Four-door sedans have been falling out of favor with the global market. On that, there is no question.
The market preference for SUVs and crossovers isn't just confined to flood-prone Philippine cities. These days, it applies to the rest of the world. That's why automakers are devoting more of their resources to improving or developing all-new crossovers and SUVs to satisfy this demand worldwide. That holds even more true now, as a pandemic will have a significant effect on how carmakers allocate funds given the harm done to the global economy.
That is something we think this new Lexus IS makes clear and is something we'll focus on in the following paragraphs. The question on our minds is this:
Do those limitations that we see in the new IS adversely affect how good it is?
The model we're driving is the new 2021 Lexus IS, the latest version of a great line of front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sedans from Japanese automaker Toyota's luxury division. This model range is intended to rival Europe's great luxury compact sedans like the Audi A4, the Jaguar XE, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the BMW 3-Series; the last one being the model that defines driving pleasure.
Take note: we said new, not all-new. The 2021 IS is not a new generation model; instead, it is an evolution of the IS that we first drove in 2013. Yes, this is another revision of the third generation IS (which stands for Intelligent Sport); I say another because there was a rather minor facelift in 2017, but this one is more comprehensive. I'm still partial to the 2013 original, but the new and more complete makeover is nice and gives the vehicle a larger look.
The one-piece headlamps are nice, as is the new spindle grille. I like the way Lexus redesigned the side profile by extending the roof a bit rearward. I also like the sculpting of the rear quarter panel. The trunk lid somehow reminds me of the waist of the GR Supra, making it look more like a fastback. The only thing I'm not really sure of yet is the unibrow-style taillamps. I'm generally not a fan of connected taillights, but I do like the attention to detail.
This is, however, the first time in almost eight years that we're behind the wheel of an IS that isn't the 350 or the 350 F Sport. This is the IS300h Premier. And that name already connotes what we can expect. The first is that it's more of a luxury-oriented model, similar to BMW's Luxury Line badge or the way Mercedes uses the Exclusive moniker. So instead of sporty details you'd expect from an F-Sport, this one is more subdued with those silver wheels, the generous use of chrome, and other bits and pieces that generally denote luxury or premium, uh, ness.
If the changes to the exterior were extensive, the changes to the interior are much more minor. Yes, the upholstery is different, and the A/C vents on the dashboard corners are now round, not rectangular. The trim for the analog clock is new, but still, the interior is very familiar. The steering wheel is the same, the dash is mostly the same, the seats feel the same (even though the upholstery is different), so on and so forth. I'm not complaining, though. The IS does have a very high-grade interior, even though many of its competitors have already progressed forward.
Lexus did make some significant alterations to the functionality and the layout of the vehicle, though. For one, they moved the main multimedia display from being recessed in the dashboard and relocated it to sit on top of the dash, much like you'd see on other vehicles. The audio system also gains Apple Carplay and Android Auto; no doubt a request of many IS customers.
Another major update inside is the driver's armrest and central control panel. They switched around the positions of the controls. The IS no longer has that hat switch beside the shifter; instead, it uses a touchpad panel with a few buttons but has been repositioned to be closer to the driver. Where the hat switch was before is now the drive mode selector. Basically, it's control panel musical chairs.
I found this reorganization to be a bit strange for two reasons, the first being the rather un-ergonomic manner in which you'd be able to use the touchpad/trackpad. You have to pull your arm back to use it, which is odd.
The second is that the trackpad is actually unnecessary altogether because the audio display is already a touchscreen. The physical audio controls just forward of the shifter on the center stack is redundant too, and the presence of a CD player is also unusual. Unless I'm mistaken, that's the whole point of Apple Carplay and Android Auto because CDs are obsolete; if you disagree, let us know below.
The rear seat didn't change much either. The cushioning is nice, and there's a center armrest with dual cupholders. There are two A/C vents for comfort, but because this is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, there is a sizable transmission tunnel on the floor; it protrudes about 9.5 inches from the floor and is also about 10 inches wide. If you want a more comfortable rear seat, you may want to check out the front-wheel-drive Lexus ES; that one is more for rear riding comfort. The IS was never meant to be enjoyed primarily from the back seat.
Driving the IS300h around is indeed a pleasant experience. Being an “h” model means this is a hybrid, and that means it has a petrol 2.5-liter straight-4 under the hood and an electric motor powered by 192 NiMH battery cells in the trunk. The transmission is a CVT. Also, it's the first time Lexus Philippines is offering the hybrid version of the third-gen IS, as this has only been offered with the 3.5-liter V6 since 2013.
The performance of the hybrid powertrain is a bit tricky to dissect. For starters, the 2AR-FSE engine is not an Atkinson cycle unit; it is a more traditional Otto-cycle unit with VVT-i and direct injection. Other Toyota and Lexus hybrids typically use Atkinson cycle engines for better efficiency but have lower outputs compared to Otto cycle units.
