DRIVEN: Lexus IS300h has all the show, but what about the go?
JOHANNESBURG - These days, when a manufacturer makes an effort to bolt electric motors and batteries to its cars, you can rest assured that you’re in for a treat. Particularly in terms of performance and refinement, the latest hybrids (from Mercedes, Volvo and Maserati as an example) that you can buy in South Africa offer acceleration that you’d normally only experience in hot hatches and sports cars. That’s not the case with the latest Lexus IS.
BUILT FOR SERENITY, NOT SPEED
Launched back in 1999 for the global market, to take the fight to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4, the Lexus IS has managed to carve a niche following for itself among discerning sedan drivers. When it launched pre-Y2K, it brought edgy styling with its clear (Altezza-style) tail-lamps. It also brought a refreshing new take on performance motoring to the D-sedan segment, one that had been dominated by German driving machines for the longest time.
The original IS offered brilliant handling, with smooth-revving engines that loved to rev and the harder you drove them, the more they came alive. It was those straight-six engines, the manual gearboxes, the rear-wheel-drive layout and the near-perfect weight balance of the original IS that made most people – those who wanted something a little different – love them.
The latest generation IS is a far cry from that original IS that we love. For starters, you won’t find a straight-six or even a V6 anywhere in the local line-up. Lexus is only bringing the four-cylinder hybrid model to South Africa, and while it’s perfectly fine as a mid-ranger in terms of performance punch, the CVT approach that the company has been taking for the past few years is really holding the vehicle back from being a truly engaging and rewarding vehicle to drive as far as sports sedans go.
On paper, the IS300h shows strong potential with decent power and torque and fuel consumption figures. On the road, it begs for more power and torque, and because you really have to make good use of the accelerator pedal when making haste or when trying to keep up with highway traffic, it ends up being thirsty too. The CVT gearbox that’s fitted to the car really just robs the car of performance, particularly the F-Sport model when in Sport+ mode. I don’t understand why Lexus won’t move away from the CVT technology they’ve been using for so many years, as the car is just begging for a proper automatic gearbox.
Lexus says the IS300h makes do with 164kW when the electric motor and the four-pot engine work together, and that if you drive it with some sort of sensibility you’ll achieve a combined-cycle fuel consumption as low as 5.2l/100km. The 0-100km/h sprint is also claimed to be dispatched in 8.7 seconds with a top speed of 200km/h. It might perform exceptionally well for the daily commute, but if it’s performance thrills you’re seeking, this is not the car for you, despite what it might look like in these pictures. It rides better than you’d expect, it brakes superbly and it steers so precisely and with intent, but it’s just let down under the hood and in the cog-swopping department.
PACKED WITH TECHNOLOGY
While I returned from the launch of the new Lexus IS sedan feeling underwhelmed by the driving experience, the complete opposite could be said about how I felt about the styling of the new car and its new technologies.
Let’s start with the styling, which you will see is bold and in your face. The F-Sport models stand out particularly, with bold red interiors and bright blue and red colour choices for the paint. I found that Poseidon Blue with Flare Red interior worked the best, but just remember that if you go for those sporty colours, you will be instigated at traffic lights as it really looks like it should be a “fast” car. It retains the giant spindle grille that’s been used for some time now too, and from most angles it looks full of character and fun (like a manga character has sprung to life). The flared wheels arches, the sporty stance, the GT-car long-hood, all these things work well and are pleasing to the eye.
The inside of the car is also thoroughly refined. Our F-Sport launch car came with the sweeping centre gauge, same as you would get in the Lexus LS. The gauge’s position will change within the cluster (sliding from side to side) depending on the driving mode you’re in, either providing you with driving information or with a bold rev-counter in a variety of digital designs. As far as digital instrument clusters go, the IS offers one of the nicer set-ups out there and it’s got this character that’s almost jewel-like ... It just looks expensive and exquisite.
Another welcome tech upgrade is the touchscreen multimedia system (with Mark Levinson amplification and speakers in the F-Sport). You no longer have to rely on that awkward trackpad/mouse-style clicker interface between the front seats to make changes to the car’s stereo or to adjust the navigation. You can also just plug your iPhone straight in and make use of CarPlay, which I thoroughly enjoyed as the integration is seamless. The car’s on-board wi-fi also made connectivity a breeze, as it always had enough signal for Apple Music streaming even when travelling on some remote roads near the Cradle of Humankind.
WORTH THE MONEY?
As I mentioned, the Lexus IS has all the show, but it really doesn’t have the go to match that show. It’s important that the “go” part is emphasised here as the F-Sport models that we drove cost more than BMW’s latest 330i (as standard), the arguable benchmark and class-leader when it comes to performance in the D segment. Even Merc’s dated C300 offers more in terms of driving enjoyment here, and it all comes down to that really rather annoying CVT gearbox that Lexus uses in the IS300h.
If you really want to experience something different compared to your current premium luxury sedan (and you don’t want to make the switch to an SUV just yet), then I’d reckon your best bet is the entry-level IS, the IS300h EX derivative. It doesn’t have the arresting styling that the F-Sport offers, but it does provide a more sumptuous ride thanks to its reasonably sized tyres and less-sport suspension set-up.
Packed with everything you’d expect an executive sedan to offer across the range, and built to last, like most Lexus products, you can feel the quality in the car; it’s solid and it’s just so well damped and insulated.
I think they’ve missed the bullseye here by not launching with the IS500 V8 at the same time. Lexus makes some of the best V6 and V8 engines and they should realise that South Africans want performance when they’re spending close to R1 million. They say that the V8 will come if it’s built in right-hand drive format for us soon, but at what price point if the IS300h F-Sport is already going to cost you a cool R916 100? We’ll give this IS a miss because of the CVT gearbox and the way it’s set up to work together with the engine in this car.
All models come with a seven-year/105 000km warranty and full maintenance plan.
2021 Lexus IS 300h EX – R841 300
2021 Lexus IS 300h SE – R899 800
2021 Lexus IS 300h F-Sport – R916 100