‘We suspect that the lighter IS250 with the conventional auto will be a much more enjoyable car to drive’. So said CAR’s Chris Chilton after driving the new Lexus IS300h in 2013, thus handing compact sports saloon class victory to the BMW 3-series.
So, was the prediction right? We’ve tested the Lexus IS250 in top-spec F Sport trim on UK roads – time to find out if BMW’s smugness is short-lived.
Is the Lexus IS250 the car to break the German monopoly on my company’s fleet?
We won’t hold you in suspense any longer – the IS250 will be a niche choice, because of its resolutely non-downsized drivetrain. This £30,495 four-door is a rival to the BMW 320i M Sport, and Mercedes C-class C250 AMG Sport. That’s right – petrol-powered compact execs, whose sales are dwarfed by ubiquitous turbodiesels. There is no diesel version of the new IS – it’s either straight petrol, or part-electric hybrid.
That’s not all. Unlike its German rivals, the IS250 doesn’t run a small four-cylinder petrol. In situ behind the love-it/loathe-it ‘spindle grille’ is a 2.5-litre, 24-valve, petrol-fuelled V6. Any turbochargers? No sir. It’s naturally aspirated, and develops a somewhat underwhelming 202bhp and 186lb ft.
Amassing 1645kg (an equivalent 3-series is 1495kg), the IS250 carries a heavy weight penalty too – though it does come in lighter than the battery-lugging IS300h hybrid.
>> Click here to read CAR’s first drive review of the Lexus IS300h hybrid
And that adds up into terrible economy figures, I suppose?
Afraid so. Claimed fuel consumption is only 32.8mpg, while CO2 emissions are 50% higher than the IS250’s closest rivals, at 199g/km. And that’s for the most basic IS250. Upgrade to F Sport trim and bigger wheels wearing wider tyres mean 30.7mpg and 213g/km! £280 of annual road tax, anyone?
Small wonder it’s the hybrid IS300h, touting 65.7mpg and 99g/km (£0 road tax, natch), which the UK buyer will have his or her arm forced toward.
Pity. Am I missing much?
Unfortunately, yes. Before you set off in the IS, take a moment to soak up the wilful individuality of it all. In the LFA supercar-aping Ultra Blue hue of our test car, wearing gunmetal 18in alloys and F Sport bodykit, the IS makes any compact exec around today, German or otherwise, look about as exciting as a cress sandwich.
Inside too, the cabin is flawlessly constructed, and crammed with thoughtful touches like touch-sensitive temperature scales and a configurable instrument display. Praise be, you sit lower than in the last IS, with the steering wheel near-vertical and close to your chest.
Only a handful of Toyota switchgear pieces and pinched rear headroom detract from an experience ten times more special than anything Audi or BMW currently offer for thirty grand in this class. The new Mercedes C-class might have something to say about that, though…
>> Click here to find out why the new Mercedes C-class is one of our Most Wanted cars of 2014
And what about the drive?
Sorry, there’s yet more surprise and delight. Get over the fact you’re piloting a machine whose drivetrain would have been out of favour with UK buyers a full decade ago and there’s much to like about the IS250. Chief among which is the slightly synthetic but undeniably feel-good V6 warble. Your ears aren’t treated to the really good stuff until the digital tachometer is north of 4000rpm, but peak torque doesn’t arrive until 4800rpm anyway, so you might just indulge your senses more often than you’d think, and hang the economy.
Our test car averaged 25.1mpg, and should you leave the manual-shift paddles alone, nudging the claimed 30mpg would be manageable. Sure, that’s dreadful in the context of the four-pot turbodiesel elite, sure, but worth it for a rare slice of drivetrain panache.
Is the gearbox still an OAP-spec CVT?
Thankfully not. Instead, the IS250 uses a six-speed torque converter auto (there is no manual alternative). In auto mode, it’s not as quick-witted as the ZF eight-speeder used by BMW, or Audi’s seven-speed S-tronic dual-clutcher. The gearbox’s absence of finesse shows when you call on it for prompt acceleration, with a slow kickdown teamed with a lethargic response from the V6. The Germans may have you at the traffic light grand prix.
Knock the selector across the manual and use the paddles, we say. In manual mode, the transmission is a great companion for the sonorous engine, the revs yelping on every snatched downshift. The combination of hefty kerbweight and middling power means the IS250 isn’t fast, but thanks to its soundtrack and trick supercar dials, it pretends it’s accelerating a damn sight faster than it actually is. Whether you think that’s more fun than the other way around is entirely your preference…
Does the weight problem ruin the IS250’s dynamics?
No – Lexus has been clever here. The electric steering is sharp just off-centre. Team that response with the stiff body and its F Sport suspension, and you’re granted proper agility.
Meanwhile, the brakes have masses of bite right at the top of the pedal travel, trimming speed with accuracy and confidence without being too grabby. Classic means of disguising a car’s obesity, we grant you, but they work here – this IS250 is truly entertaining. You get bags of grip, supreme body control, and every now and again, a cheeky sidestep from the rear to remind you Lexus benchmarked the mighty 3-series when setting up its own rear-drive challenger.
Refreshingly handsome, immaculate inside, and at least as engaging as any export from Munich: we really enjoy driving the IS250. But should you buy one?
For UK readers, we have to solemnly refer you back to the full version of the quote this review began with. ‘We suspect that the lighter IS250 with the conventional auto will be a much more enjoyable car to drive. It’s just a shame it will be rendered virtually untouchable by its 199/kmCO2 output’. Touché.