Edgy styling, sharper dynamics and more equipment make the new Lexus IS an interesting alternative to the Germanic norm. If only it wasn't hampered by its drivetrain.
In the Metal:
Alongside the Germanic trio that the new IS competes against there's no denying the Japanese contender presents a striking alternative. Some of it is more successful than not; the headlamps, with their split lenses separated by body-coloured panels, do look a touch odd to these eyes. It's a bold looker though, the feature lines along its flank that upsweep to its tail are neat, ensuring that the IS is certainly not as retiring in its style as its predecessor was.
Inside, it's more bucking of convention. An unusual stepped dashboard features, while the instruments (on the F Sport model we drove) come with a touch of inspiration from Lexus' LFA supercar. It all feels solidly built, though some areas disappoint; the button to open the glove box feels sub-premium in its roughness, while the weird toggle/computer mouse-like controller for the optional navigation and infotainment system is absolutely hopeless in operation. The car is more spacious than before though, with rear seat passengers decently accommodated, while the hybrid battery pack only robs the boot space of a few litres of space over the non-hybrid offering.
If you're used to the easy mid-range urgency of the current crop of four-cylinder turbodiesels in the IS's rivals then you'll be rather disappointed by the Lexus. As you will when you hear that, despite the 2.5-litre petrol engine having 178hp, and the electric motor that assists it as part of the hybrid technology has 141hp, combined the IS 300h's output is 'just' 220hp. Where the other 99 dobbins have gone is anyone's guess; and the ones that are left don't feel particularly enthusiastic, either. Overtakes are fraught foot-to-the-floor exercises, the IS making all the right noises (or not - more of which later), but not really delivering much in the way of urgency.
Blame the gearbox, as the E-CVT is an odd transmission, feeling like it's spinning away power and only meting out a tiny portion to the driven rear wheels. Add the sound symposer, which comes as part of the F Sport package (with its woeful burst speaker 1980 arcade driving game aural overlay), and the detachment from only gets greater.
Lexus points out that the IS has done lots of Nurburgring laps. That might be true, as might the new laser-screwed, stiffer bonded structure, but how none of the development drivers picked up on the paddle shifters that don't is a mystery - we can only guess that the sound symposer noises sound better when muffled by a helmet, too, it couldn't sound any worse...
That's a shame, as powertrain aside the IS chassis exhibits some real promise. The F Sport steering is alert, and the suspension does a fine job of providing control combined with a supple ride, though the brakes could do with being less enthusiastic in the first few millimetres of travel. With a conventional powertrain (one better than the other 2.5-litre V6 petrol Lexus also offers) the IS could shine, but all those Nurburgring laps look rather pointless with the hybrid system powering it.
What you get for your Money:
Five grades are offered in the IS 300h. The entry-level Eco model costs €37,780 and has emissions as low as 99g/km. Next up is the S-Design at €38,780, then the IS 300h Executive at €42,280. The IS 300h F Sport tested here costs €43,280 and above it is the Premium model at €46,780. All prices include the VRT rebate of €1,500 that currently applies to all hybrids - and may not be in place for 2014 and beyond.
The IS 300h will play the electric-only driving trick, but only if you're particularly gentle with the accelerator around town, and even then only for very short periods.
Lexus seems to bask in its bucking of the trend, and the IS 300h certainly looks and feels different to the German offerings. No bad thing, if it's different and good, but the hybrid powertrain absolutely dominates the driving experience - for the worse.