Despite the fact that it is tainted for some by a certain comedy character who resides in Norfolk, it’s a good thing Lexus exists right now. Because since Alfa, Volvo and Saab all but gave up, the IS 300h is about the only genuine alternative to a German premium brand in the medium, executive sized saloon segment.
In fact, this sector - where its rivals are namely the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4 - is one where the Lexus IS has always been a choice to scribe on the shortlist. The first generation IS in the 90s was a design leader - spawning a world of aftermarket clear lens lamps imitations, and intricate, watch-face-like dials from other manufacturers.
The last generation was a handsome rear drive saloon that was only a better interior and a dash of refinement behind a BMW 3-Series. So what of this new generation Lexus IS? Partridge-worthy rep mobile, or genuine Mercedes rival?
The first thing you won't help but be able to note are the arresting looks of this new IS. Sure, our test car came in the blingest F-Sport trim and in a rather fantastic shade of blue, but whichever IS 300h you plump for, you’ll get the same eye-catching basic form.
Lexus has carefully developed its design language - known as L-Finesse - but with this new generation of models things have taken a real up-tick in an effort to stand out against the confident yet conservative Germans.
And it has really worked. The IS 300h features rear-wheel drive, so the proportions are pretty spot on; those massive Nike swoosh-shaped running lamps are like nothing else on the road and so long as you don’t mind a dose of visual aggression, that full depth spindle grille will give any Audi a fight in the "I’m going to gobble up your rear bumper" stakes.
Perhaps more importantly, Lexus has got the design basics right. The wheels sit tight in their arches, the surfacing and shut lines are impeccable, the details are like small jewels. Net result? It might look aggressive in this trim, but it also makes the German opposition look dull. If you want to stand out then look no further. Lexus is onto a winner.
Outside and in
Jump into the driver’s seat and the standout design story continues. It’s a bit less successful - the overall design is much less cohesive with myriad of material finishes that feel a little plasticky compared to the best you’ll find in an Audi - but overall it’s still a good place to be.
And Lexus makes up for any issues with a couple of standout features. The first items of note are the seats, true figure-hugging affairs with perforated leather and some natty stitching. We loved sitting in them.
Snuggle down and press the start button and the next surprise and delight feature is the dashboard, which fires to life with an array of digital information on the previously blank screen. The central circular gauge contains a big power rev counter, with a digital speedo in the middle. Properly HD is its resolution too, Lexus lifting the basic idea and graphics from its £300,000 LFA hyper-car to great effect.
Better is still to come in this department though, as press a button on the steering wheel and the main gauge shuttles to the right - literally, it physically moves - covering the screen to its side and revealing another bigger one to the left in the process. This larger screen can now display things like the satnav turn-by-turn directions. Yes, it sounds like a gimmick, but it’s done in such a slick way that you don’t care. And we never got bored of it. Jumping into a new 3-Series following our week with the Lexus IS felt like stepping back in time.
Completing the interior niceties are a pair of electrostatic-touch sensitive sliders for adjusting the temperature of the climate system. We thought these might be the kind of thing that looked nice in a showroom but were a pain on the road, but the reality was they work well. Passengers used them without explanation too, which is always a good litmus test.
Sadly, all else is not well in the Lexus’s interface department, as the IS 300h still gets the company’s remote touch control mouse for the 7-inch central display. This consists of a small, square controller ahead of a wrist rest, and floats around with you physically pushing it off centre to the left, right, up and down to control the mouse on screen. To help you click stuff, it locks onto buttons you can select on screen like a magnet.
But the floating quality of the mouse-puck still makes for a frustrating experience. And while you do get somewhat used to it, even after a week it feels clunky, unnatural and - to be honest - at times distracting. And given that graphics on the gauges are so good, it’s a shame the ones on the satnav map and centre screen aren’t a little more advanced. The new Merc C-Class’s on screen graphics are going to make this look distinctly second rate.
