Updated: August 13, 2016
As you know, non-European cars are somewhat under-represented on Dedoimedo. It is not intentional, as most of my driving takes me where the likes of Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, or Skoda are much easier to come by. Plus, in general, given my past (and vast) experience, I find the overall formula to how cars are realized and how they behave on the road on the Old Continent to be superior to the American, Japanese or Korean concepts.
Which is why it is fascinating that I happened to drive a Lexus IS 300H for a few days. Lexus is a premium Toyota-owned brand, and it aims at the executive market normally reigned by the holy trinity of Audi, Mercedes and BMW. But there's always the question of snobbery and badge appeal. Or perhaps, not. Let us see what Lexus can do for us.
Lexus IS 300H is a four-door saloon, competing against the likes of BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C Class. The car comes equipped with a four-cylinder petrol engine displacing roughly 2.5 liters, unassisted by forced aspiration, and an electric motor. The carbon unit generates 181 HP and only 221 Nm of torque at high revs - roughly comparable to what Audi A1 does from a tiny but fierce 1.4-liter turbo engine, while the other motor delivers 105 KW and 300 Nm of torque, thus making it a hybrid! You know my perception on hybrids, but then I tried to be objective when I reviewed Toyota Prius not that long ago, and found it, for what it's worth, to be a rather acceptable family car. In fact, come to think of it, I've so far only reviewed Toyota plus two Koreans brands outside the European playground. We shall hopefully expand soon.
Anyhow, the physics of the whole thing is a little complicated, so the total output is actually something like 223 HP and a varying degree of torques. The power is transmitted to the rear wheels using a CVT box, similar to the one we sampled in the Prius. Can it drive? We shall see.
But Lexus being a premium brand is mostly NOT about the engine. Our vehicle was kitted with the Executive level of trim. To be frank, it is very hard to differentiate between the different levels, as the changes are tiny and subtle. All of them, regardless if you go with Comfort, Eco, Executive, Sport, or F Sport offer a wealthy and generous package.
With the Executive trim, you get electric door mirrors and all four windows, Xenon headlights, LED DRL and fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, 225/45 R 17 tires plus alloys, Drive Mode Select, a whole bunch of safety equipment acronyms, eight airbags, lane departure warning, adaptive headlight, adaptive cruise control, a 7-inch media display plus navigation, six speakers, an analog clock to satisfy the upper class git in your soul, Bluetooth connectivity, and two USB ports. This whole lot will cost you about EUR40,000. That's a respectable sum.
Cast your eye upon thee Lexus
Please do not correct the grammar, please do not. Ah, too late. Lexus IS 300H is a sort of pretty car. It does have a hybrid look between BMW 3/5 Series and Honda Accord. It is a distinctively Japanese look, very sleek, sporty and low in profile, but with hints of sophistication and class that actually work quite well. The end result is a car that feels smaller than it really is.
It is 4.65 meters long, matching the 3 Series, and the width is more or less the same, but again, you'd never guess it just by looking at the car on its own. The boot space of 450 liters is another testament to the car's size, even with a rear-wheel drive and electric motor, which do not hamper the luggage area in any way. There's enough room for a few suit cases and bags. Nice. Nothing the likes of Skoda Superb, of course. Nothing compares really. Nothing compares. To Superb.
The silver color is a little drab, but then, some cars don't really work in bright and happy tones. Overall, it is a nice and elegant vehicle, and you would assume there's a wild, sporty heart somewhere under the hood. That verdict comes a little later in the review.
Sitting on the Lexus throne
The interior is quite pleasant. It feels posh, although the black-on-black combo, despite metal trim furnishing designed to infuse a bit of motion into the cabin, feels a little dull. The seats have a buckety character, and you immerse yourself ever so snugly into them, to realize that your driving position is low, sporty, and somewhat cramped. The very high aisle adds to the feel of tightness, even though it's just the matter of perception.
The seats are covered in leather, and they can be heated. The driving environment is decent, everything is within easy reach, but the overall ergonomics is a bit confusing, or at the very least, different from what you might be used to in a typical Merc or BMW. You have two rotary dials, one which controls the media system, the other being used to change driving modes. It takes a little while figuring out what does what and when, especially some of the buttonage on the steering wheel.
The steering wheel is grippy and fun, and it comes with flappy paddles for snazzy gear changes. The dashboard is clear enough, but again, there's vagueness in the presentation layer. First, depending on what mode you choose, the left counter will change between EV charge economy and engine revs. Second, I struggled operating the info display. It was just ever so weird.
Probably the biggest let down of the interior is the navigation system, though. It was decidedly inferior to its purpose. The layout feels outdated, it is slow to respond, and it often lagged between what it was telling and showing us. We would often be instructed to turn whereas the map was still showing some good 200 m left before the actual junction. Driving in Amsterdam, with its bevy of tiny roads, we had to backtrack more than a couple of times. To be fair, the city is complex enough that even a speeding ambulance in front of us got confused at some point. But that does not exonerate the satnav.
The dual-zone climate control was good, the noise level inside was fairly low, we were able to sync an iPhone with the media system without a hitch, and after a while, settled into a pleasant, calm, laid back driving experience. The navigation never improved, and in Eindhoven, even failed to get us to our destination. I had to pull out my venerable Nokia with its superior HERE Maps to actually save the day.