The power figures are also difficult to ascertain because of the incomplete local information, but from what we gather, the engine alone makes 181 PS at 6000 rpm and 221 Nm from 4200 to 5400 rpm. The electric drive system puts out 143 PS (105 kilowatts) and 300 Nm of torque. Yet somehow the combined output of the two isn't a simple 181 PS + 143 PS, which would be a total of 324 PS. Instead, the official Lexus quote is 222 PS or 219 horsepower. Toyota/Lexus does this type of combined power for their hybrids.
Setting aside the technicalities though, one thing we can be sure of is that it drives really well. The IS300h Premier is a very slick drive in the city with the engine and electric system taking over seamlessly from one another, depending on the speed, traffic conditions, and charge. And by charge, I mean the stored power left in the battery in the back and not the physical act of plugging the vehicle to the mains; this one is a self-charging hybrid (in Lexus-speak), and thus doesn't have a charging port for the battery. The only way to charge is by driving normally, by braking, or by coasting; yes, just like a Prius.
Fuel economy in the city -as expected- is very high considering this is a luxury vehicle. The electric motor gives the needed torque for low-speed driving, a must for a heavy car. Don't be surprised if you're seeing 17 kilometers per liter on the display. That's the norm with hybrids, as these vehicles are meant to give the best fuel economy in conditions that aren't ideal for fuel economy: city driving and traffic.
Take note that the fuel economy can fluctuate greatly with the way you drive and the way you let the electric system charge and run, so the 17 km/l city driving figure is very much variable. What is clear, though, is that the hybrid system reduces the fuel economy gap between city driving and highway driving; the IS300h Premier can get you 22.3 kilometers per liter at an average speed of 80 km/h. It can probably be better because I wasn't even trying.
Ride comfort was also enhanced since the suspension was tuned to manage the extra weight of the powertrain. Like the Prius, the IS300h has to lug around two power units in one vehicle, and there is always a profound effect on the suspension's behavior. I remember years ago when I drove a third-generation Prius that it was rough over bumps. These new hybrids are far better. And much smoother. If you're the type that likes to drive quietly, you'll also enjoy the silence of the IS in EV mode. You can opt to drive in EV mode so long as you have enough charge; there's a button just aft of the drive mode selector.
For outright performance, the IS300h was surprising. With our performance meter, we were doing zero to 100 km/h sprints in 8.73 seconds. That's thanks to the engine and electric motor working together to deliver performance. That's the beauty of a parallel hybrid wherein both power units can drive the wheels. In a series hybrid (i.e. Nissan's e-Power system), only the electric motors are connected to the wheels.
This IS has an improved platform as Lexus added welds, enhanced supports, and lightweight components, but it's still not a TNGA platform like in other models. The handling is definitely not F-Sport level (which has different springs, tuning, wheels) but still very nicely sorted. Braking is good for this vehicle, as is the mid-corner balance. Those tires aren't optimized for grip, but still, they manage well given the comfort orientation. The steering could be a lot better, though. It feels a bit too sanitized for my liking.
The IS300h Premier performs as I had expected. It's a good luxury hybrid for someone who prefers to drive rather than be driven. Plus, the addition of Lexus Safety Sense features like adaptive cruise control and all kinds of driving alerts were a nice touch, even though I found the lane departure warning a tad too eager. Still, there are things that I think should be improved upon already. I've already voiced my criticisms of the interior, but what I haven't mentioned is the trunk.
If you pop the trunk lid, there's a bulge on the floorboard which makes for an awkward cargo area. Because of that, you can't lay anything flat. The reason for the bulge is the spare tire; it's on top of the board, not beneath it. That's because the area below is occupied by the hybrid battery pack. Despite that, golfers will be happy to know that the IS300h can still (somehow) fit a full-size golf bag in the trunk.
The other thing I'm critical about with the IS300h is the actual “h”. While I like the benefits of the hybrid system, I think this could be made much better if Lexus had gone for a more advanced battery pack. Nickel-metal hydride battery technology is already quite dated by our standards in terms of capacity and weight. Lithium battery technology is the one being used by other automakers for their hybrids and EVs, yet Toyota and Lexus are still sticking with NiMH tech. But there is a reason: cost.
Toyota and Lexus have already developed this hybrid technology to what is probably, its best potential, and the NiMH battery system is the most cost-effective option. Even with the hybrid tech and the upscale appointments, the IS300h Premier retails for PHP 3,328,000. That's a pretty good price for a hybrid. There's also a more affordable option as Lexus launched a non-Premier version of the IS300h which is priced under PHP 3 million. If you want the sportier option, the IS350 F Sport is at PHP 3,808,000.
Yes, the IS300h is what I expected; a hybrid luxury rear-wheel-drive Lexus that is high quality, comfortable, drives well, consumes fuel very efficiently. And while a lot of competitors are offering all-new generation models, it's going to be difficult to compete on price and features versus this IS.
Still, it's a shame Lexus isn't putting more resources into the IS. Maybe we'll have to wait a few more years for that. Unless we're misreading what automakers are doing, they'll be focusing on generating more classes and subclasses of crossovers and pure electric vehicles soon.