Lexus IS review
The Lexus IS is a compact executive saloon aimed at the BMW 3-Series. It takes a different approach though, with no diesel option available.
The Lexus IS is a desirable, stylish and well-built alternative to more mainstream German executive saloons. Rather than copying the competition, Lexus has forged its own path with the IS. It’s brimming with kit, though, and the interior is crafted from sumptuous materials that wouldn’t look out of place in a £100,000 Mercedes S-Class. However, there’s no diesel option, no manual gearboxes and no practical estate model, so if you want one, you may need to compromise.
The Lexus IS is a stylish compact executive saloon, which tears up the German-written rulebook. It rivals cars like the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4, though there’s no diesel engine, no manual gearbox and no estate model. The IS sits above the entry-level CT 200h hatchback in the Lexus model range, but below the GS executive saloon and LS luxury model. Lexus also offers a pair of SUVs; the NX and RX, as well as a BMW 4 Series-rivalling coupe, called the RC.
There are a variety of trims for IS buyers to choose from, kicking off with the basic SE and topping out with the spectacularly-equipped Premier model. Engine choices are restricted to a 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid (the IS 300h) and a 2.0-litre turbo petrol (the IS 200t) – though the latter isn’t available as an entry-level SE. Mid-range F-Sport models look great and come with sporty add-ons, but unfortunately don’t benefit from any engine or chassis tweaks to make the IS more fun to drive.
The previous-generation Lexus IS offered a super-quick IS F model that offered an alternative to the BMW M3, though Lexus hasn’t yet said if there will be a replacement. The larger Lexus GS F has recently gone on sale, though, packing a whopping 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine for scintillating straight-line performance.
Engines, performance and drive
The new IS uses an updated version of its predecessor's chassis, which is now more rigid and uses 20 per cent firmer suspension (the F Sport model is firmer still) with revised geometry. The result is excellent stability in the corners, plenty of grip and very little body roll. Well-weighted steering and strong brakes inspire confidence, too - the problem though is the lackluster engine line-up.
The IS 300h is smooth and refined, but attempt to extract any performance and the whining CVT gearbox, lazy throttle response and sluggish acceleration (despite an output of 220bhp) spoil the fun. The IS 200t is more responsive, but never feels particularly sporty. In an attempt to up the fun, there are wheel mounted paddles for both models – but you’re better off leaving the IS to its own devices. A BMW 3 Series is more entertaining on a twisty back road, as is a Jaguar XE.
Lexus IS buyers get a choice of two engines. These comprise the efficient IS 300h hybrid capable of 67mpg, and a turbocharged petrol called the IS 200t. Previously, interested customers were given the option of a V6-engined IS 250, but that has since been removed from the range.
With no diesel on offer, it’s the hybrid we’d go for. It’s not the smoothest ride, and the CVT gearbox can prove frustrating if you’re in a hurry, but on the whole, it’s a capable, efficient and quiet executive car. It has the ability to run on electric power alone around town to help save precious petrol, though you’ll struggle to get more than a couple of miles out of the batteries before it defaults to the combustion engine.
The IS 200t petrol on the other hand, seems like a compromised choice. It’s the fastest model on offer, but the slow automatic gearbox can’t compete with slicker shifting rivals. In F Sport spec the ride is a bit firm, while combined fuel economy can’t compare to its hybrid sibling. It’s pretty quiet on the motorway, though.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
If you’re looking for a cost-effective company car, the Lexus IS is a fine bet. The petrol-electric drivetrain in the IS 300h means it doesn’t suffer the same three per cent tax penalty as its diesel rivals, while lower CO2 emissions ensure your annual bills will be over £500 cheaper than they’d be for an Infiniti Q50.
If you go for the entry-level IS 300h SE, you’ll forfeit the larger wheels and stylish add-ons of the better specced cars, but in turn you’ll benefit from rock-bottom 97g/km CO2 emissions. That car will return 67.3mpg, too, while the other models all manage between 61.4mpg and 65.7mpg depending on wheel size.
If hybrid isn’t your cup of tea, the IS 200t turbocharged petrol will return a lowly 39.2mpg and emit a comparatively poor 167g/km. A BMW 320i will do 47.9mpg, while the new Audi A4 beats them both with 119g/km CO2 emissions and 53.3mpg fuel economy. The Lexus’s list price is a little on the high side compared to the alternatives, but it gets you a load of kit as standard.
Insurance groups for the Lexus IS start at 31 for the IS 300h SE and rise to 38 for the IS 200t F Sport. A mid-spec IS 300h Luxury sits in group 33. For comparison, a basic BMW 3 Series starts around group 28, rising to 43 for a 335d xDrive Luxury.
The Lexus fares pretty well in terms of depreciation, with even top-spec models retaining between 45 and 48 per cent of their value after three years. Some of the less desirable IS 250 petrol models will drop quicker, but the newer, more economical IS 200t is likely to improve on this.
The BMW 3 Series is – if anything – a little worse. Values for BMW’s big seller range from 39 per cent for the thirstier petrols, to almost 50 per cent for the most efficient, entry-level diesels. Most fall in the 42 to 45 per cent bracket, though.
