Hybrid v diesel battle lines drawn as Lexus rolls out IS 300h
THIS is about more than just a new compact premium car. It's about how we see hybrids – and diesels.
The Lexus IS 300h is new, has all the modern technology you can inject into a hybrid – but will you shift out of your Audi A4 diesel or Mercedes C-Class diesel if you're putting up big mileage?
Naturally, Lexus says yes. It, bullishly, predicts seven in 10 sales will be conquests from rivals – Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class and, to a lesser extent, BMW 320d
It has made up serious ground on the looks. Really strong up front now, as you can see from the picture, compared with the old one (in fairness it has been around a long, long time). Decent flank treatment and a power sweep across the back give it plenty of edge. Good, it needed it. Good spread of comfort spec as well.
It also dispelled criticisms of a small boot (450 litres v 390), cramped by battery pack intrusion. Now the pack is underneath the boot floor, and you can have split-and-fold rear seats. No spare tyre though, just one of those blinking tyre-repair kits.
Plenty of room in the cabin. It felt bigger. It is claiming best-in-class rear-seat room thanks to a longer wheelbase (+70mm), body (+80mm) and a slight increase in width (+10mm).
It has stitched leather on the dash but the effect is let down badly by what I would consider cheap-looking plastic, for a car of this class, down from the dash and back along the central console. The strange thing is it isn't cheap. It's costly but doesn't look it. And seat manual adjustment handles felt flimsy – though the seats were comfortable.
The air-con controls are (sorry) cool. Two metal 'threads' move with your finger to adjust the temperature. Straight from the LF-CC concept on which the IS 300h is based.
On the road, this did not have the pulling power or thrusty response of a 2-litre diesel, though official figures might dispute that. It's partly because the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) lags delivery of response a little behind demand for it.
But it was one of the quietest cars I've driven. Smooth, unruffled and so easy to drive on long hauls. There will not be a petrol or diesel. This is it folks. It's hybrid or nothing for the IS 300h from here on.
Powering it is a 2.5-litre 181bhp petrol engine and a 143bhp electric motor. Because they work in different ways, the total power is less than the sum of their parts but you do get a whopping 223bhp. Just didn't feel it though when I stamped my foot down.
The real benefit comes in lower fuel consumption (a claimed 65mpg) and emissions as low as 99g/km (€180 road tax) for some versions. That's where it really takes on the diesels. Those all tick cost-of-ownership boxes, as does low maintenance (timing chain, no timing belt – fewer bits to go wrong).
Lexus reckons you'd save €1,500 over three years. It has set it up on a decent suspension too (50pc reduction in friction) but while it was no 3-series on handling there was a decent, lively feel to it.
Like some rivals, it has put together a PCP (Personal Contract Purchase) finance plan called Lexus Connect (it's money, not internet). For example, you drive this for three years from €395/month and then decide if you want to own it, use its residual value towards a new one, or walk away.
Lexus also has a flexible service plan. Rather than stump up a lump sum for a service, you pay from €26/month.
It's all designed to get more drivers, especially younger ones, into this car. It is convinced this is the 'time' for hybrids.
Others claim there's nothing to beat a good diesel in a compact executive.
I reckon, at the very least, the new IS 300h is worth a good, long test drive.