2013 Lexus IS 300h F-Sport review, specs and pictures

Mike Duff
20 May 2013
Verdict:

Lexus has decided not to replace the IS220d - instead offering this petrol hybrid version. Should the BMW 320d be worried?

Evo Rating: 
Price: 
£33,495
For 
Far sharper to drive than the old IS
Against 
Slurry CVT transmission, lack of overtaking performance

What is the Lexus IS?

The all-new Lexus IS, now with added hybrid goodness. Because, in a break with the way the European car market is going, Lexus has opted not to replace the previous-generation IS220d diesel. Instead we’ve got the new IS 300h, which uses a four-cylinder petrol engine in conjunction with an electric motor, with Lexus claiming it can match both the performance and economy of diesel rivals. 

That’s the idea, anyway – although Lexus will also be selling a cheaper six-cylinder IS 250 for anyone who regards the petrol-electric version as being either too exciting, or too expensive.

The range is priced from £26,495 for the basic IS 250 through to £38,495 for the bells-and-whistles IS 300h Premier.

Technical highlights?

It’s fair to say that the IS300h is the most tech-laden car in the segment. The petrol side of its powertrain is a 2.5-litre direct injection four-cylinder that runs on the Atkinson Cycle – closing its valves later to delay compression and therefore creating a higher expansion ratio for less compression. This turns a constantly variable CVT transmission – which includes the option of pretend ‘stepped’ gears - with power augmented by a 105kW electric motor, with drive supplied to the rear wheels. Total combined output is a claimed 220bhp, considerably more than the BMW 320d can muster.

The hybrid system is claimed to add around 60kg to the weight of the IS300h, with its battery pack now positioned under the boot floor. And to improve the sound of the car, Lexus has installed one of the increasingly fashionable active systems, with synthesised engine note supplied through a dedicated loudspeaker in the cabin – even when the car is running in pure electric mode. CO2 emissions are claimed to be just 99g/km, translating into a 65.7mpg combined economy figure. Not particularly sexy, but great news for company car drivers.

Another clever first is the use of part-bonded bodywork, with adhesive used to supplement conventional spot welding and increase rigidity. 

How does it drive?

Lexus was very keen to show us video of the new IS lapping hard at the Nurburgring, and it certainly feels like a car that’s been set up with extensive time on the Nordschliefe – the company claims a fair percentage of the one million development miles the IS drove were completed there.

This has created a very fine-handling car. Indeed, even on first impressions we’d be happy to say that the new IS feels markedly more athletic than any of its predecessors, with the exception of the mighty IS-F. The steering has linear responses and a decent weight to it, the ride is both firm and supple, with exceptionally good damping evident on the few rough patches of our Austrian test route. Grip levels are impressively high, too – and although the IS loses adhesion at the front before the back, it tightens its line nicely when called upon to do so by a lifted throttle. Even driving it at everyday speeds, you can imagine how quickly a proper test pilot must be able to hustle it around the ‘Ring.

The powertrain delivers far fewer driving thrills. The big problem is the CVT transmission which, although better than most of its ilk, still slurs and sets the engine racing when asked to deliver acceleration. Put your foot down and there’s a noticeable delay until the transmission adjusts its gearing, and then you have to listen to the engine thrumming away as you gather speed. The assistance you would expect the electric motor to give at this point feels barely evident; indeed the hybrid IS proved to be sometimes worryingly lacking in overtaking urge. 

The gearbox’s ‘shiftmatic’ mode, which gives some pretend fixed ratios for the transmission, is barely any better, with the gearing still sliding around as you throttle on or off. Once it reaches cruising speeds, the IS 300h is fine – the engine throttles back and the cabin becomes almost whisper quiet. But under hard use it really doesn’t feel any more refined than rival diesel powerplants.

The brakes are also slightly disappointing. The hybrid IS combines both regenerative braking, when it uses its electric motor to harvest energy, with conventional hydraulically-gripped discs. Like many such systems it struggles to blend the two at low speeds, meaning it’s really hard to stop smoothly.

How does it compare?

Considering the amount of technology its carrying, the Lexus looks like decent value compared to its obvious rivals. The IS 300h F-Sport costs £33,495, which compares well to the £32,935 that BMW demands for the 320d M-Sport automatic, especially as the Lexus comes with considerably more standard kit.

But, behind the savings for company car tax and zero-rated road tax, we’d also be surprised if the IS300h proves able to deliver anything like its official economy figures in everyday use. According to the admittedly unscientific method of resetting the trip meter we recorded just 31mpg for a combination of 80mph motorway cruise and traffic-filled country roads. If that translates into ‘real world’ figures then buyers are going to be disappointed.

Anything else I should know?

The car’s styling won’t be to all tastes, it’s fair to say, with a thick plastic element splitting the headlights. This looks far better in dark colours than light ones. The excessive elongation of the rear lights also makes the car look shorter than it is – it’s actually longer than both the old car and the BMW 3-series. 

The active sound system is very strange - creating a decent impression of a V6 yowl that sounds immediately false when you remember what's behind it. We quickly opted to turn it off.

 

Specifications

Engine 2494cc four-cylinder, petrol plus electric motor
Max power 220bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque 163lb-ft @ 4200rpm
0-60 8.3-sec (claimed 0-62mph)
Top speed 125 mph (claimed)
On sale Summer 2013

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