Diesels are out and hybrids in, as Lexus has a third crack at the European premium elite. The third iteration of the IS saloon arrives in the UK with a choice of two engines: a 2.5 V6 petrol with 205bhp available from £26,495, and the 220bhp hybrid we drove, which starts at £29,495.
The hybrid mates a 2.5-litre petrol four with an electric motor and emits only 99g/km of CO2 on a poverty spec car (109g/km otherwise) and achieves 66mpg, making it massively appealing to fleet buyers. Neither engine can be had as a manual, the V6 getting a six-speed auto, and the hybrid a droning CVT. US buyers get the option of a 3.5 V6 pushing out over 300bhp, but zero demand means it won’t be coming to the UK.
Scariest grille this side of a ’50s yank custom?
Well it’s certainly distinctive. Lifting styling cues from the Detroit 2012 LF-LC concept, and a platform from the GS, the new IS is handsome, if fussy, but delivers nearly 2in of badly-needed extra rear legroom compared with the old car, although rear headroom is tight. The cabin materials are, as you’d expect, first rate, the dials are inspired by those of the now-dead LFA supercar, and there are various interesting details, including the touch-sensitive sliding air con controls. The driving position is excellent, and the F-sport model’s seats are grippy without feeling constrictive.
What’s it like to drive?
Lexus desperately wants to be seen as a sporty brand and the ugly CT200h hatch rides like a skateboard as a result. But the IS is far more appealing. With its adaptive dampers set to comfort mode, our F-sport IS rides at least as well as a similarly-equipped 3-series, and handles respectably too, with responsive, if not overly engaging steering, and minimal roll partly attributable to all those batteries stashed under the boot floor to the benefit of its centre of gravity.
Here comes the B word…
But it’s the drivetrain that spoils this car, or more specifically, the transmission. The CVT ’box is okay in gentle cruising, but never feels suitable for a car with even vaguely sporting pretensions, treating you to soaring revs when you summon some overtaking urge. A fake dubbed engine soundtrack attempts to disguise the commotion, but we switched it off. Fortunately the IS is refined enough that the CVT din is at least reasonably muted. An unremarkable 8.3sec 0-62mph time can probably be attributed to its lazy step-off: gun the thing hard to overtake and it feels pretty brisk, but never as instantly lively as a BMW 320d, and brake feel still suffers from inconsistent feel typical of hybrid cars.
The IS’s chief engineer says his team is working on integrating a traditional auto with the hybrid drivetrain, but it adds too much length. When the solution to that problem arrives, Lexus will have a pretty convincing 3-series rival on its hands, because there’s plenty to like about the new IS. As it stands, we’d shop elsewhere, but Lexus GB only expects to sell around 5000 examples of the IS (4600 hybrids), and should have no problem finding buyers swayed by the quality, tax advantages and the fact that it isn’t a BMW