll find in the lower operation zone, with functionality that not everyone likes.
And the boot? Well the batteries that must be housed beneath its floor in the hybrid IS 300h model rob you of 30-litres of space, but that still leaves a class-competitive 450-litres of room on offer. And, as long as you avoid entry-level trim, there's a 60/40 split-folding rear seat for those times when you want to avoid the home delivery charge after a trip to IKEA.
Market and Model
So, what'll you pay for one of these? Less perhaps, than you might think. The minority interest IS 250 variant will give you plenty of change from £30,000, that figure being the starting point for the various derivatives that make up the IS 300h petrol/electric hybrid-powered line-up that will account for over 90% of sales. Whichever of these two petrol-powered variants you decide upon, there's just a sole four-door bodystyle, but buyers do get the option of more dynamic F Sport trim for an extra £4,000.
As for equipment, well though I'd expected the entry-level variants to come complete with executive basics like parking sensors, front foglamps and rain-sensing wipers, you do of course get these further up the range and all models come complete with plenty else. That means alloy wheels, HID auto headlamps with LED daytime running lights, power-folding heated mirrors, Hill-start Assist Control to stop you from drifting backwards on uphill junctions, cruise control, a 6-speaker stereo system with DAB digital radio plus an Aux socket and a USB port, Bluetooth 'phone compatibility and the Drive Mode Select system that lets you tune the car's responses to the way you want to drive.
If you're the kind of person likely to be using Drive Mode Select regularly, then you might want to consider finding the extra to get yourself into an F Sport model which, in IS 300h guise, is the only variant in the range to offer the option of the AVS Adaptive Variable Suspension system. The F Sport package does however, include as standard more dynamic styling, firmer suspension and LFA supercar-style instrument graphics.
Cost of Ownership
Two engines are on offer to IS buyers. Both deliver similar outputs but one costs nearly twice as much to run as the other. No prizes then, for guessing which unit will mop up the most sales. It won't be the 2.5-litre petrol V6 you'll find in the IS 250. This engine may be creamy smooth and slightly more efficient than it was when plumbed into the previous generation IS but its figures - 32.8mpg on the combined cycle and 199g/km of CO2 - still struggle in the modern era. And get worse than that if you choose an upper-spec variant with bigger wheels. Insurance groupings range between 31 and 33.
On to consider the running costs of the petrol/electric IS 300h hybrid I'm tried - which make very impressive reading indeed, even against the best of this car's 2.0-litre diesel-powered compact executive saloon rivals. The 99g/km CO2 return means a reduction in benefit-in-kind company car tax to just 11%, plus this car won't suffer from the 3% Benefit-in-Kind surcharge that's applied to all diesels. Independent experts KwikCarCost reckon that a 40% tax payer who opts for an IS 300h will save around £907 a year in tax over the cost of running a comparable Mercedes C220 CDI.
As for fuel consumption, the official figures suggest that the IS 300h is capable of 65.7mpg on the combined cycle, which betters rival Mercedes and Audi models and gets within a few percentage points of the class-leading Efficient Dynamics 3 Series BMW. And finally, Lexus residuals are amongst the strongest in the sector: independent specialists CAP reckon that after 3 years and/or 60,000 miles, this IS 300h should still be worth around 37% of what you originally paid for it. Its insurance groupings range between 32 and 34.
If you thought that Lexus was the company that tried to copy the Germans and always turned up a day late and a dollar short, you need to try this car. It looks right, it feels good and it makes eminent sense on the balance sheet.
Or at least this hybrid version does. Though the conventional IS250 is a likeable car, it isn't efficient enough to attract the business buyers Lexus needs. People who really ought to be considering this hybrid IS 300h. Lexus didn't do diesel that well but it's hard to argue with the fact that it does hybrid brilliantly with a car that many will feel suddenly makes its German rivals look old, noisy and dirty. True, the vague response from the thrashy CVT auto gearbox undermines the driving experience somewhat but if you can live with that, there's plenty else to like.
Nothing else in the compact executive saloon segment is quieter, cleaner, better equipped and as affordable to tax. Add in the arresting looks and a dealer network routinely steeped in praise by every survey going and I think there's room for this Japanese brand to be optimistic about its prospects with this car. It's the best small Lexus yet made. And that makes it a very desirable thing indeed.