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Do Mercedes and BMW need to be worried by the third-generation Lexus IS luxury saloon?

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One market that Lexus really ought to have cracked by now – with something like the Lexus IS – is the European compact executive saloon segment.

That's not because it’s necessarily the most prestigious segment, but because it has a broad spread of profit and volume suited to the aspirations of the world’s biggest car maker.

Can hybrid tech propel the IS from also-ran to a contender?

Yet in nearly a quarter of a century of existence, Lexus has failed to make anything other than a mild dent in exec buyer consciousness. The IS has been on sale in the UK since 1999 but is probably better known as Alan Partridge’s former ride than it is for its brief popularity peak in 2007.

The original Lexus IS, which had already gone on sale in Japan as the Toyota Altezza, was introduced to Europe in 1999. With a front engine/rear-drive design, upmarket interior and sporting bent, the car was intended to take a bite from the German-dominated market.

The follow-up, launched in 2005, added better looks and the diesel engine that the line-up sorely needed to compete. This generation also spawned the V8-engined IS-F, with more than 400bhp and, in a world first, an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

This, the third generation, must overcome two significant hurdles to do any better. First, it must be counted as a true rival to the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and, of course, the BMW 3 Series – arguably the finest all-round prospect currently on sale. No previous IS has managed this.

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Second, it must accomplish the feat without a diesel engine. Instead, Lexus intends to court our affection with the IS300h, a hybrid destined to lead the class on its most important buying criteria: CO2 emissions. To keep the IS up with the rest of the compact executive pack, Lexus announced that at the Beijing and Paris Motorshows that its compact saloon will be given a mild facelift ahead of 2017.

We find out if that’s enough to put Lexus towards the head of the field.

DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus IS rear

This is a slightly bigger IS than we’ve been treated to before. The width may have grown by only 10mm, but there’s an additional 70mm in the wheelbase – 50mm of which is dedicated to the comfort of rear passengers.

The new, stiffer and slightly lighter bodyshell around it is a recognisable evolution of the previous-generation car’s. There’s Lexus's spindle-shaped grille up front and flared haunches to the rear, although it remains, at heart, an orthodox three-box styling effort. 

The Atkinson-cycle engine merges two of the four strokes of the combustion cycle for better thermal efficiency

Underneath, it diverges from convention somewhat. This is the first generation of IS to receive Toyota’s petrol-electric drivetrain. Rebadged as the Lexus Hybrid Drive, the system combines a 178bhp 2.5-litre petrol engine with a 141bhp electric motor.

The latter is part of a compact transaxle design that also houses the generator, a power split device (to combine power from the engine) and a reduction gear. Its nickel-metal batteries are stowed beneath the boot.

As with other Toyota hybrids, the water-cooled electric motor is capable of driving the rear wheels independently for short periods but usually works in tandem with the engine to provide drive. The Atkinson-cycle engine has been fettled for use in the IS300h, mostly with the intention of wangling improved efficiency from it.

Toyota (among others) believes that the greater natural efficiency of an Atkinson-cycle engine makes it the superior choice for use in a petrol-electric drivetrain. The IS300h’s four-cylinder unit is essentially a modified version of the conventional 2.5-litre motor that the manufacturer has been stuffing into Toyota RAV4s and Camrys destined for non-European markets.

For use in Lexus’s new saloon, Toyota has not only swapped out the camshafts and pistons to accommodate the asymmetrical compression and expansion ratios but also incorporated D-4S, the latest evolution of its direct injection technology.

With the help of higher-pressure injector nozzles and other detailed modifications, the compression ratio has improved to 13.0:1. Further efficiency gains have been made with a new exhaust gas recirculation system. Lexus also claims improved refinement thanks to the use of a low-friction timing chain and the optimisation of the balancer shaft.

Lexus also offers the more conventional IS200. It features a 242bhp 2.0-litre petrol and a six-speed automatic transmission, and will probably suit those seeking a smooth and familiar powertrain.

Even more effort has gone into reworking the model’s previously lacklustre chassis. The double wishbone front suspension remains, albeit with revisions to most components, but a new multi-link rear system has been introduced, with a modified layout separating the coil springs and shocks for more efficient function (although the dampers become adaptive only on the F Sport model, as an option).

Electric power steering has been Lexus GS, but Lexus has tuned it to better suit the smaller IS. The braking system is also new and, apparently, benefits from experience gleaned during the development of the Lexus LFA.

The 2017 facelifted IS gets numerous exterior tweaks to make its looks more uniform with the rest of the Lexus range. There has been changes made to the headlights, rear lights and the front grille, while the bumper has been redesigned to include bigger air intakes.

INTERIOR

Lexus IS interior

For many buyers, the difference between the Lexus and its Teutonic rivals will be judged from the driver’s seat.

In the past, Lexus has proven more than a match for European build quality but equally incapable of replicating their snug and stylish ambience. That affliction, apparently passed down the Lexus bloodline as readily as refinement and durability, is clear to see in the new IS.