I was also annoyed by the fact the parking brake is actually a foot brake. This is very American, but then, Lexus probably makes more sense in the US than it does in, say Norway or Austria. Mercedes C 220 had the same thing back in the day, and it's a terrible concept. Less so in a hybrid where you only get two pedals, but with a manual, well, 'tis frightening.
The rest of it was all cushty. The analog clock is probably the most useless thing in the world. The same issue plagues the likes of VW Passat. Maybe 90-year old buyers dig this kind of snazz. It's almost like wearing bling bling to a funeral. Parking sensors and the camera did their duty diligently, and we did not come into close encounter of the fourth kind with any other vehicle. However, it looks and behaves like the system used in Prius. To top it off, loud music, leather seats, climate control, and soft ride, we were like pimps.
Driving - You have been warned
I have a Jamaican friend who happens to own both a BMW X5 and a Lexus IS 300H. I asked him, how does one drive a Lexus? And he told me, very leisurely. No rush, no pressure, you cannot go wild with the car, you cannot execute sharp maneuvers or overtakes, it's not about speed, precision, grip, handling, or acceleration. I didn't want to believe him.
Then, I started driving, and over the course of the next 550 km, I learned the lesson the hard way. For the lack of a better word, the experience is disappointing. First, you cannot feel the road. The mechanical forces exerted on the car are neutered when they reach your feet and hands, becoming vague and tardy. The car swallows bumps and undulations, but you can't really tell the texture of the road. Through corners, there's an artificial, digital weight to the steering wheel, and you don't know if you're going to turn in tidily or slip out. More than once, I was forced to break hard into a roundabout, because the car had started drifting out, feeling like a dead weight without any grip.
The throttle is slow to respond. I thought it had to do with the driving mode, but even if you switch into the Sport mode nothing really changes. The paddles don't really make any difference. Shifting gears does nothing, and the CVT simply maintains constant revs. This is so counterintuitive that the official 8.4-sec 0-100 km/h feels like eternity. You have no perception of speed, and you must look at the dashboard to know how fast you're going.
Engine braking and energy recuperation also happens almost haphazardly, with the car gliding at first and then dragging heavily. You don't get the sense of natural deceleration. All combined, you cannot really drive the Lexus the way you would a typical executive, be it a BMW or a Mercedes or any other car. You must carefully time the execution, and the less force you apply, the better. Slow, smooth, gentle, no rush, no fun.
Compare this with BMW 330d, if you will. For roughly the same number of horses, if a different figure of torques, the BMW will take you from 0-100 km/h in just 5.3 seconds, with a brisk, snappy, surgical response, a decidedly marked difference between driving modes, a pleasant engine grunt, and a solid feel of spaceship acceleration in your back. Even C 220 with just 140 diesel horses will match the IS 300H 0-100 numbers. The CVT box is probably the biggest culprit, as it makes the application of physical forces completely dead. Devoid of any pleasure.
Lexus IS 300H is highly comfortable. Even after long hours spent driving, we felt fresh and relaxed, and there was no pain anywhere. The car provides entertainment and finesse. Alas, it does nothing to make you enjoy the drive. Absolutely nothing. Finally, despite all the refinement in the economy space, which includes a nifty 0.26cx drag coefficient, hybrid powerplant, and all the other magical ingredients designed to make people feel less guilty about their existence, or just highly fashionable, you don't really save the planet that much, if at all. To be fair, my driving was less than gentle. All right, it was brutal, angry, frustrated, with tons of revs, trying, hoping to squeeze some kind of fun from the car. Even so, we still spent a whole lot of time on radar-enforced roads, cruising at only 100-120 km/h, used aircon sparingly, and managed to burn roughly 10 liters/100 km.
This makes the official fuel figures highly questionable. But they probably include an EV-only part, which ignores the part where the batteries need charging, and probably conducted at a lazy 88 km/h, with no aircon, and ship like acceleration. If you're into anything but lethargic inertia, you will burn far, far more. And then, diesel makes more sense, plus torque, plus joy and all that.
Nothing bad happened on the way to the forum.
Lexus IS 300H is a car designed for people who want class, gadgets and style. If driving experience is anywhere but at the bottom of your list, then you do not want this car. Honestly, you will only be disappointed. It drives in a very relaxed manner, almost dangerously so. It is designed to cosset the driver from the rough elements, and all the inputs are smothered before they reach your fingertips. As a result, it's like gliding a hovercraft over ice while wearing oven mittens. Fuel economy is nothing to be proud about, either.
My logic tells me that 2.5 liters plus electric ought to give me far, far more fun. A car with a dial that reads Sport should sportize my senses. It can look as posh as it gets, but there must be physics involved. Alas, no. I like the looks, inside and outside, the cabin is comfortable, but that's about as much raw pleasure you get. Even the navigation system is slow, to match the driving style you must exercise in this car. Bottom line, if you're after the presentation layer, yes, by all means, get a Lexus, if you like the visuals more than a typical Euro executive. But if you value the actual act of driving, then you are better off with an Audi or a BMW. Any one, really. Overall, I find this a tricky car to recommend or justify, and the high price does not help my moral compass, either. 5/10. Maybe one day someone will let me take an LFA for a spin. We're done here.