Lexus, with its parent Toyota, is the world’s biggest producer of cars which do not rely solely on petrol or diesel engines. With its friends at Honda it pioneered petrol engines with electric assistance – hybrids.
That was last century and other carmakers have since produced their own hybrid vehicles. Their advantage is higher mileage and lower emissions, with taxation benefits for the user. Fuel economy is better than pure petrol and can get near diesel.
The latest Lexus to get hybrid power is the IS saloon – badged as the 300h. The IS was Lexus’s answer to small sporty saloons from Germany – launched with a straight-six 2-litre petrol engine driving the rear wheels. A real driving machine, to crib a slogan from BMW.
Drive still goes to the back from a 178bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, plus 141bhp from the electric motor.
Prices start at £32,895 for the Executive Edition and a monthly hire rate of £299.
Tested here is the 300h in its F Sport décor, which adds styling elements and runs on a lower and stiffer chassis. Its bald figures are 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds and a top speed of 124mph. It is rated at 61.4mpg and 107g CO2. It costs from £36,995 (£329 monthly).
The car seats four or five. The boot volume is slightly compromised by the electrification but is large enough, with a through-load facility by folding the seats. The main ergonomic drawback is access, with passengers and driver catching skulls on the roof edge. It’s the sort of ouchy moment you learn to avoid.
After that rude awakening it’s a comfortable car, with impeccable cabin build quality – one reason why Lexus gets high marks in consumer comparisons. The power from the engines feeds through a CVT automatic gearbox, which I’ve seen criticised for response and whine: not on my watch.
What you don’t get is the acceleration you’d expect from all that power because the output overlaps. The electric motor gives immediate punch but then fades and the petrol engine doesn’t give its maximum torque until 4,200rpm. In this respect, it is out-done by the turbo diesel rivals from Germany and Coventry.
Lexus was late to diesel power and, in the light of the current and growing alarm and distrust about pollution and prohibitions, must be happy the fuel is not a major factor in its sales. The IS is not offered with a diesel engine.
However, the 124mph top speed of the IS300h will make it a slow-coach on the German motorways.
I know, it’s not all about the speed any more, and even in the Camshaft Arms, the Smallbore Bar set are more inclined towards smart, not fast. Mind you, an ageing profile makes an SUV more convenient than a slinky saloon. So does the terrain.
Lexus is a big brand in the US but not a big seller in Europe, where it sold around 74,600 cars last year, ranking it 32nd on rising sales but well ahead of Nissan’s Infiniti marque. In Britain, too, it was well ahead of Infiniti but sales of 12,670 fell by nearly nine per cent on 2016. Insiders say this had been planned for. It was not alone in having a poor year. Even Audi and BMW were barely up to pace – with Mercedes-Benz and, to a lesser extent, Jaguar getting the cream. Lexus’s parent, Toyota, enjoyed a 5.5 per cent UK rise last year. Its hybrid sales rose 40 per cent.
The Lexus marque scarcity was partly why driving the pretty sleek IS attracted so much attention – despite its silver paint being winter mucky. It has a striking body. There’s lots of rakish stuff around the front and the rear lights and along the sides. It’s one of those cars that looks ready to race, or at least have legal fun in. Which is what I did. The handling is good. The steering is fluid. The ride is also smooth, except when it’s not – which happens quite a lot in the F Sport. The irritation is at the back, felt over minor bumps with resonating noises from some innards. It’s not bad, just noticeable.
My other sniffiness is for the control area. The information screen and navigation display are selected using a mouse pad between the seats. Its movement is too quick – but you’ll get accustomed to this, and there is a secondary click-button either side of the central arm-rest. Generally, it is fussy compared with layouts from its peer rivals.
Reasons for buying the hybrid include its green halo. However, like most hybrids it will not go far on battery power alone – a green EV light indicates this. On a flat road on a featherlight pedal you may manage a couple of gentle miles on EV mode before the petrol engine comes on stream. Be careful this addiction to maintaining EV travel does not infuriate following vehicles impatient to burn fuel while you are fixated with the EV monitor.
Lexus quotes 61.4mpg combined consumption, 60.1mpg urban and 58.9mpg extra urban. These are very consistent readings. The best I saw was 43mpg on a gentle commute, with a few mpg less overall.
Verdict: Good petrol economy without the stigma of diesel, but the hybrid system adds cost.