FIRST DRIVE | New 2021 Lexus IS 300h feels slow and dated
Wielding in-line six-cylinder engines, rear-wheel drive and athletic styling (for the era); there were no prizes for guessing which competitor the first-generation Lexus IS was gunning for.
It was the BMW 3-Series of course, long regarded as the premium three-box benchmark with a sporting edge.
Over the years the Japanese model has forged a path of its own — not striving to be a facsimile of its German counterpart, placing a greater emphasis on the luxury, refinement and standard equipment aspects of the package, in addition to delivering on those dynamic pretexts.
But the fourth-generation car which was launched in SA earlier this month seems to have eschewed the streak of fun that made is predecessor such a compelling alternative to the usual gang of suspects.
Rear-wheel drive remains, but gone is the six-cylinder option in favour of one engine choice: a flaccid four-cylinder hybrid (IS 300h). We could attribute that earlier accusation about a lack of fun to propulsion alone, because sufficient work was performed on the chassis in a bid to make the new car more engaging.
That includes rigorous testing at the firm’s new country-road course in Shimoyama, Japan. Front and rear track has been widened (45mm and 50mm respectively); while the overall rigidity of the IS has been enhanced, with improved welding techniques and additional bracing.
Lighter, stronger components were employed in the suspension, with coil springs promising greater robustness as well as upper control arms made from aluminium, unlike steel as before. Opt for the F-Sport version and you get an adaptive variable suspension set-up, which works well to keep things level and tidy despite the stresses of exuberant cornering and abrupt brake and accelerator inputs.
So, can I forego the dreary IS 300h and have the beefy eight-cylinder IS 500, you ask? Sorry, no right-hand production on the cards at present. Also gone is the option of the effusive 2.0-litre, turbocharged unit that did service before.
The output of the 2.5-litre petrol unit under the hood is 133kW and 221Nm, while Lexus claims a total system output of 164kW, including the efforts of the battery system. The quoted sprint time of 8.7 seconds is unremarkable in isolation, but the vehicle felt even slower in the real world. More woeful is the fitment of a continuously-variable transmission (CVT).
Overtaking is not dispatched with the urgency one would like in such a vehicle. The IS seems best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. It excels as a comfortable cruiser, with a polished ride and a wonderfully hushed cabin.
The newcomer is a curious thing from an aesthetic perspective. The front and side angles are undoubtedly striking, pin-sharp in the typical Lexus way and with hallmarks like the imposing spindle grille. But the rear appears incongruent. This is because someone on the design team thought it would be a great idea to incorporate the swollen boot-lid from a 2003 BMW 6-Series.
And though it may look like an all-new model, it is not. This is an extensive revision of the third-generation XE30 launched in 2013. A point which is especially clear once seated behind the wheel.
While rivals have gone for future-forward, screen-intensive layouts, the dashboard of the Lexus still looks like a DVD player released at the turn of the new millennium.
That means lots of buttons, rotary dials and that touchpad which the firm obstinately refuses to address even though it has been the subject of criticism in virtually every review ever penned.
Ironically, there is something to be appreciated about the old-school approach held by the IS, which still boasts an analogue clock. The switchgear has an assuring sense of tactility that, for certain buyers, might beat the synthetic feedback of a touchscreen system. But that interface in the Lexus can be operated by touch as well.
If you seek an authentic sports sedan, the Lexus IS 300h may leave you wanting in the power department, even if its underpinnings are well-sorted. In the categories of comfort, luxury and specification, it fares well. But if you prioritised those virtues specifically, then the cheaper ES (from R676,300) would serve better.