Lexus IS 300h review: hard shell, soft centre

12 November 2013

Lexus IS 300h front view

Lexus IS 300h
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Good: Exceptional economy, well equipped, highly refined
Bad: Not nearly as sporty as it looks
Price: from £29,495
The first thing that strikes, on approaching the new Lexus IS 300h, is how aggressively it’s been styled. Gaping maw. Slashed flanks. Kicked up tail. It’s all very purposeful and sinewy, down to the tick-mark shaped running lamps that sit below the headlights, recalling the swooshes from a pair of running shoes.

And the athletic look is turned up to 11 when tweaked with the bulging bumpers, 18-inch wheels and hunkered stance of my test car’s F-Sport trim. You’d never guess that this sports saloon might be an eco-weenie under the skin.

But it is. The base model 300h SE turns in a combined cycle score of 65.7mpg and 99g/km of CO2, while even the lumpen F-Sport fares no worse than 60.1mpg and 109g/km – outstanding results for a lavishly equipped saloon that is 9cm longer, marginally wider and a fraction taller than the outgoing Lexus it replaces.

Lexus IS 300h rear side view

You wouldn’t guess at those economy figures from the driver’s seat, either. You sit low, in a bathtub formed by the high centre tunnel and door, facing a small steering wheel with a thin leather rim, complete with paddles peering out from behind the spokes.

Oddly, there are three pedals down in the dim and distant footwell, one being the parking brake in this automatic-only car. Release it, press the blue “start” button on the dashboard, and waft away in utter silence. And things no longer seem quite as single minded. Indeed, comfort and composure are the most noticeable qualities. There is pin-drop refinement, and a suppleness to the firm ride that stops it descending into brash and uncouth crashiness.

Lexus IS 300h driver's view

The IS 300h is by no means a slow or weedy car – rest to 62mph can be despatched in just 8.3 seconds, while top speed is capped at a more than adequate 125mph.

But the car never seems to encourage such loutish behaviour. Select “Sport” mode via the rotary dial at your elbow and you’ll get firmer steering and snappier throttle response, but the controls feel more honest and wholesome when left in Normal mode. There’s also an Eco mode, which softens responses by an acceptable margin, but similarly feels redundant. If I owned an IS 300h, I can’t imagine twisting that dial very often.

Lexus IS 300h rotary mode controller

It’s a similar story with the paddles behind the wheel. The car responds briskly and intelligently enough to the throttle alone, so why fuss with unnecessary inputs?

These options are there, I suppose, for the same reason that the bodywork has been sent to the gym. Control is a selling point, and the executive car market is not a welcoming place for shrinking violets.

The standard equipment list is a long as your arm and as confusing as the menu in a Michelin-starred restaurant. “Optitron instrumentation” is standard, I’m happy to know, even if I don’t know what it is. However, I do know what the “dynamic Thin Film Transistor (TFT) meter (LFA inspired)” listed on the spec sheet is, and it’s unique to the F-Sport version of the car. It’s a configurable instrument panel that features a central dial that physically trundles between the centre and the side of the display, according to the information mode selected. Again, it’s a nice talking point that I can’t honestly imagine ever properly exploiting or even caring about.

Lexus IS 300h F-Sport instrument cluster

There are other interior oddities – such as touch sensitive metal strips in place of twistable knobs to control the aircon – but in general the cabin succeeds in projecting an image of quality and good taste. It’s clearly related to the GS 450h I drove last year, but feels more intimate and detailed, in part because it’s noticeably smaller of course.

Things are also slimmed down under the bonnet, compared with the 450h. The new 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine provides up to 181bhp and 221Nm of torque, abetted by the 143bhp and 300Nm of the integrated electric motor. Their combined efforts are sent to the rear wheels via a planetary transmission, which provides a smooth and continuous variation of ratio that disconnects engine revs from road speed, governed by computer.

Lexus IS 300h front interior

I often read reviews that criticise the character of continuously variable transmissions, with revs that don’t build with speed creating a slipping-clutch aura of slurred imprecision. But I’ve driven CVTs for years now and you do get accustomed to them after a while. Eventually it seems natural – and entirely logical – to hear high revs when you’re accelerating and low revs (or indeed silence) when you’re not.

All things considered, the IS 300h is a hybrid in more ways than one. The odd amalgam of aggressive looks and passive powertrain combine in a cocktail that may fall flat to those who will go on to choose an Audi or BMW. But for those interested in efficiency, comfort and refinement, the combination may well hit the spot. I loved it.

Though I’d probably go for the £29,495 SE edition and its 99g/km, rather than the 109g/km, £33,495 F-Sport in the pictures.

Lexus IS 300h front side view

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