Interior, design and technology
The Lexus IS goes its own way in the compact executive saloon class, with angular styling that takes some of its inspiration from the LFA supercar. It has similar dimensions to its rivals here, but overall it seems longer and narrower, and the dynamic detailing really sets it apart.
The front end looks best from head-on, and there's a strange mix of angles, sweeps and lines towards the back. The rear light clusters start on the wing and wrap all the way around to the numberplate. It’s a striking design, there’s no doubt about that.
Inside, the Lexus is similar to other models in the range. That means you get a stepped dashboard with a central display screen that’s set well back, decent-quality plastics and a smattering of satin silver trim. Cars fitted with sat-nav add a joystick that’s used to guide the cursor around the screen. It may sound like a good idea in principle, but in reality it’s terribly hard to navigate – and the infotainment graphics are showing their age.
One neat touch in the Lexus is its touch-sensitive heater controls – you simply slide your finger up and down the silver bar to raise or lower the temperature. It adds a touch of class and makes conventional systems – like the one you find in the BMW 3 Series – feel old hat.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
All but the entry-level Lexus IS 300h SE include sat-nav as standard – so in our eyes it’s worth upgrading to the Executive Edition or Sport for an additional £1,000. You’ll sacrifice those low 97g/km CO2 emissions, but if you value your tech goodies it’s well worth the extra cash.
That said, all cars come with ‘Lexus media display’ and a six-speaker stereo. Cruise control, keyless entry and dual zone climate control are all included, too. A superb Mark Levinson stereo is available as an optional extra across the range.
The problem for us is the system used to control the car’s functions. Pairing your phone is easy enough, but setting the sat-nav is a nightmare. It’s unreasonably difficult to navigate using the mouse-like cursor – and while this is likely to become easier with practice, it’s just not as intuitive as the BMW or Audi equivalent.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
There’s lots of space up front in the Lexus IS, and as the new model is larger than its predecessor there's more legroom in the rear, too. The seats are plush and supremely comfortable over long journeys – but if you’ve got a bad back it might be worth avoiding the firmer F Sport models.
The turbocharged IS 200t boasts a decent 480 litres of bootspace (the same as you’ll find in a BMW 3 Series or Audi A4) but the hybrid loses 30 litres to the bulky batteries under the boot floor. On the plus side, rear folding seats do offer plenty of extra space for longer items. Unlike its German rivals, there’s no estate model on offer.
Lexus' new parking navigation service means finding a car park is no longer a hassle, either – it also displays price information so you can easily avoid extortionate prices if you're driving in a busy city.
The Lexus IS is similar in size to cars like the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class – though its sharp lines make it look a bit more compact. Inside you’ll find less headroom due to the sloping roofline, and unfortunately there’s no practical estate model. If you want a Lexus with more bootspace, you’ll need to look at the NX SUV.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The current Lexus IS is a big improvement over the old car. It’s bigger inside thanks to thinner front seats – resulting in much more rear legroom. It’s a shame Lexus couldn’t make the transmission tunnel a bit smaller, though, as it makes things a bit tricky for those in the middle seat. There’s more space up front, and plenty of room for you to scatter bits and bobs around the cabin.
The standard IS 200t’s boot is on a par with all its main rivals – matching the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4’s 480-litre load area. However, if you opt for the fuel-efficient IS 300h hybrid, as many buyers will, you’ll sacrifice 30 of those litres to make room for the bulky batteries. It’s not a deal breaker, but it does dent the IS’s otherwise decent practicality somewhat.
All but the entry-level IS 300h SE are available with split-fold rear seats, though, allowing for easy transportation of longer items. There’s no versatile estate model unfortunately, handing yet another advantage to German rivals.
Reliability and Safety
The Lexus IS is one of the best cars on sale, according to 61,000 UK car drivers. It topped our Driver Power owner satisfaction survey in 2015, beating the Skoda Yeti, Hyundai i10 and SEAT Leon. Owners praised the IS for reliability, build quality and ease of driving – as well as comfort and in-car tech.
The IS uses a variation of the hybrid system from the Toyota Prius, and it’s covered by its own eight-year warranty.
Like its rivals, the IS has a five-star Euro NCAP crash-test rating, and it comes with eight airbags compared to six in the 320d and Q50. But as with those cars, some of the Lexus’ most advanced safety tech is only offered as an option on the top-spec Premier model.
Unlike parent company Toyota, which offers a five-year warranty, Lexus only covers its cars for three years or 60,000 miles. However, buyers of the IS 300h model get their hybrid components and batteries covered for five years or 60,000 miles. In addition to the standard warranty, owners get a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty and three-year paintwork warranty.
Lexus owners shouldn’t have to spend much time at their dealer, not least because it was voted as one of the most reliable cars in the 2015 Driver Power survey.
Servicing is required once a year or every 15,000 miles – whichever comes first. Necessary work alternates between intermediate and full services, costing £245 and £445 respectively. At 60,000 and 100,000 miles the IS needs a bit more attention, with ‘Full+60’ and ‘Full+100’ checks. Both hybrid and petrol models are covered under the same schedule.