The first thing that strikes you about the Lexus IS300h F Sport is the way it looks. It’s definitely a car that is capable of attracting attention – particularly in the right colour. Our Celestial Black test car looked simply stunning when it caught a (rare) glimpse of the sun during our time with it. You can tell Lexus has worked hard on the styling of the car to avoid it blending in with the usual drab grey mass of German saloons you find in a typical company car park.
The F sport model in particular with its large trademark spindle grill and aggressive alloy wheels really stands out against the competition. It’s easy to say that this is the best looking model in the Lexus IS range, and in fact everyone that saw the car during my time with it was a fan of the way it looked. So far, so good for the F Sport then.
Step inside and the first things that you notice in the interior of this car are the seats. Our car was fitted the optional Dark Rose leather F Sport seats at a cost of £2,000, and in my opinion they look excellent and provide a nice contrast to the dark exterior. It’s worth noting that the seats are also electrically adjustable, with driver’s side memory, and they’re also heated and ventilated. Slip into the sumptuous leather driver’s seat and you’ll find just the right blend of comfort and support too. The seats are a little firmer than what you used to find in the old second generation Lexus IS, but they also provide considerably more lateral support.
Away from the seats themselves, the interior is genuinely a nice place to be. Everything has a real sense of quality engineering to it in true Lexus style, and there’s a nice weight to the doors as they shut with a nice thud just like you would hope for. Admittedly, there are a few cheaper plastics if you really hunt for them towards the bottom of the doors and the dashboard, but every part of the car that you regularly come into contact with is pleasing to the touch. It’s now nice to see a quality analogue clock in the centre of the dashboard too, as the old digital clock in the 2nd generation IS was a little too 90’s Japanese for my liking. The climate control is also worth mentioning with its unique touch sensitive sliders to control the temperature. Some might call it a bit gimmicky but I think it’s a nice touch. If I were to moan a little bit I’d say the cup holders are in a slightly awkward place, especially if you have a passenger as they are effectively the passenger arm rest. Being an F Sport this car had the dark roof lining which I thought provided a lovely contrast against the dark red leather seats, although this may not be to everyone’s taste.
The new car is larger inside than the old model, finally providing a much more reasonable amount of rear leg room. It’s not a limo by any means but it’s fairly decent now for its class. You can quite happily take four adults in comfort now but you’d still struggle with five thanks to the large transmission tunnel through the middle seat that comes as part of the rear wheel drive chassis. Most driving purists would probably agree that this is a worthwhile sacrifice though. The boot is also slightly bigger than before, which shows how the company’s hybrid technology has improved since the rather small boot on the first Lexus GS450h model. A real bonus in this model is that despite its saloon form factor, Lexus has thoughtfully included split folding rear seats making it much more practical than its ski hatch equipped predecessor. The ability to take larger loads on occasion is of course very welcome.
Along with the Dark Rose leather F Sport seats, our test car had been specified to almost the level of an IS300h Premier. The other options it was fitted with included the wonderful Mark Levinson premium sound system with 15 speakers, plus the Lexus Premium Navigation, metallic paint and the protection pack. This little haul of goodies takes the price up to a staggering £40,425, up from a base price of £32,495. If you fancy yourself as a bit of an audiophile, the Mark Levinson sound system is an absolute must as it simply blows away the standard 6 or premium 8 speaker set up, so long as you dial in the right settings. Do bear in mind though that although this car is fitted with a few rather nice extras, being a Lexus it does come with a whole stash of goodies as standard too, so you’re certainly not left wanting for kit, even without the options.
If you decide do go for the Premium Nav then you get the Lexus “Remote Touch” interface with the joystick to control the infotainment screen. The joystick is definitely something that’s worth trying out on a test drive as while it works quite well for most functions, it can be a little fiddly when for example entering a post code or searching for a point of interest. Best to give it a try and see how you get on with it really. There is also the standard sat nav option available that gives you a much more traditional rotary controller akin to solutions provided by other manufacturers.
