Lexus sticks to hybrid power to compete in premium D segment, but does it have what it takes? Eric Gallina’s road tests and reviews the latest IS 300h to find out.
If you’re in the market for a compact, premium D-segment car chances are you’re looking at the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4. All are viable contenders. But while diesel continues to fuel the bulk of company car sales, Lexus is remaining steadfast in its hybrid ambitions.
Enter the Lexus IS 300h. Now in its third generation, the compact sports saloon from Toyota’s luxury nameplate sports an all-new design and a hybrid powertrain for the first time. The design is not only more characterful than the ‘same sausage different length’ look of its German competitors, it also cloaks a series of technological advancements Lexus has conceived to make the new car better to drive than its predecessors.
We headed out to Austria to drive the car on stretches of motorway as well as twisting mountain roads to bring you our definitive review.
The IS’s design is all-new from its imposing spindle grille through to its LFA-inspired interior. Its more interesting exterior design features include separate front lamp units underlined by sweeping, L-shaped daytime running lamps, and a low set bonnet that pops up to meet pedestrian impact regulations. This gives the IS a more avant-garde look than its competition.
In profile, its pronounced wheel arches, twisting rocker panel and rising beltline emphasise the rear-wheel-drive nature of the car and its dynamic potential. But with the slippery bodywork helping to achieve a low Cd figure, the rear end design of the IS 300h F Sport is seemingly at odds with its performance car bodywork, as Lexus dictates the two pipes emanating from the rear be concealed on all vehicles with hybrid powertrains.
The Lexus IS 300h’s cabin is well laid out and concise. Inspired in part by the LFA supercar, all of the controls are within easy reach of the driver, making it ergonomically ideal, while the centrepiece of the tiered dashboard is the Lexus clock, set in a single block of cast aluminium as in the GS saloon. The single motorized gauge incorporating both the speedo and tachometer is also a nice touch, moving to the right and displaying a secondary information screen on the left at the push of a button. It’s all in the details.
The IS 300h’s driver oriented cockpit is a very nice environment to spend time in. The seats are comfortable and supportive for those with smaller frames, and they’ve been lowered to suit the more enthusiast-oriented brief.
Lexus engineers have stretched the IS platform by 75mm over its predecessor, adding 50mm to rear seat space and 25mm to boot capacity in the process. This translates to segment-leading rear seat accommodations and ensures you won’t get kicked by a screaming toddler if you choose to set the front seat further back.
A decent sized storage bin with auxiliary audio inputs resides in the centre console beside two shallow cup holders, and the door pockets are large enough to accommodate overstuffed wallets and 500ml drinks bottles.
The hybrid-powered 300h stores all of its batteries in the boot floor to optimize weight distribution. Clever packaging has minimized intrusion into the boot space which, at 450 litres, sacrifices only 30 litres to its conventionally powered counterpart and its German competition. And the IS now features a convenient 60/40 split folding rear seatback to accommodate longer items that may not otherwise fit in the boot.
Performance & handling
Lexus is keenly aware that buyers in this segment pay particular attention to a vehicle’s driving dynamics. As such, they’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel of the BMW 3 Series during development of the IS 300h. It’s a good benchmark to have, albeit a lofty target to hit.
The IS 300h has a lighter, more rigid body and a revised suspension, which becomes immediately apparent when you drive it in anger. Diving into tight bends and switchbacks on the lovely Austrian forest roads, you feel a healthy amount of grip coming from the 18-inch wheel and tyre combo.
Engineers actually made the front double wishbone setup stiffer to improve roadholding, while the rear multi-link setup helps retain comfort on longer journeys. Paired with the IS 300h’s 50/50 weight distribution and negligible 60kg gain over its conventionally-powered V6 counterpart, it works a charm.
The electric steering — lighter than we would have expected in a sports car aimed at driving enthusiasts — was also surprisingly accurate, though it lacked a bit in overall feel. Sport and Sport + settings add weight to it, but not enough.
The brakes offer a good, progressive feel and are well suited to the task. Only at low speed did the presence of the hybrid system’s brake energy regeneration make itself known, and even then it wasn’t overly intrusive.
