JOHANNESBURG, Gauteng – At first acquaintance, the 2021 Lexus IS sports sedan is one beautifully realised piece of personalised mobility. It has a body shell so solid it could well have been hewn from Belfast granite. It offers great communication through the steering wheel in an unflustered, mature fashion. And the cabin is finished in beautiful materials with no shortcuts visible in terms of panel fit, or the various fabrics needed to give this sedan a super-premium level of appeal.
All this you realise at crawl speeds as you make your way through the suburbs, because you don’t have to be travelling fast to realise understand an inordinate amount of work has gone into making this car feel reactive to steering inputs and enable braking in an unobtrusive fashion. Similarly, at commuting speeds, the noise suppression is very good, both in terms of the mechanicals and the road surface.
The latest IS breaks ground in that for the first time, the entire model range is powered by a hybrid powertrain, with a continuously variable transmission supplying power to the rear wheels. Prior to this, the IS was available with a 185 kW turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, a rip-snorting, naturally aspirated 232 kW V6 or a petrol-electric hybrid package in the IS300h SE, offering 164 kW in total.
This latter powertrain is pretty much the one used for the latest 2021-spec IS300h, in EX, SE and F Sport form. So the reality is that the F Sport tag refers only to appearance and equipment changes, and gone is the ability to accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in under six seconds, as you could with the previous IS350 F Sport.
The petrol engine used is a 2,5-litre four-cylinder unit that produces 133 kW and 221 N.m from 4 200 to 5 400 r/min. Torque figures for the electric engine are not supplied, but combined power output for both is 164 kW. That’s substantially down on the outputs for both the previous-spec EX and F Sport, but presumably Lexus feels an “electrified” tag for the whole range is now more important than quick acceleration figures and lofty top speeds.
It is true that in this day and age, engine performance that is “adequate” has taken preference in many model ranges, becoming more important than punchy acceleration, a zesty exhaust note and throaty induction sound. A svelte, unobtrusive power delivery is deemed by many to be more desirable, as long as it is accompanied by excellent fuel consumption figures.
Lexus claims an average of 5,2 L/100 km for this car, but I would be surprised if this would be a typical overall fuel consumption realised by a hybrid-powered IS owner. The average readout on the launch model IS300 EX I drove read 8,2 L/100 km, and whilst launch driving figures are typically heavy, as journos explore all the performance on tap, I would think an overall average in the region of 6,5 L/100 km would be a pretty decent achievement.
One of the reasons for this is a high kerb weight. With the battery needed to provide current to the electric engine, as well as the dual-engine design, the IS weighs in at between 1 700 and 1 735 kg. That is weighty indeed for a car of this size, and accelerating all that mass in a stop-start situation takes lots of energy. Lexus has managed to reduce weight in the car by using aluminium in certain areas, such as some body-chassis panels and suspension components, but by comparison, the previous IS300 EX with a turbocharged petrol engine had a kerb weight of less than 1 600 kg. So that electric engine, along with the battery, adds considerable weight.
You wouldn’t be aware of that heft in urban driving or indeed in highway cruising conditions. With a trailing throttle, the four-cylinder engine turns over at a mere 1 000 r/min at 120 km/h. But just touch the throttle and the CVT gearbox gets instantly excited and ramps up the revs to 3 000, possibly more. Stand on it a bit more to overtake a slower vehicle and the revs ramp up considerably, to the 5 000 or even 6 000 r/min level.
The powertrain, as a whole, is a disappointment on such a beautifully engineered car. The CVT has paddle shifters to ostensibly select intermediate “gear-steps” but selecting one of these merely raises the revs unnaturally high, and then if you back off the throttle it immediately shifts up a few gear steps to “D”, where again you are at the mercy of the so-called optimum torque function, which means unnaturally high revs. So you soon abandon the idea of using the gear steps to achieve a simulated multi-speed transmission and live with the mono-pitch droning that accompanies acceleration or hauling up a hill. There are a lot of CVTs on the market now that have basically overcome this droning problem, accurately simulating a pukka automatic transmission, but this is not one of them.
If this sounds like a bit of a rant, it is because in every other respect this is a superb car. The styling is breathtaking in its use of dramatic sharp edges, and it manages to present an overall cohesive shape that is extremely arresting without in any way being kitsch. You can choose between the EX and SE models if you feel that 18-inch alloy wheels are enough for you, while the F Sport model is denoted by a different grille and a diffuser ornamentation at the rear and 19-inch alloy wheels.
My advice is to choose the EX. This is because the ride is notably better thanks to the 235/45 R18 rubber used on this car, as opposed to the 235/40 R19 tyres that accompany the larger wheels. These are run-flat tyres, but road noise and comfort on the EX is extremely impressive, less so on the F Sport I tried. The F Sport, incidentally, logically offers additional trim such as a revised instrument panel where the rev-counter and speedo are combined. The SE and F Sport models come with satellite navigation, voice control and LED headlamps, amongst many other features.
Those who are into high style will appreciate the dual-tone upholstery in the F Sport, although personally I would not opt for white panels on the seats, which are just asking to age quickly. Further, on a practical mind-set, the rear-seat space is marginally better than that of the previous car, but access to these pews is spoiled by the new lower roof-line (the first thing I did was bump my head). But the boot at 450 litres is generous enough.
So, what’s the verdict? This is a very attractive car for someone who loves the visual impact it makes when pulling into a parking lot or parking alongside a pavement café. In terms of the way it rides and handles, it is almost faultless. But as for the engine-transmission combination, if you are doing long trips in the car or plenty of highway driving, that CVT droning is going to get very irritating, very quickly.
It wouldn’t have been so annoying if the petrol engine used were the previous F Sport’s soulful V6. But this 2,5-litre four-cylinder doesn’t have a charismatic sound and the fact that the engine makes itself heard as soon as you need acceleration is going to bug even the hard-of-hearing amongst us.
Prices are R841 300 for the Lexus IS 300 EX, R899 800 for the Lexus IS SE, and R916 100 for the Lexus IS 300 F Sport. Lexus offers an excellent warranty on these cars of seven years or 105 000 km, with a maintenance plan of the same duration.
Author: Stuart Johnston
Engine:2,5-litre, four-cylinder petrol + electric motor
Power:164 kW total system output
Torque:221 N.m total system output
0-100 km/h:8,7 seconds
Top Speed:200 km/h
Fuel Consumption:5,2 L/100 km (claimed)
Maintenance Plan:Seven-year/105 000 km