Lexus IS300h: Flawed gem is so close, yet snow far
The Lexus IS is brilliant - unless it snows or freezes, writes William Scholes
THE Lexus IS300h is a hugely admirable car. And yet it is oddly hard to recommend, writes William Scholes.
It is staggeringly well built. Even by the high standards of material quality and fit and finish which distinguish the German cars against which it competes - BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 - the Japanese Lexus stands apart.
I could wax lyrical for paragraph after paragraph about the texture of the leather, the just-right softness of the steering wheel rim, the clarity of the instruments, the sheer well-oiled rightness of the way every switch and knob operates.
The way you can control the temperature of the heating by sliding your finger up and down is clever. And there is something childishly brilliant and addictive about how the press of a button allows the speedometer to slide to the side, so revealing a fresh set of information.
The seats are superb, as is the driving position. The stereo is one of the best you will hear.
Sure, the mouse-style controller for the information screen is a faff - though it is better than it used to be, and there are some buttons that allow you to bypass some of the cursor's will-it-won't-it-click-where-I-want - and the foot-operated parking brake is, for my jumbo feet at least, one idiosyncrasy too many.
The Germans are good. Very good, in fact, as they should be after honing this sort of luxury, sporting saloon for the best part of 40 years and shaping our perceptions of what they should - and should not - be.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia is a lovely car in which to sit as well, its slight shortcomings in the infotainment and switch quality department more than made up for by the gorgeous aluminium Ferrari-style gearshift paddles you can specify.
The Jaguar XE isn't on the same page.
But, honestly, from the inside, the Lexus IS feels better than all of them.
It makes a strong case for itself from the outside, too.
Perhaps ubiquity has robbed the 3 Series, A4 and C-Class of feeling special, though blandness has crept in too over the years, as well as a tendency - particularly in Mercedes's case - to think that this can be offset by resorting to bling.
The XE is Boring, with a capital B, while the Giulia is Gorgeous, with a capital G.
The Lexus, meanwhile, still looks fresh and contemporary, despite having been with us since 2013. It could be nothing other than Japanese, I suppose, and the sharp creases in the metal work and oh-so-tight panel gaps speak of an attention to detail that few can match.
There is a timelessness to the spot-on sports saloon proportions and stance. The IS is a smart piece of work that probably deserves wider recognition.
Rarely have I driven a car as useless in the snow as the Lexus IS300h. The gearbox has a button marked 'snow mode' but I can only imagine that it wasn't connected on my car
It does the practical stuff as well as you would hope. The back seat isn't as roomy as an Audi A4, but it is miles better than the cramped pew in a Jaguar XE; the boot is as large as you would reasonably expect of a posh, mid-sized saloon.
These cars all cost more or less the same, so for the air of quality on offer, the Lexus could even be considered good value.
Lexus, as you may know, don't do diesel. They haven't for years, and for a long time this looked like a rather bizarre approach.
Almost everyone who buys one of these sorts of cars wants a 2.0-litre diesel engine, with somewhere around 180bhp to 190bhp.
And why not? That's sufficient power and accompanying torque for our roads, plus they are genuinely economical engines.
Relentless evolution means that not only have they got more and more frugal over the years, but the 2.0-litre diesels pump out fewer and fewer grams of carbon dioxide.
This is important because a great many of these saloons are driven by company users. These are people who are highly sensitive to the benefit in kind tax rates that penalise drivers according to their car's CO2 emissions.
Lexus approached the lower-your-CO2 problem from a different direction.
Lexus, and its Toyota parent, have been leaders in hybrid tech for years, with the IS conceived from the start to be a petrol-electric hybrid.
And the market, just as Lexus predicted, is eventually moving towards hybrids. Diesel, so beloved of the company user, is now in rapid decline. The latest registration figures from trade body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show that diesel dropped 25 per cent in January this year compared to the same month in 2016.
This should be good news for Lexus. Though it also says something about how fast the market has changed that a hybrid come-lately manufacturer like BMW now has a plug-in 3 Series while Lexus does not yet offer that technology.
The Lexus hybrid system offers broadly similar CO2 emissions to a comparable diesel unit, meaning the benefit in kind tax rates are also similar.
