LEXUS could have badged its third-generation IS executive saloon the “Diesel Schmiesel”. For, try as you might, you still won’t find an oil-burning IS in the range. Not now, not ever, say company chiefs. Instead, the IS comes with a choice of petrol or petrol-electric hybrid motors, which seems a bit odd for a car that’s built to stick it to the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C Class. All of these cars, it won’t have escaped your notice, do a very nice line in diesels.
Ah but, says Lexus, diesel can’t rival petrol when it comes to smooth-running, silent engines. And, after your first mile in an IS, you’ll be inclined to agree. Opt for the entry-level hybrid (which you will, because it’s a far better proposition than the petrol-only car) and average CO2 emissions plummet below the VED-avoiding 100g/km barrier, which will have your company’s fleet manager jumping up and down excitedly.
Ah but, say you, what happens to that CO2 figure and the claimed 65.7mpg if you drive your Lexus in what the chaps at the club might call “a spirited fashion”? Well, there’s good news on that front as well, sort of: you won’t want to drive it in spirited fashion.
It doesn’t take long to realise that the IS is built for comfort, not speed, despite an aggressive new look, a nicely tuned chassis and a combined 220bhp boot in the backside from the 2.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine and its battery-powered chum. Plant the accelerator to the floor and you can almost sense the Lexus rolling its eyes and tutting as it switches from trot to gentle canter, the car’s continuously variable transmission doing its best to blur the correlation between engine speed and road speed. Even in the slightly spicier, slightly thirstier F-Sport model we tried, with the Drive Mode Select switch set to Sport S+ for snappier throttle response, there’s not the sense of urgency you might expect.
The petrol-only car, also a 2.5-litre but in naturally-aspirated V6 form and paired to a conventional automatic gearbox, isn’t much perkier, but it is a damn sight thirstier and doesn’t qualify for the same tax breaks as the hybrid.
The lack of pace is all the more frustrating because the chassis seems capable of great things. The steering is nicely weighted and the suspension is supple enough to smooth out lumps and bumps, yet firm enough to let the Lexus hold a tight line through the bends if you can be bothered working up a head of steam. A stiffer-than-before bodyshell helps here too.
So, back to the hybrid, and back to comfort and build quality that few cars at this price – or any price – can match. A pile-up ahead of us on a storm-lashed motorway leading to Vienna meant an hour in stop-start traffic, which gave us plenty of time to get to know the IS’s cabin well. Try as we might, we couldn’t find much to fault, apart from a rather cheap looking glovebox release button. Everything else is first class: the comfortable seats, the supple leather trim, the silent sweep of the wipers. Lexus forged its reputation on build quality and the IS suggests it’s in no mood to lower its guard. If you’re going to go nowhere in a thunderstorm for an hour, go nowhere in a Lexus.
Standard equipment on the entry-level SE car is generous and includes 16-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and a seven-inch touchscreen multimedia display. The F-Sport model adds 18-inch wheels, switchable suspension settings, LED fog lamps and animated dials inspired by those in the LFA hypercar.
The new car is 75mm longer than the last one, 70mm of which is between the front and rear wheels. That adds up to more legroom for rear-seat passengers, although headroom in the back is still a bit tight for six footers. The batteries for the hybrid are tucked underneath the floor instead of behind the rear seats, so the boot’s a good size.
The hybrid powerplant means the slow-speed stuff is dealt with in silence as the petrol engine signs off and lets the electric motor get on with it. Watching your average mpg rise as you crawl along at a snail’s pace almost qualifies as fun, as does maxing out the optional 835-watt stereo just as everyone is getting used to the peace and quiet.
Unusually for a car that excels at making no mechanical noise at all, the F-Sport hybrid is the only car I’ve driven that has a volume control for the petrol engine. Some of the under-bonnet sounds are piped into the cabin (a la Toyota GT86 and Ford Fiesta ST) to add an air of sportiness. All you have to do is dial in as much din as you can bear. But, because the continuously variable transmission holds the revs at a constant level, it’s like sitting front row at a Johnny One-Note and the Monotones concert. I’ll pay five of my own pounds to anyone who can hack it on full volume – or any volume – for more than, oh, 50 yards.
Abandon hope of sporty thrills, all ye who enter here, and enjoy the magic carpet comfort and bulletproof build quality instead.
CAR Lexus IS 300h F-Sport
PERFORMANCE Max speed 125mph; 0-62mph 8.3secs
MPG (combined) 60.1mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 109g/km