Real-world luxury

The new IS isn't a BMW-beater, but it showcases several worthy things for the average sporty saloon punter

For years, Lexus had to endure the state of the Thai luxury car market with slim margins, otherwise it couldn't cope with its rivals in terms of pricing.

Unlike BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo which assemble their mainstream cars within the Asean bloc, Toyota's posh nameplate imports its offerings straight from Japan with maximum tariffs slapped on them. The case for Japan's top premium brand still remains in place today, although it must be noted that they now want to make a little more money. Here's why.

The second-generation IS250 was once on sale in Thailand in the 3-3.5 million baht range with a 2.5-litre V6 petrol engine subject to 35% excise tax.

And even though the third-gen IS250 gets a carried-over drivetrain, the price has shot up to 4 million baht (3.99 million to be precise) in F-Sport guise.

Obviously, Lexus isn't bothered with its sales, but there could be a reason for the IS250 to be conveniently shoved up the price ranks, or into the dark, you could say.

Taking up the price slot previously occupied by the old IS250 is a new hybrid-powered variant called IS300h sporting two trims: Luxury at 2.99 million baht and Premium at 3.49 million baht.

And because the IS300h has got a petrol-electric system, it is subject to only 10% excise tax yet costs basically the same as the old IS250.

You'd probably now understand how internal taxes have complex effects on pricing cars in Thailand.

Does that make the IS300h a sane choice in the Thai junior executive car (premium mid-size) segment? Well, no actually, because competitors like the 3-series, C-class and S60 all have entry-level models priced lower than the IS300h.

Even our pick-of-the-class 320d from BMW is 100,000 baht cheaper than the Lexus' new entry-level IS. And that's not to mention the Bimmer's freshness, fabled driving characteristics and a diesel engine boasting both performance and economy at the same time.

Because of this, we could quickly cut to the chase and suggest that the IS300h is more for fans of Lexus. In most ways it is, but not always.

You see, hybrid-powered systems tend to excel at low to medium speeds in city driving where the occasional use of pure electric power helps offset the traditional appetite for fuel that petrol engines are usually known for.

Even though we found it virtually impossible to achieve Lexus's 20kpl claim, we managed a lower 15kpl which is actually still decent for a car snaking around the concrete jungle.

At least, the IS300h is hardly short of grunt and smoothness in the way power is delivered to the tarmac.

In fact, performance in a sporty saloon like the IS has been redefined where you just prod the throttle and move away without any noticeable gear changes usually found in normal automatic transmissions. The IS300h mates a 181hp 2.5-litre inline-four petrol engine to electric motors for a combined 221hp and is backed up by a rather old-fashioned nickel metal hydride battery. Transmission type is the CVT automatic.

This combination sounds very similar to the one found in the Toyota Camry Hybrid. Both the Camry Hybrid and IS300h may share the same engine block, but the Lexus is updated with direct fuel injection for better efficiency.

While such a drivetrain makes the IS300h a good car for daily use, the same could not exactly be said when it comes to driving it out of town, despite the relative ease of overtaking others on the road.

With every running gear coming into full play, you'd hardly get better fuel economy than what's been recorded at slower speeds. And this is where a 320d or C220 CDI diesel still excel with a better combination of grunt of frugality.

You can switch the IS300h's hybrid system into sport mode to increase responsiveness and aural thrills, the latter transmitting its sound via speakers on the dashboard.

But the sound it makes is synthetic and gimmicky. Thankfully, you can turn the volume off via a switch on the console.

The way the chassis of the IS300h has been set up clearly reflects the intended merits of the hybrid system, that is, to satisfy real-world drivers with a good level of ride comfort and steering ease - pretty much like in the old IS.

The low-speed ride compliance exhibited in the IS300h is quite remarkable given the run-flat tyres from Bridgestone it uses (the battery pack takes up the place of the spare tyre beneath the boot floor).

In the IS300h, there's less harshness and vibration than in the 3-series, which has been an advocate for run-flat rubbers for many years already.

