The previous version of the Lexus is a long-time Drivesouth favourite. Now David Thomson finds out how its successor stacks up.
The mid-sized IS saloon is the most important determinant of Lexus' New Zealand market success. Not only does it account for a greater portion of Lexus sales than any other model in the brand's portfolio, it provides an entry point to Lexus for many who will go on to buy other vehicles in the range.
This makes the recent launch of an all-new IS a vital event for Lexus. Replacing a widely lauded predecessor that first appeared here eight years ago, the new IS has arrived as a nine-variant range, featuring three different power-plant options, each available in models with standard, Limited or F-Sport trim.
Two of the engines - 2.5 and 3.0-litre V6s - carry over from the previous IS largely unchanged. Then there is an intriguing third option, the first IS hybrid, which was supplied for appraisal in $92,195 Limited form.
Badged the 300h, the IS hybrid is powered by a combination of a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine and an electric motor system, driving the rear wheels via a six-stage continuously variable transmission. This system highlights the rapid advances being made in hybrid packaging, with just a 30-litre sacrifice required from the standard IS' 480-litre luggage space to accommodate the car's nickel-hydride batteries, mounted under the boot.
Peak outputs of 164kW and 330Nm promise lively performance, while with a standard cycle fuel consumption figure of 4.9 litres per 100km, the 300h is also massively more economical than its pure-petrol siblings. This, of course, makes it a key competitor for the diesel variants that are economy kings in the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class ranges.
Style, as well as mechanical substance, is a vital ingredient in this tightly contested segment of the luxury market, and was an area in which the previous IS competed especially well.
This time round I am not so sure about the exterior styling of the IS. Perhaps in part because it is actually 75mm longer, the latest IS forgoes the neat, compact look that was a feature of the outgoing model. It is intentionally more aggressive about the nose, with a distinctive ''spindle'' grille design that will polarise opinion. The intriguing cut lines that swing up from the front door sill, bisect the rear wheel arches, and flow into the rear tail light will be another talking point.
Fewer risks have been taken with the cabin of the new IS, which is a benchmark for others - including Europe's best - to measure themselves against in terms of design and finish.
A number of interior styling cues are borrowed from the larger Lexus GS and, with the two cars using the same underlying platform, the similarities are more than skin deep. Most importantly in practical terms, within that overall 75mm gain in length between the old and new IS, there has been a 70mm increase in wheelbase. That, in turn, makes for a massive increase in back-seat space, which was one of the few weak points of the previous model.
Six-footers are now easily accommodated in a back seat that leads the way for space within its class. There's good news for front-seat occupants, too, including greater adjustability in the driving position. Those front seats (leather-trimmed, naturally) are power-adjustable, of course, as is the steering column for both rake and reach.
Equipment levels are all that you would expect for a luxury car in this class. Memory front seats, a 15-speaker 5.1 surround sound Mark Levinson audio, smart key entry, and auto-dipping LED headlights are comfort and convenience features the Limited model has over and above the already generous specification for the standard 300h. This already covers such features as satellite navigation, a seven-inch colour display screen, Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity, front and rear parking assist systems and full climate control air-conditioning.
The electrostatic adjustment for interior temperature is just one of several neat touches: you simply place your finger on the thin metallic bar and slide it up or down to adjust the cabin temperature.
As well as impressing for its comfort features, the 300h plays a strong safety hand. On the Limited, that hand encompasses active cruise control, blindspot monitoring, lane departure warning and pre-crash emergency brake assistance. It also boasts two more airbags (on the side of the rear seats) than the normal IS count of eight.
For those who expect a Lexus to deliver a cossetted, comfortable driving experience above all else, the 300h should not disappoint. The suspension has been completely re-designed for the new IS, with increased rigidity and anti-roll, but slightly softer springing.
To my mind this makes it feel firmer overall than the previous IS. This actually works to its advantage on typical lower South Island highways, reducing the potential for the car to become unsettled when traversing uneven or poorly surfaced corners.
Noise levels are generally well contained, too. Like any hybrid, it steps off the mark with an almost eerie silence. On the other hand the engine note - a four-cylinder roar rather than a silk-smooth V6 growl - becomes intrusive under full throttle. That engine note is a matter of sensitivity to Lexus, as the 300h features a customisable electronic noise system to mimic the sound of a smoother petrol engine. Fortunately this system, which sounds artificial, can be switched off.
Those who are seeking the ultimate performance and handling experience within the current IS line-up will quite rightly look to the non-hybrid IS 300, which is lighter and more powerful than the 300h.
That point accepted, the 300h is in no way a performance slug. It steps off the mark well enough, but is at its effortless best with the engine working in the mid-range to hold a decent pace over winding and undulating highways. The extra kilos the hybrid carries become evident when pushing hard through corners, though the test car's turn-in and general balance were first rate.
On the other hand, while the steering is accurate and well weighted, it lacks for genuine feel. Nor is there quite enough on-throttle adjustability to allow the IS 300h to match the best of its German turbo-diesel rivals for dynamic prowess.
Even so, plenty of driver satisfaction accrued on an extended highway trip into the depths of central Southland with the test car. Just as importantly, the full complement of passengers and their substantial quantity of luggage were comfortably accommodated for the return leg. That would not have been the case in the previous, more compact IS.
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