Re-energised Lexus hybrid relights the fire
The new Lexus IS300h is leading the charge back for the Toyota-owned brand
Date Reviewed: September 3, 2013
Spare a thought for the plight of Lexus over the last few years. As the Celtic Tiger roared, the premium car brands reaped the rewards. The German brands may have got the cream of the crop but Lexus and Jaguar were making their mark, particularly among affluent motorists seeking something different from the increasingly everyday badges Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
At European level, Lexus Ireland was a bit of a star. While on continental Europe the Toyota-owned brand struggled to be recognised, though its volumes were low, at least in Ireland the brand was well-regarded.
Then the financial tsunami struck. Sales of all brands plummeted. At the same time the Germans took over the Irish operations of Volkswagen Group and started to aggressively market Audi. BMW, whose Irish operations were already under the control of the parent firm, fought back. Mercedes announced that by 2020 it would be the biggest selling premium brand. Meanwhile, as the battle lines were drawn and tempting discounts offered, at Lexus, its Japanese leaders, focused on the US market, decided to take a fundamentalist approach to petrol-electric hybrid technology. Diesel was no longer de rigueur. That wasn’t exactly the perfect strategy for a European – or Irish – market, in which diesel makes up the vast majority of sales.
In terms of market share Lexus didn’t really have far to fall. Even in 2007 its market share was just 0.85 per cent. However, in volume terms it sold 1,592 cars that year. This year it has sold 159. Compare that to Audi with 3,485; BMW with 3,128 or Mercedes with 1,343 and you see the mammoth task Lexus faces in challenging the German brands.
In the fight back to relevance the new IS300h is tasked with leading the charge. In keeping with the firm’s new hybrid policy, only one version is being offered: the 2.5-litre petrol engine combined with electric motor. Some cynics may snipe that it’s a posh Prius, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The new IS is much more than sum of its hybrid parts.
From its styling to its interior, this is a proper premium offering from a brand that, despite the high publicity recalls of the past, has garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the best-built car brands on the market.
Adding extra punch
Lexus has also taken a different route to Toyota with its hybrids, particularly with its larger cars. At the premium brand the addition of an electric motor is as much about adding extra punch to an already powerful petrol engine as it is about any eco issues. The end result in the IS300h, for example, is a tasty 220bhp; that’s more than on offer from any of its similarly priced German rivals.
The downside is that this is the only version of the IS on offer in Ireland. Up against the multi-engined rivals from the German brands that makes it a niche player, regardless of its ability. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for the diesel engines in previous IS models were never quite as good as those of their German rivals.
The IS comes in five variants, from the Eco version at €37,780 to the flagship Premium version at €46,780. The difference is largely down to toys, leather and wheels. The eco sits on 16-inch alloys and the rear seats don’t fold down. The best buy is the S-Design version for €38,780 on 17-inch alloys.
The aggressive styling is too fussy for my taste, with too many curves and creases to really have a distinctive character, but there is no escaping the dominant front grille that screams Lexus when it hones into view. Inside there’s plenty of space while, with the leather trim on the executive model, it sets a much more luxurious note than any of its German counterparts. From the lovely three-spoke leather steering wheel to the switchgear, there’s a real sense that this car is worthy of its price tag, and better than its rivals.
Fears about the battery swallowing up boot space are unfounded, this time, for while it’s still housed under the rear, the boot offers a very respectable 450 litres, so golfers have nothing to worry about there.
On the road the most striking sense is its quietness. You spend a great deal of time rolling along with only the slightest sound of rubber tyre on road to disturb proceedings. When the engine does kick in, it’s large enough to avoid the tinny whine of other hybrids. Ride comfort is smooth, while the car’s handling – thanks in part to the weight distribution from the battery – gives it a lovely tight line through corners. There’s also a very smooth and crisp feel to the steering.
The biggest issue remains with the CVT automatic transmission, a bugbear with most hybrids these days. These transmissions force the engine to rev too high and the changes never come quickly, or smoothly, enough to match the potential of the car. I suspect the IS would be able for much more power – both in terms of handling and outright performance – if this CVT transmission didn’t keep interrupting proceedings. It’s akin to some of the earlier automatic transmissions of the 1980s rather than the sophisticated dual-clutch units on offer in other powertrain guises. Gearchange paddles on the steering wheel seem to be there only for decoration. However, using the Drive mode select dial, you can slip it into “sport” mode for a little more poke.
The official fuel consumption claim is an impressive 4.4l/100km (64.2 mpg), but in a mix of city and motorway driving my average was 6.8l/100km (41.5mpg). Not bad for a car of this size but not stellar either.
These are the only qualms I would have about a car that otherwise impresses. For those seeking an alternative to the increasingly all-too-common German brands the IS300h is well-priced and kitted out in plenty of premium attire to be well worth consideration. Its achilles heel is a CVT transmission that doesn’t deliver the powertrain’s true potential onto the tarmac. The hybrid format in reality is neither a hindrance nor a help to any sale.
The new IS300h may not send Lexus shooting up the sales league but it should push them back into the premium market consciousness.
2494cc four-cylinder petrol engine putting out 181bhp @ 6,000rpm and 221Nm of torque from 4,200rpm, combined with 300Nm electric motor powered from a 650-volt battery
0-100km/h - 8.3 secs
Official (combined) L/100km (mpg): 4.4 (64.2)
103g/km for S-Design or Executive versions (99g/km for the Eco model)
Front fog lights; LED rear fog light; LED running lights; ultra violet and insulating tinted glass; 16in alloys; ABS; Brake Assist; Drive mode select: Eco/ comfort/normal/sport; EPS; EBD; hill-start assist; traction control; vehicle stability control system; 2-stage twin-chamber airbag; curtain airbags; Thorax Abdomen Pelvis side airbags; ISOFIX rear seat anchors; front knee airbags; pop-up bonnet ; 7-inch colour display ; six-speaker audio; Bluetooth; cruise control; electronic climate control. Executive features: 17in alloys; 2-zone electronic climate control; leather upholstery; parking assist sensors (front and rear)
Audi A4 2.0 TDI 150bhp SE €41,290; BMW 320d Modern 184bhp €42,580; Mercedes C220 CDi Avantgarde €43,165
€42,280 for Executive (starting at €37,780)
The Lexus IS300h is well-priced and kitted out in plenty of
premium attire to be well worth consideration