Lexus IS 300h (2021) Launch Review

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Lexus has launched its thoroughly revised IS in South Africa. In a declining segment of the market, in which the Japanese sports executive is pitched directly against formidable German rivals, does the new IS do enough to win over potential customers? We headed to Johannesburg to drive the newcomer. 

The Lexus IS is Japan’s answer to the Teutonic triumvirate of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. That's some stiff competition right there, but don’t forget the svelte Jaguar XE!

Lexus seemingly has its back against the wall with the IS; not only because of the quality of the opposition, but a luxury-sedan market that's steadily declining. Reduced affordability is a factor, but so is the meteoric rise of the SUV... The Audi Q5 is outselling the A4, customers favour the X3 over the 3 Series, and despite the C-Class still commanding substantial sales, the GLC and GLB are proving popular. 

Where does this leave Lexus with the substantially revised IS model? Of course, the brand has its own SUV arsenal with the UX, NX, RX and LX, which cater for customers who want crossovers or SUVs of various sizes, but as for the IS, which is a legacy product, this latest version needs to bring something special to the market if it hopes to thrive...

What’s new?

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The new Lexus IS 300h range, with the F Sport left and SE on the right.

While it's officially tagged as a facelift, we’d go as far as to say there are enough updates to the IS for it to qualify as a nearly-new model. The looks have been sharpened dramatically; even the non-F-Sport derivatives ooze kerb presence. The F-Sport naturally draws the most attention, with its striking body kit and gorgeous wheels (our test unit was clad in the stunning Polaris Blue finish you see here). 

The real changes are under the Japanese contender's sheet metal, however. Lexus says this IS was developed at the country-road test course of Toyota's new technical facility in Shimoyama, Japan. Interestingly, this track is based on the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife, which gives you some idea of how much dynamic development has been invested in the newcomer. There's an interesting quote by the chief engineer of the IS programme, Naoki Kobayashi, who said: "What we had foremost in mind in developing the new IS was to make it a car that excelled in communicating with the driver regardless of the road conditions or driving situation. We aimed to make the new IS a Lexus compact sports sedan that provides high-quality riding comfort while offering a high level of vehicle control." 

Given how one protagonist in this segment (ahem, the 3 Series) prides itself on the ability to deliver sheer driving pleasure (although the new G20 generation model is arguably more luxury car than sports sedan), it's refreshing that traditionally conservative Lexus is determined to make the IS as engaging to drive as possible... well, within reason. We could easily fill the page by listing all the intricate detail changes, but that would be boring for most readers. To summarise, extensive work has been done on the vehicle's chassis and suspension, plus the new IS sits lower and wider for optimised handling. 

The cabin gets a nip and tuck too (as expected), with the (now touch-sensitive) infotainment screen being repositioned closer to the driver. There are also new materials and trim and for 2 out of the 3 derivatives, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, which is virtually guaranteed to enthral audiophiles, comes as standard. 

2021 Lexus IS Specifications, Features and Pricing

What’s on offer?

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The cabin of the Lexus IS300h F Sport. There are other interior trim colours, other than white.

The South African arm of Lexus offers its new sports executive sedan in 3 levels of trim, with one powertrain across the range. Sadly for fans of the throaty 3.5-litre V6 and punchy 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol motors, the new-gen car has just the single-engine option: a 2.5-litre 4-cylinder petrol-electric hybrid. Lexus is forging ahead with its hybrid strategy as the world's car industry gradually shifts to electrification and the result is the IS range being hybrid-only. We did ask about the performance Lexus IS 500, but local availability hinges on whether this model is green-lit for right-hand-drive production.

The power unit has a total output of 164 kW, with the 2.5-litre petrol engine delivering 133 kW and 221 Nm of torque. An electric motor makes up the difference. The combination drives the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Claimed fuel economy is 5.2 L/100 km and Lexus reckons the new IS 300h is good for a 0-100 kph sprint time of 8.7 sec and a top speed of 200 kph.

