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  1. Analysis
April 21, 2017

ANALYSIS – 2017 Lexus IS 300h

The IS hybrid is one of those cars you don't often see, especially in the UK, which is a pity, as the IS 300h deserves to be far more popular than it is.

The IS hybrid is one of those cars you don’t often see, especially in the UK, which is a pity, as the IS 300h deserves to be far more popular than it is.

The lack of a compression-ignition engine isn’t the only major issue with Lexus’ would-be rival for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. The other one is the lack of an estate body style. This is doubly perplexing given that the first generation IS was available in wagon form. It also sold fairly well.

No diesels in Europe. With one exception.

Toyota has committed itself to petrol-electric powertrains and aside from the LX 470d, offers no diesel engine in any of its models. That giant SUV is available in one of Lexus Europe’s markets, but Russia is a special case and this model, developed off the body-on-frame Land Cruiser platform, wasn’t engineered with hybrid drive in mind.

Enough then of the reasons why it’s petrol power or nothing else for Lexus vehicles sold in EU and EFTA markets. Instead, more of what makes the IS hybrid a good choice, and a car which too many people overlook. For starters, there’s the looks, especially from the front end. Choose the F-Sport model grade and though you won’t have any extra power or torque, it certainly looks more aggressive and streamlined.

Forget the nonsensical terms of ‘spindle’ grille, or as Audi now says ‘Singleframe’ – pushing words together and omitting grille – what matters is does a car look right? Or do elements of its styling need to be explained? Toyota is close to having a range of vehicles which stand out from the German, Swedish and English competition in a good way. A recent facelift for the IS builds on that.

Before looking at what’s new for 2017, a few facts and figures about what has gone before.

More than 1 million IS sales worldwide over 3 generations

The third generation IS sedan had its world premiere at the Detroit motor show in January 2013. The car is 10mm wider and sits on a wheelbase that is 70mm longer than the previous generation one. A much needed change was folding seatbacks: these split 60/40 split.

There were three variants from launch: IS 250, IS 350 and IS 300h. The hybrid was the only one to have a four-cylinder engine.

The car, which uses an evolution of the N platform introduced by the larger GS sedan but has unique double wishbone front suspension. At the rear there is a multi-link set-up, similar to the GS’ system. F Sport, a model grade that was new for this generation IS, brought with it firmer suspension tuning as well as different seats, spoilers and that special grille mentioned earlier.

Japan was the first market, the IS going on sale there in May 2013. The hybrid followed soon after.

The UK importer confirmed in May 2013 that there would not be a diesel with this generation of the car, the old model having been dropped in 2012. Nor is there a two-door car, the effective replacement for the IS C convertible being the RC Coupe.

Two engine choices in the UK

Lexus announced the IS 200t to the media in June 2015. It became available to order in relevant countries from September 2015. Powering it is the same 8AR-FTS 1,998cc four-cylinder petrol turbo as features under the bonnet of the NX 200t and RX 200t. Obviously in the case of the IS sedan it is instead mounted north-south.

In certain markets, the IS 200t replaced the IS 250, which had a 2.5-litre V6 engine. The 200t’s output is 180kW and torque is 350Nm. Drive is to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

The addition of the 200t was the main news for North America’s 2016 model year IS range. A facelifted IS premiered at the Beijing motor show in April 2016. North America’s 2017 model year car has the styling update. Lexus plans to rename the IS 200t for the 2018 model year: it will become the IS 300, bringing it into line with the just-announced NX 300, formerly the NX 200t.

The petrol-electric version of the IS sedan was the first hybrid in the history of this model. It is powered by the combination of a 2.5-litre Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder engine and one electric motor. This is the same powertrain as that in the larger GS 300h. The transmission is a CVT and drive is to the rear axle only.

CO2 as low as 97g/km

The hybrid carries only a 30kg weight penalty compared to the 200t, tipping the scales at 1,620kg. When it comes to CO2, though, the 300h holds all the cards, its official number being 107g/km versus 167 for the four-cylinder turbo variant (both on 18-inch wheels). Should you instead select the base IS 300h with 16-inch alloys, that drops to 97g/km. Insurance groups are 28-30E whereas for the IS 200t, it’s 35E.

The extra weight will be the reason why Toyota specifies ventilated rear brakes for the hybrid but solid discs for the IS 200t. Both have fully electric assistance for the steering rack, a 66-litre petrol tank, and a length of 4,680mm. The chemistry of the 300h’s extra 192-cell battery is not lithium-ion but instead nickel-metal hydride. The motor’s outputs are 103kW and 300Nm.

Toyota’s 2,494cc 2AR-FSE engine runs a 13:1 compression ratio produces 133kW and 221Nm. What is termed ‘system’ (combined) power is 220kW, compared to the 180kW of the turbo 2.0-litre litre in the IS 200t.

Chassis changes

Certain suspension components were replaced by lighter ones as part of the model year 2017 changes. There were also adjustments to the coil springs, shock absorbers and stabiliser bar. It had been a few years since my last drive of the IS hybrid so a back-to-back comparison wasn’t possible. There is certainly a good deal of compliance in the suspension system and while it isn’t up to the class-best, that isn’t a damning assessment due to the extremely high standard set by that car, the Jaguar XE.

What is termed ‘Lexus Safety System+’ is part of the updated model. Now, features such a Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert mean improved warnings of potentially unseen hazards, while LED headlights are claimed to provide “a deeper and wider field of illumination in night-time driving”. I wouldn’t disagree – the lights are first rate.

Larger wrist-rest for haptic controller

You won’t see too much in the way of new looks for the interior and that’s no bad thing. Changes include a high-resolution monitor for the multimedia navigation system with a diameter which has been increased by more than three inches, as well as the option of laser-etched dark wood trim.

The audio and ventilation control panels have been altered, making more room for thicker driver and front passenger knee pads which now run the full length of the centre console. There are also new cupholders (divided by a slot to hold your phone), a satin finish for the gear lever, a larger, leather-covered and stitched palm rest for the Remote Touch Interface control, and if you’re a real Lexus interiors obsessive you might even notice what are new dial markings on the analogue clock. If you want to see more of the interior (and exterior) there is B-roll footage here.

Where’s it built? What’s next?

The Tahara plant in Japan is where all versions of the IS are manufactured. There shouldn’t be any further styling changes for the third generation model, and the replacement series should enter production in 2020.

Rumour has it that the GS won’t be replaced and looking at US, Chinese and European market sales for that larger saloon it would surely be hard for Toyota to justify the expense of a new model. With that in mind, some of us are wondering when Toyota Motor Corporation is going to finally start building Lexus vehicles in China and why one of the most logical ones would be a long-wheelbase IS.

Given how long the product planning processes within TMC traditionally take (the first RX appeared in 2003 but still there is no seven-seat model) any potential stretched IS to compete with the 3 Series iL, A4 L, C-Class L, S60 L, Q50L and TLX-L might have to wait for the fourth generation range. Which also nicely rounds out the thinking behind the current IS 300h. It’s quite fun to drive, given the rear-wheel drive chassis but isn’t the roomiest in the D segment and if locally manufactured, it could do well in China. But due to the ever-rising importance of that market, don’t hold your breath for a diesel engine. Or an estate. As much as some of us would love to see both return to the IS range, it’s not going to happen. Instead, the appeal of a mile or so’s silence in standing traffic may well be extended by the arrival of a PHEV powertrain for the next Lexus IS. How about it Toyota?

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