The Lexus IS has always been respectable. While perhaps not quite as driver-focused as competing cars like the BMW 3 Series or Audi A4, it’s at least given these segment leaders a run for their money, a sprint for their Euros if you will.
|1. A hybrid drivetrain including a 2.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack deliver total system output of 220 hp.
2. An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) routes power to the rear wheels.
3. Fuel economy clocks in at a combined score of 4.3 L/100 km on the European test cycle. That’s roughly 55 miles per U.S. gallon!
4. The IS 300h will sprint from zero to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 8.3 seconds.
Redesigned for model year 2014, the IS has gained a striking new body and an impressive cockpit. The car is offered in a variety of different flavors from the base model that comes with a 204 horsepower V6 engine to an all-wheel-drive IS 350 F SPORT with 306 ponies.
But there is one model, though it’s not on the menu for American customers. In true Toyota fashion Lexus also offers a hybrid version of the car in certain global markets like Japan and Europe. The IS 300h features an electrified drivetrain centered on a four-cylinder engine.
BURNING AND TURNING
It’s unusual seeing such a tall, narrow powerplant in the IS. We’re accustomed to gazing at wider, lower V-type engines in the car’s forward compartment. Equally strange is the pair of bright orange electrical cables snaking their way along the firewall. They’re firmly attached to the vehicle’s hybrid system like lampreys on the side of a lake trout.
The car’s Atkinson cycle gasoline engine displaces 2.5-liters and delivers an advertised 178 brake horsepower. This modified version of the traditional four-stroke cycle improves efficiency, though at the expense of power output.
In the Atkinson cycle, intake vales don’t close until the compression stroke is underway. This allows some of the air charge to be pushed out of the cylinder before the valves close, increasing the expansion volume for the air-fuel mixture when the spark plug ignites. It’s a little bit confusing, but it works.
Augmenting the ICE (internal-combustion engine) is an electric motor that delivers 141 brake horsepower. More importantly it provides 221 lb-ft of torque. The motor is powered by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack that’s mounted deep in the car’s trunk so it has minimal impact on storage space.
All told, the hybrid drivetrain has a total system output of 220 ponies. That somewhat limited stable allows for a top speed of 125 mph. The jaunt from a standstill to 100 km/h (62 mph) takes a claimed 8.3 seconds, which is hardly neck-snapping.
An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) sends power to the IS 300h’s rear wheels. Remember, this is a sports sedan not a Prius.
EFFICIENCY THAT COUNTS
On the European test cycle the most efficient version of this car, the entry-level SE model, is estimated to deliver a combined fuel-consumption score of 4.3 L/100 km, with C02 emissions of just 99 grams per click. In American terms all that jazz equates to roughly 55 MPG. See? They really did trade performance for efficiency.
In US terms, that will certainly be a good chunk lower. The ES 300h makes use of a nearly identical powertrain and delivers 40 MPG combined – a massive improvement over even the base IS250 model, which is rated at just 24 MPG combined.
Like many vehicles these days the IS 300h offers customizable drive settings. There’s an Eco mode that maximizes economy, a Normal setting as well as Sport and Sport S. The latter two allow that CVT to be operated by paddle shifters on the steering wheel, mimicking a conventional stepped gearbox. Under deceleration, the transmission functions with six forward speeds to emulate engine braking normally associated with manual transmissions.
One hokey-sounding feature – literally – is something called Active Sound Control. Basically since the hybrid drivetrain is so quiet and/or lacking in pleasant noise, engineers fitted a dedicated speaker inside the car’s cabin. It broadcasts synthesized engine sounds that correspond with acceleration and deceleration; it even works in electric-only mode.
Lame? Yes. But if the BMW M5 can do it, it’s hard to criticize this copycat Lexus too much.
The IS’s chassis is much more involving than most other hybrids out there. Of course something like a Porsche 918 is a different story, but the IS 300h is far better than, say, a Prius v. It feels like regular versions of the car, just slower.
Driven on a short autocross course, the standard version of the IS hybrid steers and stops pretty much like it should, but acceleration is a little lacking and the tiller’s responsiveness could be sharper. It’s adequate but hammering the right-most pedal will only return leisurely speed increases. Such is the price of efficiency.
For instance, the IS 250 is powered by a 204 horsepower V6. It puts out fewer ponies than the 300h’s hybrid system but it still delivers considerably better performance. The IS 250 will accelerate from zero to 60 miles an hour in about 7.7 seconds, which about half a second quicker than the hybrid IS. And don’t even think about comparing it to the IS 350. Rear-wheel-drive models of this car will accomplish the same feat in a claimed 5.6 seconds.
In spite of its speed deficit the hybrid’s silence is appreciated while creeping along at low speeds.
Upping the fun factor an F Sport version of the IS 300h is also available. These cars feature steering and chassis enhancements for better handling. They also receive things like exclusive 18-inch alloy wheels, a bolder looking mesh grille and LED fog lamps.
Of course the F Sport interior gets a number of upgrades including a special steering wheel, aluminum pedals and sport seats.
COME ON IN
Inside the Lexus IS 300h features basically the same interior as other IS models. The materials are of high quality and the fit and finish is commendable, though the design does seem overly busy.
Perhaps for a little contrast the car’s instrument cluster is rather plain, with letters and numbers presented in an inoffensive font typical of Lexus. Instead of a proper tachometer there’s a meter that indicates what’s going on with the hybrid system, whether the battery is charging or the motorist is driving economically.
It’d be nice if the F Sport’s unique gauges were standard in all IS models. It’s practically the same unit as found in the company’s LFA supercar. It features a digital display and a very unique sliding center section the moves depending on what the screen is showing.
Lexus’ IS 300h comes across as something of an odd duck. It delivers impressive fuel economy but the performance of this “sports” sedan is somewhat lacking, even compared to the base IS 250 model, which is no rocket.
Unfortunately for customers in North America the car is off limits, though this might actually be a blessing in disguise. Lexus already offers several other hybrid models in its lineup and making a business case for yet another gasoline-electric probably doesn’t add up. The car is pretty pricey, anyway.
For example in Great Britain the IS 300h starts at just about £30,000, which at today’s exchange rate works out to more than $47,000. Sure, a large chunk of that is probably tax but still, we’ll pass.