Lexus IS Driving Impression
CAPE TOWN – Globally, the majority of automakers have shown or are showing some sort of interest in electrification. But here in South Africa that's largely not been the case thanks to pricing and infrastructure considerations (although that appears to be slowly changing with the likes of the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron headed to local shores). Still, with fuel costs taking a hefty bite out of the average SA motorist's monthly income, is it time we start seriously considering electrification?
Well, Lexus South Africa certainly thinks so ... and has done so for some time now. And although it’s not a plug-in solution, the newly added IS300h – which joins the brand's growing stable of hybrids – still offers the potential of frugality, with its 2,5-litre four-cylinder engine (designed specifically for hybrid use) delivering power to the rear axle via a continuously variable transmission (its petrol-powered siblings, meanwhile, each employ an eight-speed torque converter).
In the IS300h, this hybrid powertrain serves up a suitably relaxed driving experience, with the petrol engine and electric motor working well together and providing its power without much of that dreaded CVT drone. Indeed, much like those in other Japanese vehicles we've sampled this year, this transmission comes across as a vast improvement over earlier examples.
The IS300h features three distinct driving modes – eco, normal and sport – with each simply adjusting the sensitivity of the throttle. An EV-mode is also available, but it functions only at speeds below 60 km/h once the battery is sufficiently charged.
Interestingly, I didn't really feel compelled to explore the IS300h's dynamic limits, despite the sedan employing the same engaging chassis we've become quite fond of in the IS350 F-Sport. Everything from the ride to the steering feel has seemingly been tweaked to render the IS300h as relaxing to drive as possible (something that may endear it to older consumers). The ride is particularly impressive considering the vehicle uses run-flat tyres, which have attracted a bad reputation when it comes to comfort.
With the IS range selling in relatively low numbers locally against its mainstream competitors, there's no denying this new hybrid version is a niche product. Indeed, it's going to be a tough sell here in South Africa, despite offering the potential of low fuel consumption (with a claimed figure of 5,0 L/100 km), generous standard specification and a comfortable ride.
While a price of R753 800 may at first seem large, it's worth noting the IS300h undercuts the BMW 330e plug-in hybrid while also offering a lengthy seven-year maintenance plan and an impressive catalogue of safety features, including adaptive cruise control and active emergency braking.
Sure, it likely won't prove very popular with South Africa's infamously brand loyal buyers (particularly in the compact sedan segment), but Lexus SA should be commended for offering the IS300h as yet another interesting vehicle in a long line of hybrid alternatives ... just as other brands start their local push towards electrification.
Nelspruit - In an attempt to make the local Lexus IS line-up more competitive in 2017, the brand's smallest sedan has been given a few cosmetic upgrades, both inside and out. Together with this, the IS 350 F Sport also gains some transmission and engine mapping revisions, as well as an improved chassis.
Visual changes are immediately obvious are the front, lending the luxury sedan more of an aggressive look thanks to larger air intakes an a more prominent grille. Other styling revisions include redesigned exhaust tailpipes, new LED head- and taillamps and a resculptured bonnet.
The facelifted F Sport model now features a 10,3-inch infotainment screen with an updated control system that includes an enter button for easier use. New cup-holders and a revised instrument panel have also been added.
Upgrades you can't see
The IS 350 F Sport still employs the brand's naturally aspirated 3,5-litre V6 engine, which delivers 233 kW and 378 N.m to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, although it has benefitted from slight mapping changes.
The front double wishbone suspension, meanwhile, gains a new forged aluminium lower arm assembly, which Lexus says results in a 49% increase in rigidity. Support bushes, coil spring rate and shock absorbers have also been revised to create more of a comfortable ride.
Other minor improvements include a more responsive electric power-steering system, a "sport +" driving mode and further fine-tuning of the adaptive variable suspension.
What do these changes feel like?
At its inception, the IS 350 F Sport was already a fairly engaging drive. It boasted an enjoyable V6 powerplant and capable suspension setup, helping to set it apart from its German rivals.
Despite the latest changes, one has to pay very close attention in order to notice any differences. Thankfully, the engaging aspect remains, particularly with the V6 fitted. The engine still offers a responsive yet comfortable delivery of power, which, when combined with the well-sprung suspension, makes for a dynamic driving experience that is rather easy to manage.
Of course, the element of thrill is missing. To some, this may be considered a positive, but those who long for a performance car that feels lively and "on the edge" should look elsewhere. Consider the BMW 340i or the soon-to-arrive Mercedes-AMG C43 as alternatives.
Given the fact that the roads we encountered on the local launch were laden with potholes seemingly the size of meteor craters, the revisions made to the suspension were indeed welcome. In fact, there were some moments when I mentally and physically braced myself for impact with a rogue pothole only to feel a very slight bump through the dampers.
Slaloming between the potholes was also not much of a challenge thanks to the direct and responsive steering system.
At first glance, there isn't much change to be noticed in the facelifted IS 350 F Sport. It still features that engaging yet easy-to-drive character, but when you dig deep enough, you'll start to notice where the minor updates make a difference.
The suspension and steering is somewhat more communicative and provides the driver with a little more confidence and comfort on winding roads. While it may lack in the excitement department, it still offers a refreshingly pure, engaging driving experience.
Buying this over one of the German alternatives would be a difficult decision to make, as the Lexus is not nearly as powerful and in certain aspects is even somewhat bland by comparison. But if thrills are not what you're after, the IS sedan offers a pleasingly lengthy standard specification list and is undoubtedly more exclusive on South African roads.
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