Still, you’re not exactly wanting for tech equipment in the IS. Flick between eco, normal and sport modes, listen to DAB radio - assuming you can find the station via the fiddly menu - and avoid backing into things via the rear-view camera. It's all here.
All the while your bottom will be warmed in the leather seats, your way will be lit by bi-xenon lamps and you’ll be able to simultaneously play music from an MP3 player or stick, while charging your phone as thanks to the two USB ports in the centre bin. We mention all of these things as they’re the kind of things you pay extra for on pretty much every model of 3-Series, C-Class or A4.
Swings and roundabouts
Historically, it’s been out on the road where previous Lexus IS models have fallen down again the opposition. You get the impression that with this new model Lexus thought long and hard about how it wants to position this car relative to them and thus how it feels to drive. The result is a bit of a mix. A swings and roundabouts affair you might say.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. The ride, on the 18-inch wheels of our F-Sport model at least, was firm with a capital F. Too firm in our view. But so is any of the opposition, bereft of fancy adaptive dampers that most people don’t buy. Just consider your priorities on the looks/ride compromise carefully when speccing an IS 300h.
The most important difference between the IS and any of the German cars is the engine and gearbox. Lexus is moving towards being an entirely hybrid brand, so you can’t get a diesel IS. Whereas pretty much every 3-Series, C-Class and A4 sold is a diesel. The benefit of this is the IS 300h’s uber-low CO2 (just 109g/km), and the fact that - as with most hybrids - you can travel a certain way on electric power and sneak up silently on pedestrians. Which is amusing at 2mph and also dangerous when they walk out in front of you without looking at any faster speed.
Out on faster roads, press on, and you will have to contend with the CVT transmission that the engine and electric motor combine through. This means that when you mash your foot into the floor you get a sudden, extreme rise in revs and corresponding interruption to serene proceedings. In fairness to Lexus, it’s much better than it was - and far better than Toyota’s is in the Prius. But it’s still a little uncouth at times. However, the benefit is that once you’ve settled at speed it’s extremely refined because the engine isn’t always on, and if you’re careful fuel economy is exceptional.
To please those wanting a more sporty drive, Lexus has fitted a multi-mode selector in the IS 300h. in sports mode you get a big red-and-white rev counter in the gauge cluster which looks great, and the Lexus hustles reasonably well with a relatively nice steering weight and, to our surprise, somewhat tail-led handling. The accelerator response in sports mode is quite spikey, which means that when you give it a bootful in the corner in the wet, the IS can snap sideways quite suddenly. A combination of low-profile summer tyres, cold weather and driving rain probably didn’t help and it’s not dangerous, because the ESP wakes up and saves you, but we are still somewhat amused that a Lexus hybrid has actually got a playful side.
Finally of note is the fact that you are no longer punished for selecting the hybrid powertrain, as the battery pack doesn’t intrude into the boot space on this new generation IS. Plenty of space.
Considering our criticisms of the CVT gearbox, the hard ride, some of the interior materials and the remote touch control’s ability to drive us irate, you’re probably preparing for the predictable "buy a German car" verdict.
But whereas objectively the current BMW 3-Series is still a better car than the Lexus IS, compared to the ageing Audi A4, things aren’t so clear cut. We’ll ignore the C-Class as a new one arrives within a couple of months and we’ve not driven it on the road yet.
Regardless, there is something beguiling and impressive about this Lexus that transcends its driving dynamics. While it’s not quite perfect, it wins you over by looking and feeling special. Stepping back into our 3-Series after a week with the Lexus made the BMW feel dull. Genuinely. We never thought we’d think it, nor write it, but the Lexus IS feels more special than the BMW 3-Series.
And while its tech is far from perfect, we admire Lexus for trying new things. Which is one of the reasons why it receives such a high score. By all means, make sure you try the default alternatives to see which best suites your taste, but if you fancy something different, something with wow factor and that steps beyond ordinary, then you need to try this Lexus. The Japanese Mercedes indeed.