As you go to set off and plug your seatbelt in, the driver’s seat slides in and the steering wheel extends out to meet you – a really nice touch and something that in reverse of course is designed to make it easier to get in and out of the car. The only thing I would say though, is that if you’re six foot plus and carrying a rear passenger, make sure you let the rear passenger out first before unplugging your seat belt. You’ll get what I mean if you try it!
With that eerie silence you’ll already know and love if you’re used to driving hybrids the car is ready to go, and it’s nice to be greeted with the LFA inspired instrument cluster from the company’s famous and rare as hens teeth supercar. This particular feature is exclusive to F Sport models and I must say it’s one of my favourite features. To be honest, if you’re into your gadgets then it’s almost worth going for the F Sport just for this. This digital (and motorised) instrument panel is simply a work of art and features many different and lovely graphics that change depending on what driving mode you have the car in. Even simple things like changing the sensitivity of the automatic wipers often presents you with a nice little animation on the screen and it’s little touches like this that really make you think about the attention to detail that’s gone into this car.
On the move and the first thing that becomes apparent is what a great chassis this is. The current generation Lexus IS is still based on the on the same platform as its predecessor, although it has been substantially reworked and you really can tell. This particular model being the F Sport with its sport suspension set up is of course firmer than the rest of the range but I have previously had a chance to drive a Premier model and even the difference with that from the 2nd Generation model is notable. There’s far less body roll and the steering feels more direct. The car also feels more planted at higher speeds and the steering requires less correction when keeping lane on a motorway. Lexus have also done a great job in disguising the extra mass of the Battery packs which now sit in a better position than some previous hybrid models to help with the car’s centre of gravity without compromising on boot space.
Considering its sport suspension, I was pleasantly surprised at the F Sport suspension set up. It’s easy to arrive with the misconception that Lexus had taken a page from the same manual as Audi and BMW with their S Line and M Sport trim levels respectively. Their approach all too often sacrifices ride quality and comfort for the sake of looks, leaving a crashy and uncomfortable ride on British roads. However, I’m pleased to report that this is not the case with the F Sport. Yes it is firmer over bumps as you would expect but it’s certainly not crashy. There’s a certain suppleness to the suspension travel that ensures that car does not move away from the Lexus ethos, yet it still remains perfectly composed and controlled through the twisty bits when you need it to perform. Honestly some may disagree, but I think Audi and BMW could learn a thing or two from how Lexus have set this car up, particularly for the UK anyway. After all, most of us don’t tackle Nordschleife as part of our daily commute do we?
When it comes to outright performance, on paper at least the car is there or there abouts on a par with the old IS250 model and in real life it feels it. You’d be hard pushed to tell the difference aside from lower top speed should you encounter a suitable stretch of Autobahn. Of course, the way the two cars deliver their performance is completely different thanks to the massive difference in engine and gearbox technology. The old IS250 with its petrol V6 engine and conventional 6 speed automatic transmission is a far cry from the hybrid and CVT set up in the IS300h. While the petrol engine is still a 2.5 litre it has lost two cylinders and now runs on the Atkinson cycle. The combined power output of the two motors comes in at 223bhp, up from 204bhp in the IS250. Despite this, and probably due to the extra weight from the hybrid set up, 0-62 mph is down three tenths on the old car to 8.4 seconds, though as I mentioned this is not all that noticeable in the real world. Plus, if 0-62 mph times are of chief concern to you then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere anyway, or maybe at the new IS200t that manages the same sprint in 7 seconds flat.