The Lexus' joystick for its media system is as clunky as MS-DOS in an Apple-polished world

The standard of the cabin’s assembly is beyond reproach and its layout is clean and accessible. But the brand’s designers are apparently incapable of freeing themselves from the straitjacket of basic functionality.

Although it is admirable to ensure that the buttons, knobs, bells and whistles all work faultlessly – even Lexus’s loopy joystick-operated Remote Touch interface has slightly improved – a premium saloon must aspire to be more than a big, expensive calculator. 

In spite of a patent lack of panache about the surroundings, it is very easy to get comfortable in them. The hip point of the front seats is now 20mm lower and the steering wheel’s reach adjustment has increased by 23mm, thus creating a bigger space in which to find a comfortable driving position. That said, it could still be bigger.

Back-seat occupants aren’t served quite so well. Despite the longer wheelbase – and an extra 35mm recovered through a thinner seat back design – the 85mm improvement over its predecessor delivers only a competitive, rather than class-leading, amount of rear legroom.

It’s a similar story in the cargo bay. In the hybrid, replacing the spare wheel with nickel-metal batteries has kept intrusion into the boot at a minimum but has still limited the load space to 450 litres (compared with 480 litres in the IS200t). Again, that makes it a viable alternative to its close rivals, but not one to lavish praise on.

There are seven trim levels to choose from when speccing your IS, with only three - Sport, F-Sport and Premier available on the models fitted with a 2.0-litre petrol engine. Opt for the entry-level SE model and expect to find keyless entry, cruise control, dual-zone climate control and a 7.0in infotainment system with DAB radio. Upgrade to the fleet-friendly Executive Edition and you'll find sat nav and leather seats included, while the Sport models get bigger alloys, parking sensors and auto wipers.

The mid-range Luxury models don't come with the sporty attire found on the Sport models, while the Advance IS gets electrically adjustable, heated and cooled front seats, and a reversing camera. The F-Sport models get a truly aggresive bodykit and styling inspired by the LFA, while the range-topping Premier trim comes with a Mark Levinson stereo system and Lexus's premium navigation system including a DVD player.

While the trim levels aren't going to change for the 2017 models, the IS will get some tweaks made to its interior - chief among which is the inclusion of a 10.3in infotainment system.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Lexus IS turbocharged petrol engine

Because of its low emissions and claimed high economy, its likely the hybrid Lexus IS300h will prove most appealing to buyers.

The petrol-only IS200t may be cheaper than the IS300h, but its turbocharged 242bhp 2.0-litre engine has allowed the Japanese luxury brand to close the gap on its closest downsized four-cylinder turbo petrols that now populate this class.

The hybrid really needs a full manual mode to allow you to use all the available power

It’s smooth in operation, although lacking mid-range torque, and reassuringly familiar in some ways – but it would cost you almost twice as much on road tax than some rivals, and will probably consume a good 25 per cent more fuel than it should. Emissions are rated at 167g/km of CO2, while its average combined economy is an unimpressive 32.8mpg.

On paper, the IS300h couldn’t be more different. Powered by a 2.5-litre, 178bhp four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a 141bhp rear-mounted electric motor, it has a maximum ‘system output’ of 220bhp.

It emits half as much CO2 as its range-mate: as little as 99g/km in the case of the entry-level IS300h SE. And the hybrid's claimed combined economy figure of 65.7mpg is more than twice as good as that of the V6-engined alternative.

Objectively, you couldn’t accuse the IS300h of having dreary outright pace, in contrast to some Toyota hybrids. In our hands, it cracked 60mph from rest in 8.1sec.

The last Mercedes-Benz C 220 CDI saloon we figured took half a second longer and a BMW 320d is less than half a second quicker. So the IS300h finds itself in a competitive place for such a low-emitting executive saloon. Over a standing kilometre, it is actually a wee bit faster than even the BMW.

Which might suggest that there has been some revolution in the way that Toyota’s tried and tested Hybrid Synergy Drive transmission works. In practice, there hasn’t. Through 95 per cent of its travel, the accelerator pedal seems to lack proportional response and you need to use more of it than you expect to get the car to accelerate with any urgency.

That's fine, if all you want to do is waft around sedately and marvel at the remarkable, limo-like refinement of this car. Plenty will. But, as an Autocar reader, you probably won’t.

Meanwhile, the manual mode of the E-CVT just isn’t a match for a good torque converter auto in paddle-shift mode. It isn’t even close. Those gearchanges come slowly and with reluctance at times.

And when you’re using full throttle, the car overrides manual mode anyway. You can flip away to change the gear indicator on the instrument cluster, all the while having no effect on an engine spinning away at 6000rpm or a transmission funnelling that power to the road however it sees fit.