The IS 300h sources power from a 178bhp 2.5 litre four-cylinder mated to a 141bhp electric motor for total system output of 220bhp. Acceleration from 0 to 62mph is achieved in 8.3 seconds — roughly identical to 2.0-litre oil burners — but it feels quicker thanks to the electric motor’s 300Nm of torque.
As with most four-pots, the sound emanating from the engine bay isn’t quite as satisfying as one might expect from a sport saloon and the active sound control (ASC) feature on our F Sport tester — which artificially pipes the sound in through its own dedicated speaker — sounded exactly that: artificial. It’s more of a boy-racer gimmick than a premium sport sedan feature, which can thankfully be turned down through a volume dial on the left of the steering column or switched off completely.
Our only other gripe was with the E-CVT transmission, which has no place in a saloon with sporting pretensions. Though engineers have opted to fit paddle shifters to offer the driver some — albeit artificial — semblance of control, the setup is lethargic and ultimately does as it pleases. It’s fine for city driving though, just don’t expect to pull off any burnouts.
Economy & environment
Lexus aims to become the default choice for discerning premium car buyers looking for efficiency, and the IS 300h’s economy figures look set to deliver on the promise.
The company claims the SE model achieves 65.7mpg in the combined cycle with class-leading CO2 emissions of just 99g/km. That means it’s exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty, though it doesn’t qualify for London’s revised Congestion Charge. The figures worsen to 60.1mpg and 109g/km on the F Sport and Premium variants, landing in VED band B.
While the claimed mpg figures alone are on par with BMW’s 320d M Sport, Audi’s 2.0 litre TDI A4 S-Line and the Mercedes C220 CDI AMG, the IS 300h F Sport undercuts its diesel competitors by up to 20g/km in CO2 emissions.
Equipment & value
Te IS 300h is well specced and available in four equipment grades — SE, Luxury, F Sport and Premier — starting at £29,495.
Standard kit for SE includes dual-zone climate control; power-folding and heated door mirrors; dusk-sensing HID headlamps; a six-speaker audio system with DAB digital tuner and Bluetooth; and a seven-inch multimedia display screen with Remote Touch interface controller.
Luxury models add 17-inch wheels instead of 16s; front and rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers; an auto-dimming rear-view mirror; and the 60/40 split-folding rear seats for £1,500 over the SE.
Another £2,500 will get you sitting in our F Sport test car, which rides on 18-inch wheels and features an F Sport-specific grille and bumpers; LED fog lamps; LFA-style instrument meters; and eight-way electrically adjustable, heated front sports seats.
The top of the range Premier models add heating and ventilation functions and memory settings for the front seats; an electrically adjustable steering column; a Premium Navigation system with dynamic route guidance and rear-view camera; and a Mark Levinson sound system with 15 speakers. It lists for £38,495 OTR.
The Lexus IS 300 comes with all the active and passive safety features you’d expect on a premium saloon, including a standard tyre pressure monitoring and Lexus’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system, which sources data from sensors to integrate operation of the ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control and vehicle stability control systems.
An active pop-up bonnet is also standard, decreasing the risk of serious injury for pedestrians in an impact, and Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert systems are fitted to the Premier models.
Though the Lexus IS doesn’t yet have a Euro NCAP rating, we’re optimistic in the results.
There’s no denying the IS 300h F Sport is a very competent sports saloon. Its well-balanced chassis, revised suspension and lightweight, rigid bodyshell combine to make it very satisfying in corners as well as a comfortable, refined cruiser on motorway jaunts. And while its engine and gearbox aren’t optimally suited to deliver the enthusiastic driving dynamics its bodywork promises, it is nonetheless a very characterful and attractive alternative to the diesel powered Germans with the quality and performance to match.
Petrol is back. And this time batteries are included.
Lexus IS 300h Specs, price & rating
Model tested: Lexus IS 300h F Sport
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder / 105kW electric motor
Power: 220bhp total
Torque: 221Nm petrol engine/300Nm electric motor
Acceleration: 0-62 in 8.3 seconds
Top speed: 125mph
Emissions: 109g/km CO2