What is it?
Lexus’s entry into that fierce bloodbath that almost defines whether a brand can succeed as premium: the compact sports saloon. For if you can make it against the 3-Series and C-Class and A4, you’ll get great visibility on the road, and a decent chance of drawing buyers into bigger cars later. Lexus has been conventional enough in many respects: the size and the chassis and the rear-drive layout are bang on the money. But the drivetrain choices are pretty eccentric: no diesel, but instead a 2.5-litre petrol with hybrid for the IS 300h giving fine economy and CO2, and a thirsty and none too powerful petrol V6 in the IS 250.
For gentle running, the hybrid powertrain is fine. It’s extremely quiet, and the CVT slurs away almost unnoticeably. This is the way to get excellent economy, although we do wish the hybrid system defaulted to electric more often. Trouble is, when you demand any performance, the system feels laggy, and the rise and fall of the revs is disconcertingly out of sync with changes in road speed. It’s acceptable for occasional overtaking, but no fun on a twisty road. And yet the chassis is very capable of being thrown around. Almost invites it, actually, thanks to well-damped body motions, sharp steering and good balance. And the ride isn’t at all bad. It’s firm-ish, but traverses most sharp road events with quiet equanimity. The bodykitted F-Sport gets useful extra spec for drivers: sportier seats, adaptive dampers and clever reconfigurable instruments, as well as a noise synthesiser to cover up some of the oddball revving behaviour.
On the inside
Fine build quality and decent materials have always been part of the Lexus proposition. This time it comes with a dose of design flair too. The dials are clear, with plenty of information to help you get the best economy from the hybrid system. You get a good stereo to take advantage of the quiet mechanicals, with the option of an excellent Mark Levinson upgrade. In the back, legroom is OK thanks to a longer wheelbase, but foot and head room are still tight.
Lexus is renowned for dependability and the quality of the dealers: customers are happy bunnies. And the durability of the hybrid system is proven by thousands of Priuses. Costs are contained in other ways: depreciation is on par with diesel automatic rivals from Germany, but company car tax is significantly lower: the base model even slips under 100g/km, although the wide tyres of all the others push up thirst and deny them that rating. Even so, over 60mpg for every single hybrid version is impressive.