In the second of a monthly series, motoring editor Jeremy Taylor drives the Lexus IS300h and finds a car that's German in everything but name. Plus: he compares BMW’s 320d
Could it be a trick of the light or is there something rather Germanic about the shape of the new Lexus IS300h?
The curves and lines are so familiar that the celebrated BMW designer Chris Bangle himself could have had a hand in the styling.
Any designer tasked with shaping a £30,000 saloon for the European market might be tempted to do the same as Lexus, the luxury arm of Toyota.
The IS300h is not a copycat car by any means but in the cut-throat executive sector, Mercedes, Audi and BMW are irresistibly hard to beat.
Fortunately, the IS300h does have a unique selling point to beat off the German challenge, one that can help save the planet and make you feel good at the fuel pump.
The ‘h’ in the title stands for hybrid and for all their huff and puff, no German manufacturer can boast a track record like Lexus for mating a petrol engine to an electric motor.
Lexus doesn’t pretend it is that good at uber-efficient diesels like the Germans. Instead, the IS is equipped with a 2.5-litre petrol engine, bolstered up to a total of 220bhp by a tried and tested electric motor.
It will power you from 0-60mph in a modest 8.3 seconds and return 61mpg. However, the IS300h also falls below the 100g/km line for CO2 – which means zero road tax and no London Congestion Charge.
If figures aren’t your thing, then you can marvel at it all working beautifully in graphic form, via the seven-inch infotainment display screen fitted in the Lexus.
An image of the power source illuminates as the car changes from electric to petrol power, then back again. It also shows when the rechargeable batteries are being topped up as the wheels are in motion. Brilliant, if a little distracting for the driver.
I delighted in driving the Lexus, if only because it was almost more German than the German rivals themselves.
The stiff body-shell and firm suspension deliver excellent ride quality, with precise handling to rival the best of BMW. The build quality is also first-class, just what you would expect from a manufacturer that regularly tops customer satisfaction surveys.
Most of the time, the IS300h starts off in electric mode, which is rather disconcerting for the uninitiated. Press the start button, the dashboard lights come on and… nothing happens.
It’s only as the car eases forward in silence that you delight at the power of electric. Harsher acceleration brings the petrol engine to life, but transition between the two is seamless.
If you have never driven a hybrid car before, Lexus engineers have thoughtfully added sound effects in the cabin, to make you feel more at home.
I drove the £29,495 SE model but the F Sport version (pictured), from £33,495, has a switch on the dashboard that plays realistic engine noise for those who are nervous when faced with the sound of silence.
Less welcome is a rather functional dashboard design that doesn’t sit well with an otherwise well-crafted interior. Leg-room in the rear is adequate, but my most serious gripe is a lack of full postcode facility with the satellite navigation, making the search for a rural address nightmarish.
Overall, it’s hard not to like the IS300h. From the Nike ‘slash’ daytime running lights, to a Google Streetview app that entertains for hours, the Lexus is a worthy rival to the best of German.
Just don’t try finding a remote farm in the Cotswolds without an additional TomTom satnav stuck to your hand.
The BMW 320d: the benchmark
Classy, stylish and beautifully bolted together, the 320d is a benchmark executive car against which all others should be judged. The entry-level BMW saloon is so annoyingly talented that none of the rivals come close to its brilliance.
The latest versions are the best yet, sporting the familiar BMW profile and a cabin that screams luxury from every well-trimmed panel.
Forget the petrol versions because the efficient and lively diesels are effortlessly refined, with prices starting at around £28,000 for the 320d.
The extra frugal Efficient Dynamics model can return 68.9mpg and has a tank range of 861 miles. And don’t be fooled into thinking efficient equals dull, because the ED version can still race from 0-60mph in eight seconds.
Standard equipment across the range includes a five-star NCAP crash safety rating, lots of driver aids to prevent skidding, and six airbags. Bluetooth and climate control take the chore out of long journeys.
Extras don’t come cheap on any BMW, but it’s worth considering their latest satellite navigation system, plus the Active Security Package, which includes an ingenious lane departure warning system for motorway driving.
If the 3 Series does have an Achilles heel, it’s this: like the rest of the BMW saloon range it is remarkably bad on ice and snow.
The rear-wheel drive set-up, which makes the car reassuringly good around a fast corner, also spells disaster when Tarmac gets slippy at this time of year.