In the development of the latest Lexus IS, the benchmark car was the BMW 3 Series. Junichi Furuyama, chief engineer of the IS project, dissected every detail of the Bimmer and compared it against his baby. The aim? To develop a product that could match or even outgun the segment leader.
While the styling of the new 3 is essentially an evolution of the previous model’s, the new IS is dramatically different from its predecessor. It retains the same basic proportions as before, but makes a stunning impact with its spindle-shaped grille and dramatic bodyside crease. The latter starts from the rocker panel, bisects the rear fender and finishes with a flourish at the rear light cluster. The avant-garde styling may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is no denying the IS will stand out in any crowded carpark (packed with 3 Series, C-Class and A4 saloons, perhaps).
The Lexus’ cabin is equally evocative. Almost paranoid attention to detail is evident in the appearance and layout of the instruments and switchgear. The leather-bound steering wheel has a “just right” feel in both size and grip, while the thick padding on either side of the centre console ensures that the driver’s left knee and the passenger’s right knee never get “bruised”. All the surfaces of the dashboard and doors offer a satisfying tactile feel, with neither rough edges nor any signs of cost-cutting. The overall interior ambience is one of refined luxury, with great warmth.
The front seats have air-conditioned ventilation, something none of its German rivals offer. The Mark Levinson hi-fi in the Luxury and F Sport variants of the new IS even has an auto volume feature that automatically adjusts the volume to suit the genre of each song played! Audio reproduction by the Mark Levinson stereo is natural and crystal clear, while two well-placed USB ports enable connection to a variety of data formats.
Less intuitive is the much-vaunted Remote Touch Interface (RTI), which functions like a computer mouse. Working it accurately whilst driving is easier said than done, because the RTI system is just too sensitive.
The rear seatback finally features a 60/40 split-fold facility for cargo-carrying versatility. This was made possible by putting the hybrid battery pack of the IS300h under the boot floor. Other advantages of such a placement include minimum encroachment on luggage capacity (with 450 litres versus the IS250’s 480 litres) and easier cooling of the nickel-metal hydride batteries. With the spare-tyre well now occupied by the battery pack, the IS300h has been equipped with run-flat tyres.
My most lasting impression of the new IS is its quality. The doors close with a reassuring thump and the whole vehicle has a solid feel. Adhesive bonding between panels and laser screw-welding have greatly increased the car’s body rigidity.
There is an absence of road and wind noise, making the new IS one of the quietest in its class. Ironically, though, the IS300h has a device called Active Sound Control (ASC), which sends simulated engine sounds through a dedicated speaker. I’m not a fan of artificial noise, especially when it can sometimes be out of sync with actual engine revs when “downchanges” of the CVT are made via the steering paddles, so I would rather switch off ASC and simply enjoy the remarkable mechanical refinement of the IS300h on the go.
Its engine is an Atkinson-cycle, 2.5-litre 4-cylinder with direct injection, developing 181bhp on its own. When combined with the integral 105kW electric motor, the total output is a healthy 223bhp. But this is offset by the extra 80kg of the components associated with the hybrid drive, which pushes the Lexus’ kerb weight to a rather portly 1635kg.
The instant torque of the electric motor aiding the petrol engine makes the IS300h feel faster and more responsive than its 0-100km/h time of 8.5 seconds would suggest. Though fitted with a continuously variable transmission, the IS300 doesn’t suffer from the “lag” that often inflicts CVTs.
The throttle response is more immediate when Sport is selected, which also enhances the exhaust note and stiffens up the steering. Around fast corners, the IS300h feels neutral, with neither understeer nor any sign of being tail-happy. Could this inherent balance be partly due to the 60kg battery pack in the rear? The ride is excellent, by the way – a little firm, but supple.
During my time with the test car, its average fuel consumption worked out to about 13km per litre, some way off the claimed 20km per litre. However, my figure included performance testing and no attempts at economy driving. Gentler driving would probably return at least 14km per litre, which is still some 30 percent better than what non-hybrid cars of a similar size and performance can achieve.
In my opinion, the new Lexus IS mounts a strong challenge in the junior executive segment, by being significantly more stylish and more refined than its German competitors. Generous standard equipment, plus a genuinely luxurious cabin and a state-of-the-art hybrid system (in the case of the IS300h here), are further plus points.
This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Torque.
2013 Lexus IS300h 2.5 (A)
ENGINE 2494cc, 16-valves, inline-4, hybrid
MAX POWER 181bhp at 6000rpm
(total system output 223bhp)
MAX TORQUE 221Nm at 4200-5500rpm
(total system output 300Nm)
GEARBOX CVT with 6-speed override
0-100KM/H 8.5 seconds
TOP SPEED 200km/h
CONSUMPTION 20.4km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 113g/km