We've lost count of the number of years for which automakers have been working to move the diesel engines from utilitarian vehicles to the cars we all want to drive. Nevertheless, while everybody's lending a hand to the diesel genre, some people in Japan are shaking their head in disapproval. They're all wearing Lexus badges and now they've declared war in the premium compact sedan segment.
Forget the diplomatic missions, Lexus has now released the third incarnation of its IS. With the IS300h petrol-electric version, this is keen to demolish everything that's been built in the diesel field so far.
Since the Germans weren't exactly strangers to the First or the Second World War, it's no surprise to find them at the heart of this conflict too. The world doesn't seem to be big enough for both the Lexus IS 300h and the German two-liter diesel premium compact saloons.
We recently went into the first line, aiming to find out who the winner is. Like any battlefield experience, it was all very confusing at first. We thought we had the two camps sorted out, but then we remembered that the best four-cylinder diesel we've driven this year came from Mazda
, albeit fitted to a car playing in the non-premium D segment. So the Japanese are also fighting against their own kind. Good.
Lexus doesn't let one sentence about the new IS slip without including words like "driving performance", so we had to go for the IS 300h F Sport.
Last time we had a go in an F Sport model this was the GS 450h
and we've had quite an experience, so our expectations are high. Then again, the BMW 320d
, which could be seen as the natural enemy of the IS 300h, convinced us to offer it a pretty high rating. We're not sure which of the two was the unstoppable force and which was the unmovable object, but they've certainly met, so it's time to see what happens.
With the IS, Lexus has managed to produce the sportiest-looking car in its class. The F Sport package only comes to make the most out of the model's styling.
They did this one by the book, starting with a change in proportions. The Lexus IS grew 3.2 inches (80 mm) in length, but out of these, 2.8 inches (70 mm) went to the wheelbase and just 0.4 inches (10 mm) to the front overhang. In addition, the vehicle is now 10 mm wider.
Our test car was dressed in White Nova, one of the two exclusive F Sport colors. Lexus and Toyota's Hybrids have always had this thing for pearlescent white, but this hue looks even better than what we've seen in the past - seems like the Lexus LFA inspiration wasn't just marketing bla-bla.
While both Audi and BMW seem to have diluted their daytime running light fascination, the IS manages to bring a strong new approach to this, placing the dedicated LED units below the headlights.
Looking even lower, we find the F Sport front apron, with the Lexus Spindle Grille now featuring a chrome trim. The wider air intakes provide superior cooling for both the engine and the front brakes, while the bottom corners feature LED fog lights.
Ticking the F Sport box also means gifting the car with a set of rims that offer a Y-spoke design, a concave profile and a dark metallic finish. While these once again remind of the Lexus LFA, they also seem to follow the current trends in the custom wheel world.
The side skirts and rear apron couldn't be bothered to change themselves for the F Sport trim. Then again, there was no need for transformation. That's because there's a line that unites the two aforementioned elements, as well as the tail lamps, with this creating all the drama you want.
And while the rear lights try to stand out though this, the rest of the rear end has an understated sporty appeal.
In fact, the Lexus IS F Sport is an interesting combination between the company's dress code and a sporty stance that seems to be designed to keep anyone from ever wishing to turn to a tuner.
Jump inside a Lexus IS cabin and you'll want to plan a trip to Japan. Lexus designers didn't used to be this cool, so we have to go their cafeteria and have whatever they had when they penned the interior.
There's a feeling of a design that's so modern you wonder how it made it into production so quickly and every part of the cabin takes itself very seriously.
The F Sport pack manages to bring a feeling of organic driver orientation. The first thing you notice is the instrument panel. Since the Lexus LFA supercar is now out of production, they were allowed to borrow its driver meter with that moving center ring.
We're talking about a fully-digital instrument panel, but the solid central instrument surround can slide to the side, at the touch of a button on the steering wheel - the latter, as well as the shifter, were also upgraded for the F Sport trim.
You can have that center ring coincide with the geometrical center of the cluster or move it to the side to reveal an extra menu. This is fast and intuitive and you could swear that the graphics are borrowed from the Need For Speed series. Speaking of this, aluminum pedals and plates complete the F Sport bravado.
The center console has an imposing position, being topped by a modern display. Alas, here's where they forced themselves to make a difference between the IS and the GS - the seven-inch screen doesn't fill its entire area, using a noticeable plastic border.
Moving below, we find the center tunnel, where we are treated with perfect ergonomics. Now that we're offered those electrostatic controls for the climate system, you won't hear us saying that Lexus' buttons have an outdated feeling anymore.
As far as the materials are concerned, the fine leather found on cabin parts like the steering wheel and the dash is, unfortunately, mixed with an average plastic in certain areas.
Since the engineers have now placed the battery pack under the rear deck, our test car offered the same luggage capacity as any of its non-hybrid brothers. That's 15.9 cubic feet (450 liters), a pleasing number.
The interior of the Lexus IS make it obvious that this is the newest car in its class.
Our test drive started in a manner that threatens to become typical for more and more drivers - stuck in a traffic jam, on the outskirts of a large city. While the passenger was keeping himself amused by playing with the button that moves the instruments around in their cluster, we had time to notice that the golden tint of the side windows shares its hue with the trim around the dash air vents.