There are 3 derivatives to choose from – EX, SE, and F Sport, with the differences focusing on features. The F-Sport version gets a visual boost with an aggressive body kit that really looks the part.

What’s it like to drive?

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The new Lexus IS' bold and aggressive design is impressive, especially in F Sport guise.

With such dynamic-focused mechanical changes, we weren’t sure what to expect from the newcomer. Granted, a hybrid powertrain’s modus operandi is on the polar opposite of anything remotely dynamic (even if the IS 300h is rear-wheel-driven), but the powertrain is just one cog in the wheel of driving engagement – variables such as steering, chassis and suspension response come into play as well. 

Our launch route took us through Johannesburg's northern suburbs, before reaching the sweeping roads of the Cradle of Humankind, where we could test the car's cornering prowess. With our mobile devices connected to the IS' modernised infotainment system and Android Auto in operation, we made the most of the IS 300h's hybrid powertrain. It cleverly disengages the petrol engine on downhills and while the sedan's coasting to intersections, all of which helps to save fuel without you having to do anything other than have a "light right foot". It will also pull away quietly in full-electric mode, only switching to the petrol engine once you get up to speed, or when you have to accelerate briskly. If you adapt your driving style to complement the hybrid, you can achieve impressive fuel economy figures (at one stage, we saw an indicated return of 5.7 L/100 km). There's no need to plug the Lexus in, it charges itself either by coasting and catching the regenerative braking, or the petrol engine works as a generator.

With so many changes under the Lexus' sheet metal said to improve the sports executive sedan's handling, we wanted to see what the newcomer was capable of, dynamically. Previous iterations of IS have had sporty pretensions, but were ultimately comfort-oriented (which, to be fair, is what most luxury car buyers want), but this new model leans notably towards the "driver enjoyment" side of things, but without giving away much in terms of comfort. One gripe is that road noise seems to have increased due to the fitment of run-flat tyres, but we'll pass a judgement on that when we get to test the "new" IS.

The F-Sport derivative features adaptive suspension and in Sport S+ mode, the car felt exceptionally nimble, with well-weighted and direct steering. This IS is a revelation to pilot compared with its predecessor – it retains that wonderful Lexus refinement that has endeared it to many over the years, but you get the impression the engineers have tried to craft something that tugs at your heartstrings. 

The hybrid engine isn't really suited to enthusiastic driving, but you can set the drive mode to Sport and simulate gear shifts using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Look, the powertrain is more than adequate for day-to-day driving, but not doesn't flatter the sedan's excellent chassis. Like all CVT-equipped vehicles (irrespective of brand), the Lexus emits a dull hum when made to accelerate at full tilt.

Summary

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The new Lexus IS is a fine-driving luxury tool, but the hybrid engine makes it more suited to the urban commute.

The thoroughly updated Lexus IS ultimately "brings a lot to the party" in its segment; the newcomer is an excellent interpretation of a sporty and liberally-equipped family sedan, even if the petrol-electric-hybrid-only line-up arguably narrows the range's appeal. It's comfortable, beautifully finished and well-appointed, irrespective of which derivative you're considering. Being a Lexus, there are no options and everything is standard. The hybrid powertrain is great in the city and given (still dense) urban traffic levels, you're likely to spend quite a lot of time in electric mode, which will shave Rands off your fuel bill.

Was the discontinuation of the 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol- and 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6 derivatives perhaps a tad short-sighted? Given the concerted effort to make the revised IS more engaging to drive, a decidedly undynamic hybrid powertrain is not the ideal way to showcase the model's improved dynamism. Make no mistake, we’re not anti-hybrid – we appreciate the IS would excel at transporting executives and their families to their daily destinations in luxury and comfort, with a modicum of dynamism (should they need it) and excellent economy, it's just that the newcomer's talents are buried.     

Nonetheless, we're itching to spend more time with the new Lexus IS to fully explore its abilities, so keep an eye out for an in-depth road test in the near future.

Further Reading:

Lexus IS (2021) Specs & Price

New Lexus IS 500 F Sport Unveiled

Lexus Dominates 2021 JD Power Again

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