There has been mixed reports on the use of the CVT gearbox in Toyota and Lexus hybrid models over the last few years so it was interesting to see how the gearbox suited the F Sport model in particular. Can a car with a CVT gearbox really be sporty? The CVT haters out there would tell you no and constantly make references to the DAF 600 of the late 50’s, but I’m pleased to report that as any sensible person would expect, things have moved on a long way since the days of the DAF 600. Indeed, under normal driving conditions, I would actually go so far as saying that the CVT gearbox in the IS300h presents a smoother and more relaxed drive than even the most silky smooth conventional automatic. This of course is due to the lack of gear changes. It’s only when you push on harder that you’ll notice the slightly slow throttle response. Sport mode does counteract this somewhat but it’s still by no means instant. Ninety percent of the time you won’t notice it but try it out for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Lexus have also done their best to counteract some of the complaints regarding strange engine noise in earlier hybrid models equipped with the CVT gearbox. This is not so bad in the IS300h model anyway thanks to its slightly larger capacity engine and improved sound deadening. To counteract this further still, Lexus have employed something called ASC or Active Sound Control. It’s a similar system to one that has been used in quite a few cars before – often due to newer models losing cylinders for a decrease in CO2 emissions. Basically, the system works by pumping a more “sporty” artificial engine sound through the car’s speakers to give the driver a greater sense of occasion when pushing the car harder. This is particularly prevalent when selecting sport mode on the rotary controller and even more so when manual gear change is in use. I actually quite liked it when driving the car more enthusiastically. Having said that, it may be something you want to turn off when on a long motorway trip as in certain modes it actually creates a kind of synthetic exhaust drone. It’s nice to have the option to turn it on and off though and it’s sure to be a case of personal preference.
Manual mode on the gearbox can either make use of the steering wheel mounted paddles or the gear lever when shifted across into sport. It would have been nice if the paddles were metal rather than plastic (a la RCF), but never the less they feel good to use. Speaking of manual mode, I was curious as to how this was going to work when the CVT really doesn’t have individual gears. It turns out that it effectively creates six artificial “gears” by changing the revs and also the noise (presumably using the ASC). It works well enough although there’s not really any point to it in my opinion, other than for a bit of fun. You can actually use the down changes for engine braking though should you so desire. The ASC also appeared to add in the occasional “pop” sound on the gear change while using manual mode which was interesting.
Running costs are clearly an important factor when it comes to this car and its hybrid drive train. If it wasn’t an important factor then you’d probably be looking at the IS200t right? Well, Lexus claim the IS300h can achieve 61.4 mpg on the combined cycle. Of course, as with all manufacturer figures these were achieved under laboratory conditions so we’re not actually expecting to achieve these figures in real life. We tested the car in mixed used conditions with motorway use as well as town driving in the same journey, achieving an average of 47.6 mpg. It’s somewhat shy of the official figures yes, but this car did only have a few hundred miles on the clock so hopefully the petrol engine will loosen up a bit a time goes on. Also, if you consider that this car still has a 2.5 litre petrol engine under the bonnet then knocking on the door of 50 mpg is pretty good going. I can’t see why 50 + mpg wouldn’t be attainable once the car has loosened up a bit with some careful driving. With a full tank on board the car was suggesting a 600 mile plus range was attainable from its 66 litre tank. I didn’t get a chance to confirm this but that’s on a par with many diesels if achievable. The car also emits just 107 g/km of CO2 putting it currently in the £10 per year VED band. Again this is incredibly cheap considering the car and engine size plus the reasonably good performance on offer. If the cheap tax interests you (and why wouldn’t it) I’d advise getting your order in soon before the tax system changes in 2017, when the CO2 emissions will no longer offer any benefit on a year by year basis.
If you’re looking for a compact executive saloon that’s enjoyable and comfortable to drive whilst maintaining excellent fuel economy then the Lexus IS300h could be for you, especially if you’re already a fan of the brand. Lexus continues to build a very loyal following, largely helped by its reputation for build quality, reliability and customer service, and the IS300h certainly stays true to the Lexus brand in my opinion. If you’re considering a compact executive then the Lexus IS300h is well worth a test drive and it makes a tempting proposition for those looking to stand out from the crowd.