And if your driving pattern is such that it allows you to maximise the potential of the Lexus's batteries, then you could be on to a good thing.
The drawback - as with any hybrid system - is that if your driving pattern involves, say, a lot of long distances or motorway driving, then your Lexus won't be any cheaper to run than a diesel.
It will likely be more expensive, as the petrol engine has to work harder and drag the weight of batteries and motors with it as well.
My own typical driving, for example, is heavily tilted towards motorways and fast cruising, with only a little urban stop-start. That explains the relatively poor fuel consumption I recorded (see At a Glance panel); in my case, a diesel would undoubtedly be more cost effective.
Each driver will have to think carefully about their pattern of use before committing to a hybrid, whether it's a Lexus or not.
That being said, there are other benefits to the Lexus hybrid drivetrain regardless of cost. It is impossibly refined, for one. When you start 'the engine', there is no noise, no clatter of a cold diesel engine coughing to warm itself, just the silent assurance that electricity is ready and willing to get you on your way.
The engine and electric motor segue effortlessly, juggling which power source is best for a given situation unobtrusively.
You need to be very gentle with the throttle though, or the engine will kick in more often than you expect, even in slow, stop-start traffic. The electric-only range is limited, too - just under two miles was the best I could manage. The Lexus lags behind the plug-ins in this respect, which tend to have 20-mile-plus EV ranges.
Other plus points are the calm and quiet cruising ability and the persistent shove in the back that the electric motor provides under acceleration when it assists the petrol engine.
It is staggeringly well built. The seats are superb, as is the driving position. The stereo is one of the best you will hear
So, it absolutely reeks of quality, looks great and can carry people and all of your stuff. If the specific nature of the hybrid system suits your pattern of driving, then it could even save your money.
And even if it doesn't, you can bask in the smug satisfaction of an effortlessly refined drivetrain.
It feels like a convincingly luxury product, a properly premium car.
So what's not to like? Why do I find it hard to fully recommend the Lexus IS300h?
During my time with the car, it snowed. And rarely have I driven a car as useless in the snow as the Lexus test car. The only one I can think of that has been worse was one of those supercharged Jaguar F-Types; and they want to beat you up even when the sun is shining.
While even BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class cars driven by neighbours managed to get up the snowy, icy hill beside us and on to the main road, the Lexus was a complete nightmare.
The gearbox has a button marked 'snow mode' but I can only imagine that it wasn't connected on my car. No matter what I did it couldn't get up the hill without its tail fishing about for traction. Which is not ideal.
And the only way I could get it on to the main road was for courteous drivers coming from each direction to stop and allow me enough space to allow the IS to roll down the hill to find a smidgen of traction and to ever-so-slowly creep to the top and on to the level of the main road.
I like an exciting driving experience as much as the next man, but this was a little too much of the wrong sort of excitement...
The return journey was just as, erm, hairy, and as I unclenched my fingers from the steering wheel that night I was glad to be able to park the Lexus on my driveway.
This has a gentle slope; the next morning, so-called snow mode engaged, reverse selected, and... nothing. The car simply wouldn't move. I got a lot of wheelspin once - my driveway bears the scars - but then the car threw in the towel.
The snow and ice persisted that week, and I didn't drive the Lexus again. It sat there idle, a £36,000 snowman, while everything else got on with it.
Much of the Lexus IS300h is highly desirable. But it is a flawed diamond. If you live near a hill in a place where it snows, it is useless. Which is why, as I said at the start, it is hard to recommend.
Its design and quality help make it a cool car. It's just a shame it doesn't like cool weather.
AT A GLANCE
Lexus IS300h F Sport
Price: £35,625. As tested £36,235, with metallic paint £610
Engine and transmission: Hybrid drivetrain with 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine (178bhp, 163lb.ft) and electric motor (141bhp, 221lb.ft), automatic continuously variable transmission, rear-wheel-drive.
Performance: Top speed 125mph, 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 61.4mpg (EU combined), 37.8mph (real world), 107g/km
Car tax: £140 in first year, then £130 annually
Benefit in kind: 20 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (91/85/80/66), 2013