There may be no objective deficit on performance here to the cars that matter, and that’s quite remarkable in itself. But there’s still a big subjective problem, because the Lexus’s driver, while looked after very suavely at other times, is left mainly frustrated when he wants to interact with this car.

At that point, he’s still likely to find the car’s powertrain quite cold, remote and unsatisfying.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus IS cornering

As you might expect, the Lexus doesn't want for extra body control or rolling refinement. On the smaller of two available wheel sizes, it rode over broken surfaces very quietly.

Perhaps not with as much bigger-bump compliance as we’d like, but then the wafting gait of an old-school Jaguar or Mercedes has never been Lexus’s preferred route towards cabin isolation. Ride comfort can often come down to personal taste, and those who like a steady, impervious gait will like what they find here.

The stability system needs to be thrown away and a new system developed

But ‘those people’ are highly likely to number within the Lexus’s inherited clientele, you’d think. If you’re new to the IS – whether you’re attracted by its athletic looks or the ‘sporty’ marketing – you’ll have come in search of a bit of dynamic poise and piquancy, as well as for its refinement.

That’s exactly what you’ll uncover: a little bit extra. Relative to the low standards of the previous IS, this car seems a remarkably natural-feeling and very pleasing handler indeed. There’s crispness and feedback to the steering and proper rear-drive purity and balance to the cornering.

If you opt for the Adaptive Variable Suspension system, delivered through adaptive dampers, it's body control and ride is even better – but this option's only offered on the IS300h F-Sport.

In either specification the Lexus teeters towards delivering some genuine driver entertainment, only being stopped by – in the case of the hybrid model – the roadblock of a powertrain, the limited grip of the car’s efficiency-biased tyres and an intrusive stability control system. The V6 suffers from similar traits, and just lacks the necessary power and mid-range torque for stirring acceleration and enjoyment.

As it is, we’d applaud Lexus for its efforts, because they’re telling. But we also couldn’t fail to point out the elephant in the room: that the IS’s new dynamic talents so often serve to make the limitations of that powertrain all the more plain. And even less easy to forgive.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus IS200t

The Lexus IS benefits from very competitive pricing so, coupled with bulletproof reliability and excellent customer service, there's a lot to like.

It's only the IS300h that really makes for a sensible proposition, however. The IS200t isn't efficient enough and it's not overly rewarding to drive either so, despite being cheaper, its powertrain has little going for it.

Luxury trim is worth the four-figure premium over the SE model

What really matters is this: an entry-level Lexus IS300h SE will cost you less than £30k. The car is no more expensive to buy than a like-for-like BMW 320d, Audi A4 2.0 TDI or Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI, despite the complicated driveline

Even if you want to go for one of the higher-specification models, don't fear the high-looking price. Put the standard equipment of this car on a four-cylinder diesel A4, C Class or 3 Series and you’ll arrive at a higher price than Lexus is asking here.

The IS300h will also be about £70 a month cheaper on benefit-in-kind for the 40 per cent tax payer than the average diesel-engined rival. Our sources suggest that the IS300h will be competitive on leasing rates, too.

So £800 a year looks like plenty of compensation for a slightly dull powertrain, particularly if you don’t pay for your fuel. Talking of which, our test car averaged 39.1mpg. Close to 50mpg is possible, though, with a patient driving style.

 

VERDICT

3.5 star Lexus IS

Lexus may have at last created the right compact executive saloon, in the form of the IS300h, for Britain’s company car drivers.

Having dallied with a diesel engine without ever truly developing it, the company has done the obvious thing: applied hybrid technology of the sort that is already proving popular for fleets in other model segments.

Limo-like refinement and competitive pace, but a bit one-dimensional

The resulting IS300h is competitive with big-selling diesel rivals on price, performance, handling and economy. It also sets an exceptional standard for refinement and quality, and its styling certainly cuts a distinctive dash on the road.

What it doesn’t do is offer its driver very much. Not very much involvement or amusement, or even much satisfaction. The powertrain blocks that particular road at every turn. In fact, ‘driver’ is perhaps wrong, come to think of it, because in the IS300h you’re actually made to feel more like a kind of ‘chief passenger’. And most Autocar readers wouldn’t tolerate that situation for long.

Which is why Lexus looks a bit foolish in attempting to sell this car as a viable alternative to a sporting business saloon. The IS lacks the involvement to keep keener drivers interested, and so it doesn’t have the sheer breadth of ability of the best cars it’s up against.

The petrol-engined IS200t is equally disengaging, and simply isn't powerful or flexible enough. Its efficiency and output is notably less impressive than some very competent turbocharged four-cylinder alternatives as well, although some buyers may approve of its smooth, naturally aspirated nature.

Sold more appropriately – in appreciation of its quality, appealing design and remarkable refinement, as the class's standout low-emissions luxury option – the IS300h should still find plenty of happy homes.

We can only hope owners judge the car better than its maker has.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Lexus IS 2013-2020 First drives