Lexus has launched its revised midsize sedan for South Africa – the IS 300h.
In a bold – but not unusual – move, the range has been rationalised to a single-engine offering in three trim levels, starting at R841,300 and going head-to-head with tough competition from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi.
I had an opportunity to sample the entry-level EX and range-topping F-Sport models, which affirmed that Lexus has a car which could steal some drivers from the German brands.
The engine and drive
The models all have the same drivetrain, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol coupled to an electric motor through a hybrid system that drives the rear wheels using a CVT gearbox.
The petrol engine puts out 133kW at 6,000 rpm and provides maximum torque of 221Nm between 4,200 and 5,400 rpm.
As with Toyota’s method of hybrid technology, though, the electric motor provides instant power from the start – augmenting the engine output when required and regenerating electricity when coasting or braking.
The total system output is 164kW, but it’s a mathematician’s game to explain how it all comes together.
The most notable feature when climbing into a Lexus or Prius that uses Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system is the “Power” button rather than “Engine Start/Stop” and a little light on the gauge cluster indicating “Ready”.
There’s no starter motor wind up or exhaust bark like the Maserati Ghibli Hybrid – just silence with pull off always taking place in EV mode supplemented shortly thereafter as the petrol engine springs to life.
Once you get used to that, you appreciate the system and learn to drive with it rather than trying to control it.
The engine shuts down when coasting down hills, when braking, and when stopped to generate maximum power to the battery bank, but remains instantly ready when you get back on the accelerator pedal.
Toyota claims that it can provide the economy of a diesel engine with the refinement of a petrol motor using this set-up, and fuel economy is a claimed 5.2l/100km.
Running on full-electric EV mode at low speeds and in grid-lock means that the petrol engine is rarely used, and on long journeys due to the blend of technology there’s no range anxiety which plagues EV car ownership.
It’s a good bridge between the internal combustion engine and full EV, without the plug-in charging requirements of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
The 2.5-litre hybrid system has been available in the Lexus ES for some time, but is far better suited to the more stylish IS.
Sport versus luxury
The driving experience is distinctly different between the luxury EX and SE models, and sportier F-Sport.
This mainly has to do with a high-tech Adaptive Variable Suspension in the F-Sport, which dials up dynamic handling characteristics without compromising comfort.
It virtually eliminates nose-dive under braking, squat under acceleration, and roll through the corners – while maintaining the supple comfort that Lexus is known for.
Coupled with the plush yet supportive seats in all models, the cabin is a world beyond its competitors in this area.
Although there were no SE models in the test-drive rotation, the differences in the EX and F-Sport – which carries a less than R60,000 premium – are stark.
The SE and F-Sport are therefore sure to be the most popular models in the range at R899,800 and R916,100 respectively.
The EX, with a R50,000 saving, feels somewhat lacking alongside its siblings, losing many of the innovative safety features and trick technology in the gauge cluster.
Regardless of the model purchased, you will be interacting with the car through a touchscreen interface – which is Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatible – and voice commands.
All models also come with in-car Wi-Fi thanks to Lexus Connect and a complete app-based telematics system for tracking driving distances, behaviour, and battery health.
The app also lets you make service bookings and summon roadside assistance.
The bottom line
In its price range, the Lexus IS 300h not only has to compete with other premium sedans, but a slew of SUVs.
Although it is just a model update rather than an all-new car, it has teleported a seven-year-old platform into a new dimension.
Enhancements are more than cosmetic, they go deep into the bones of the car to create something truly exceptional, and it was a pleasure to drive.