The Lexus IS 300h offers, on paper at least, a convincing alternative to a diesel-powered BMW 3-series or an Audi A4, especially for those consumers who are loathe to switch to a diesel solely for economy.
A 2.5-litre petrol engine coupled to an electric motor offers a combined power output of 220bhp with CO2 emissions of just 99g/km (in the base model SE), surely the Holy Grail of automotive engineering.
Yet some reviewers aren’t convinced, suggesting that the real-life fuel consumption might not reflect the figures achieved on the EU testing cycle. Others point to the Lexus poor rear legroom, citing the BMWs superiority in these areas as a winning argument for buying German rather than Japanese.
While I love the Audi A4 range, I remain unconvinced by the BMW 3-series so was looking forward to driving the baby Lexus to see how it fared. This is how I got on.
LFA aside, the sight of a Lexus on the road has rarely led to a quickening of your heartbeat and the IS 300h is no exception but then in the small premium saloon class individuality could mark you as a maverick and the ambitious executive dreads being labelled as anything other than a loyal team player
So what is there is done neatly, carefully, and with obsessive attention to detail. Reeking of class and objectivity, the IS 300h exudes an understated charm that is hugely appealing, especially in the Atlantic Blue of our test car.
The interior continues with a typical Japanese caution. You’d never mistake it for an Audi or a BMW but that is, perhaps, no bad thing. The mouse controller for the on-board computer takes a little getting used to but is infinitely preferable to the ubiquitous touchscreen or rotary controller, while the Bluetooth synchs and performs with uncommon accuracy and speed.
As with so many aspects of Lexus ownership, it isn’t what is performed that impresses but how well it is executed. In such a carefully engineered environment it is the small details that can jar, and few details have jarred so violently as the gear-position indicator, which looks like it was lifted from a 1980s hi-fi combo. Yet if that is all I have to moan about then I think we can dismiss this as a motoring journalist’s hissy fit.
The boot is just about large enough, losing 30-litres or so to the hybrid system, and the rear seats fold, enabling you to carry the odd large load, even if it is at the expense of a couple of passengers.
Equipment levels are generous and competitive and while the options list features some hideously expensive items (of which more later) no one is going to feel cheated driving a bare-bones car.
The IS 300h drives very well indeed, with Lexus legendary engineering diligence shining through; too many cars in this class have a thin veneer of luxury disguising a mediocre chassis.
The suspension is supple while effectively controlling unwanted body movement in pitch and roll. This is no mean feat, especially when you consider its sheer mass; it weighs just over 1,600kg depending on trim level, so this isn’t a light car.
Steering is intuitively quick, encouraging you to flick the car through tight bends with a twitch of the wrist and the brakes are flawlessly powerful and progressive. Taken as a whole the Lexus eats up the miles in the very best inter-continental touring fashion but then rises to the occasion when you fancy a B-road blast; it isn’t class-leading in either dimension but then it isn’t far off.
Let me explain it this way; of all the cars Ive driven recently, Id be hard-pressed to name one that Id choose over the Lexus if I was facing eight hours behind the wheel. The blend of power, faithful chassis, and instinctive, soothing controls make it an effortless and rewarding car to drive.
The creamy smooth 2.5-litre petrol engine belies its humble four-cylinder status and is a nigh on perfect match for the small electric motor. Pushing out just 178bhp and 163lb/ft of torque means that it is unstressed, a position it is comfortable with because it has the 141bhp and 221lb/ft electric motor waiting in the wings to cover any shortfalls.
Not that there are many shortfalls in reality, as the two mate seamlessly to give you enough urge for any but the most suicidal of overtaking manoeuvres. And once you’re safely tucked in there is enormous comfort to be derived from driving for as long as possible on electric power alone; it isn’t free power even if it does rather feel that way. It is also wonderfully refined in pure electric mode being almost completely silent with only a touch of wind and tyre roar intruding.
Performance figures are reassuring rather than impressive at 125mph and 8.3 seconds, neither of which accounts for the rapid in-gear acceleration that is available, even if the CVT transmission pauses for a heartbeat before you take off.
Fuel consumption is claimed to be as low as 64.2mpg. You wont get that, of course, but I suspect that high 40s to low 50s is perfectly achievable, matching that of its diesel-powered rivals. Emissions are rated as 103 g/km for the Luxury model that I drove, placing it in VED band B.
Value for Money
How do you define value for money? The base price for our IS 300h is £30,995 seems fine value to me, even if the optional leather seats (£2,300), navigation system (£1,995), and paint (£610) hike that to a less impressive £35,900.
And yet those I ferried in the Lexus consistently estimated its cost at nearer £50,000; if impressing the neighbours is your thing then the Lexus is fine value for money. Otherwise it might pay to be prudent with the options list.
I have no need for an executive saloon. I live in the countryside, a place that is dirty and smelly and, too often, very slippery. If I had a Lexus IS 300h it would slither and slide and become covered in muck in short order. It would be like owning a pedigree cat as a sheepdog. It is everything I don’t need in a car in a package that I can’t afford.
So it is a measure of the regard in which I hold it that I would choose one in a breath over an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 or 4-series. I loved its louche interior and understated exterior. I fell for its creamy engine and drivetrain and the eagerness with which it covered huge distances. I even (and this is a mark of the shallowness that I try so hard to hide) revelled in the impression of wealth it oozes from every pore. Good job, chaps.