Gareth Butterfield spends a week in the well-appointed new Lexus IS
I LIKE it when a car manufacturer sticks to its principles. And, occasionally, it can really pay off.
Take Lexus for example with this, the latest IS saloon. Lexus doesn’t care much for diesels, so it’s never plonked one in its BMW Three-series rival and we all thought that was rather silly when it was first launched. But look at it now.
Obviously through luck rather than judgement, the new IS, which looks a little bit more aggressive, rides a little better and has a few interior tweaks you’d have to look hard to notice, has been ahead of the game all along.
I won’t beat about the bush, if you want a sporty drive, pick the BMW over the Lexus. But it’s only recently that the German holy trinity has started producing hybrids. And they’ve got a bit of catching up to do before their systems are as competent and straight-forward as the one you’ll find in a modern Lexus.
In fact, the darlings of the BMW, Mercedes and Audi range are still the diesels, and diesel is becoming demonised in favour of low-emission, tax-busting petrol cars. So it appears Lexus is standing out in front with its IS. At least, that is, until you look at the sales figures.
The IS is a good car with good road manners, class-leading build quality, handsome looks, Japanese reliability and bucket-loads of kit.
So why is it being outsold by the Germans? The simple answer is, I don’t know. I suspect a lot of it is down to badge snobbery – but has anyone every been ashamed to tell someone they drive a Lexus? Surely not.
Perhaps it’s down to handling prowess. As I said, a BMW will out-handle an IS, especially the 300h hybrid with its CVT gearbox, but not everyone covets a car which sets their pulse racing at every bend.
It can’t be down to practicality, either. There’s plenty of space in the IS and it’s more comfortable than its rivals. Even the Mercedes.
And it’s not as if it’s a slow-coach. The IS Hybrid’s 2.5-litre petrol engine and electric motor combine to give 220bhp, which is fairly decent for a car that can offer 60mpg and will shove it to 60mph in 8.4 seconds. Having said that, its CVT gearbox makes progress feel duller than it actually is, which is a shame.
In fact, what the IS is best at is wafting along in a very Mercedes-like way; soaking up the UK’s rough road surfaces and making you feel cosseted in that wonderful cabin.
A decent hybrid IS 300h will set you back around £35,000 and that’s the entry point to a world of choice in the saloon sector. And that, I suspect, is the biggest problem facing the IS.
There’s little to criticise, especially following the handful of tweaks for 2017, but there’s little to make it stand out. Not that that makes it any less of a car.
The way I see it, the IS is a car for people who want a break from the norm. I suspect it’s been (and still is) the go-to car for the legions of Saab drivers who wanted something that wasn’t German.
And therein lies its biggest strength. The IS is a credible and capable alternative to the obvious, ubiquitous and often rather tedious offerings that tend to be the default choice.
I’m not sure the revisions in the 2017 model have done enough to make it stand out over its rivals but it should still be worth a look for anyone in the market for a sensible, comfortable and economical saloon that will cut a dash in the office car park.
So where does that leave us? The best thing about the new IS is not its looks, its hybrid drivetrain and low emissions or its wonderful cabin… It’s the fact it’s not German. Well, that’s good enough for me, anyway.