First Drives

21 May 2013

First drive: the new Lexus IS300h

Finally a decent alternative to a 3-Series or A4? Paul Horrell finds out...

Paul Horrell
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It's pretty hard to talk about the all-new Lexus IS300h without using the word 'alternative'. Not alternative as in 'left-field' or 'edgy' or 'your mum wouldn't get it' – it most definitely isn't those things. But alternative as in alternative to a BMW 3-Series. Alternative to an Audi A4. Alternative to what almost everyone else chooses when spending on a compact-ish four-door: a German two-litre diesel.

So it looks a bit different. It's all about peaceful surfaces with distinctive details. At the front, that translates into a big waisted grille and islands of swoosh-LEDs. At the back, the light clusters seem to emerge from a slash in the bodywork.

Indoors, you've got an unusual and rather fetching 3-dimensional dash shape. Since it's a Lexus, the quality of materials is pretty fine and the list of equipment goes on and on. The F-sport version has vaguely similar reconfigurable clocks to the ones in the LFA, and most excellent sports seats too.

That's got the word sport twice into the same sentence. Which makes me sound like I've been taking deep draughts of their PR refreshment. They want us to think of the new IS as a sporty car.

A little switch buried under the steering column activates a loudspeaker that emits a synthesised 'engine' noise, which rises proportionally with road speed. It has nothing whatever to do with the true rpm, it's entirely synthetic.

Well to an extent, it is. Especially in the F-sport version with slightly stiffened chassis: the steering is sharp and the handling slop-free. It has a happy hunger for bends and roundabouts, eventually melting into an appropriate mild understeer when you're after the last drop.

But then we get onto the engine. Because Lexus wants to build a different kind of sporty car, it has made the 300h a hybrid, while almost everyone in Europe is buying diesels. There's another reason fir this decision: Lexus is painfully aware parent company Toyota's diesel engines aren't as good as the Germans'.

So the IS300h has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and hybrid drive. Together they make up to 220bhp. Good on paper; more power than the rival 2.0 diesels anyway. But the Lexus/Toyota hybrid system depends for its efficiency on the engine revving up and down in a way that's almost entirely unrelated to road speed. On a twisty road you lose all sense of your speed on the way into a corner. Then as you accelerate away again, its answer to the accelerator is squidgy and unsatisfying. Not sporty, then.

But the engineers have come up with an answer. A little switch buried under the steering column activates a loudspeaker that emits a synthesised 'engine' noise, which rises proportionally with road speed. It even has six frequency steps controlled by steering wheel paddles. To stress: it has nothing whatever to do with the true rpm, it's entirely synthetic.

But it does offer you an auditory clue of speed. You can play games: do an upshift and hear the synthesised sound lower its pitch, while the real rpm, as evidenced by the tacho, keeps rising. It's bizarre and it's a gimmick but sometimes it helps you engage more with the car. Pity they didn't sample the LFA's V10 howl...

But the need for such jiggery-pokery only emphasises the fundamental incompatibility of the Lexus CVT hybrid system with sporty driving (geared hybrids like the Porsche 918 and BMW i8 are, of course, a different and much sharper kettle of piranhas).

No, the Lexus hybrid system is best for greasing silently through town, or gentle suburban driving, when the petrol engine is far quieter than a diesel and anyway is often switched off while the e-motor does the work. And used that way, it's also guiltlessly economical. It gives an amazing 25.5kpl in the official test, for 103g/km. (There's a narrow-tyred entry version that does 27.9kpl and 99g/km). On the other hand, drive it with much vim and it's nowhere near as thrifty as the rival diesels.

Wouldn't it have been better then to forget all the sporty get-up? Instead of attempting to be a fantasy racer for the twisting empty roads of our fond imagination, it could have had really soft suspension and become a uniquely relaxing and comfy insulator against the traffic-choked aggro that most driving really is. Opt for the version without the F-sport chassis and you're getting closer.

Tags: lexus, is300h

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