Since we observed that, you can imagine the level of boredom the jam put us through. Nevertheless, the Lexus IS 300h is one of those cars that does quite a lot to help you get over such moments.
You see, the aforementioned glass is part of a philosophy that allows the car to isolate you from what is or isn't going on outside. But this is not the kind of senseless isolation that could become bothering after a while. No. Here you feel spoiled.
We've been driving for fifteen minutes non-stop now, the clogged traffic is probably a thing of the past. As the boulevards reveal themselves, the IS 300h feels pretty sharp, ready to make us explore the city. The suspension and the steering, which have been customized for the F Sport model, make the car feel like a bit of a jogger on these streets.
An important part of this comes from the F Sport suspension. The adaptive setup on our test car offers enough comfort to be able to face those sides of the city where the asphalt needs to see a doctor.
And then there's the hybrid play - drive this sporty sedan the way you should treat any hybrid and you'll get an average of between mpg 4 and 5.5 l/100 km (59 – 43 mpg). Practice this sport for long enough and you'll become addicted to the sensation.
The idea is to keep charging your battery by planning your braking ahead and then to use its juice to run in EV
mode. The latter means you'll have to keep the power needle below the half point of the Eco area and your speed below 43 mph (70 km/h). Not too hard then.
The visibility is within the class average and, aided by the front and rear sensors, as well as by the rear-view camera, you won't spent too much time on parking the Lexus IS.
The Lexus IS 300h has plenty of goodies to keep you engaged inside the city. And if you don't want to be bothered, the car is good enough to be able to play this role too.
We've been indulging in the Lexus IS 300h's first impression sensations for almost half an hour now and we're not rushing to go past this state.
Whenever we make our first miles of a Lexus test drive, we feel that we've just been sited at a reserved table. This impression is still here, but it's combined with the sensation that the car is walking with confidence. It seems planted on the road and, of course, much of the credit goes to the F Sport suspension and steering.
It's totally advisable to opt for the F Sport, since it takes very little comfort away for the massive feedback it has to offer. For the passengers, the setup doesn't make too much of a difference, but the driver now gets to enjoy the experience more than before.
The car is eager to follow your inputs and while those around you lean back in their leather-appointed cushions, you can feel the hefty amount of grip available. They won’t even suspect you’re having a good time behind the wheel.
Alas, one mustn’t get carried away. Not just for the sake of your passengers, but also for your own, it's best to drive the Lexus IS 300h up to seven or eight tenths. This means you'll get loads of comfort and refinement, all wrapped in a poky package that always feels ready to wrestle the big boys and displays a precise character.
Take it past this level though and you'll notice that the powertrain could do with some extra horses. You'll also wish that the grippy, neutral handling wouldn't turn into calculated understeer at the limit.
You can even disable both the traction and the stability control and you still won’t convince this Lexus to perform overpower oversteer. Yes, you can convince it to slide, but you’ll have to work for this.
Another reason to drive this car in a sporty, yet calculated manner would be the efficiency reward it has for you. We weren’t shy at all during our open road drive and yet the fuel consumption didn’t exceed 9l/100 km (26 mpg). Pretty nice, but we can’t help notice that we got about the same value in the larger and more powerful GS 450h.
The performance numbers make the self-proclaimed sporty aura of the car rather amusing, but as you drive along it feels better than 8.3 seconds and 124 mph (200 km/h). It really does and that’s because, aside from the straight line statistics, it’s got a determination to serve that pleases one.
In this respect, you can clearly see they’ve set up the car in a sportier way than they did with the Lexus GS 450h. You get the same driving modes, but these control a set of adaptive dampers that have simply been taken one step towards handling.
As for the ride, this provides the typical Lexus treatment, but you do feel there’s a bit of a struggle under the car when encountering larger road issues.
It’s the same with the steering, which becomes surprisingly firm in the sportier modes, while its feedback stays decent regardless of the chosen setup.
By the way, don’t get carried away by the excellent brakes - the pedal bites a bit aggressively to surround you with confidence, so be gentle.
Alas, the Lexus IS300h feels “junior” compared to the GS 450h and, just like in the case of its at-the-limit understeer, you can feel that the car has been kept on a leash. It’s not just the power difference, but the F Sport on the IS misses the integral steering it brings on the GS.
So, the Japanese have learned bad manners from the Germans. Fortunately, unlike Audi, BMW or Mercedes, Lexus only makes this difference in terms of performance, leaving the rest of the car to its full potential.
It may seem fun to compare the Lexus IS 300h and the BMW 320d, but, thankfully, the world hasn’t reached that point where they truly share their customers.
The Lexus IS300h looks sportier than the BMW 320d and the Japanese have produced a smarter, sleeker cabin. And when it comes to comfort, the IS spoils you more, but the 320d takes the cake when it comes to dynamics. You don’t have to reach the limit, where the Lexus has its weak point, it’s enough to go through a bend at a normal speed and you’ll feel that the BMW is much happier to do this job, it acts more natural.
Things may seem pretty balanced in this comparison, but there’s one little detail that puts the spotlight on the Lexus. We are talking about the price, a chapter where the BMW loses by a hefty margin.