But as soon as you get on the highway, the IS300h begins to lose its dynamic sparkle. The ride jars occasionally on road expansion joints, the body feels less planted to the road than you'd expect it to do and braking from high speeds doesn't feel as confidence-inspiring as in the German competition, be it the Bee-em or Merc.

Of course, tailoring a chassis for real-world usage is certainly a right thing to do, but it shouldn't have come at the expensive of a sporty rear-wheel-drive car the IS is trying to emulate.

A thing worth commenting on in the IS300h is the relatively quiet cabin under cruising which could have probably been the additional result of an aerodynamic-friendly exterior body.

There's seems to be some sort of dynamic purpose in the way the IS300h has been designed on the skin. But if based purely on emotion, the more voluptuous design cues the IS now has could be open to debate.

There also seems to be an engineered feel when seated in the IS's driving cockpit, where there's abundance of metallic finish and a boy racer-like feel to the steering wheel and console. In default mode, the instrument panel shows information on the hybrid's system in place of the rev-counter, which only appears when the Sport mode is selected. Conversely, the driver can configure the display to whichever liking via a function mode on the steering wheel.

Too bad Lexus has reserved the single-dial, LFA-style layout for just the F Sport trim, which isn't available for the IS300h yet. A tech-savvy TFT display surely suits the futuristic hybrid drivetrain Lexus is trying to portray in its new bread-winning IS.

Speaking of the cabin, the seats feel the most comfortable in-class to sit in. The front seats have cool air ventilation, rear seats can fold for increased boot versatility and rear accommodation is substantially improved over the outgoing model, but not to the extent of beating its rivals.

Whether you should fork out another half-a-million baht for the Premium trim is up to you for it gets additional features like a more sophisticated sound system, front seats with memory and rear sun shade, as such.

Of course, safety items do cost money. But it would have been great if Lexus applied them consistently across the range because it's an import we're talking about here.

For example, Luxury has a safety kit to outnumber its competition (like the outstanding knee airbags), but it doesn't get rear sidebags from the Premium package nor some driver support systems which can be found in a US-spec IS.

Apparently, Lexus is still cautious with the equipment and price balance for the IS in Thailand. This, in the end, doesn't make the IS300h great value against its competitors.

But the interesting bit of the IS300h is the relevance the hybrid system and other comfort-related characteristics it wishes to offer to a particular set of drivers.

Such attributes won't make the IS300h better than its rivals, which is to say the Germans still make more capable rear-wheel-drive saloons. But there are hints of the future in the IS300h for cars in this class.


AT A GLANCE

Styling 8/10

More voluptuous lines make the IS stand out, if debatable to some eyes.

Performance and economy 8/10

Hybrid system yields smooth and ample performance, plus low-speed economy.

Handling and ride 7/10

It's comfortable and easy to drive. But as a sporty rear-drive car, it lacks dynamic sparkle.

Practicality 7/10

Rear accommodation has improved but isn't great yet; seats can fold for more practicality.

Safety kit 8/10

The IS has a comprehensive safety list but isn't made standard across the range.

VERDICT 7/10

The hybrid system and comfort-orientated chassis make the new IS a relevant car for daily use but slightly contradicts the sporty package. Imported status means highest in-class prices.


OR TRY THESE

BMW 320D

Price: 2.899 million baht

Engine: 184hp 2.0-litre diesel-turbo

Gearbox: 8-speed auto

Wheelbase: 2,810mm

For Lexus money, you can get the best car in this class with both a frugal and punchy engine.

MERCEDES-BENZ C200 CGI

Price: 2.25 million baht

Engine: 184hp 1.8-litre petrol-turbo

Gearbox: 7-speed auto

Wheelbase: 2,760mm

It's ageing and its diesel is beaten by BMW's, so try going for the most basic version.

VOLVO S60 DRIVE

Price: 1.899 million baht

Engine: 180hp 1.6-litre petrol-turbo

Gearbox: 6-speed dual-clutch auto

Wheelbase: 2,776mm

Dynamically, it's weakest here but is offset with low price. Try waiting for facelift, as pictured.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor