By Jonathan Crouch
This third generation Lexus IS was much improved by its facelift in 2017 and, like the earlier version of this MK3 model, was tasked with a simple mission: to be a car that customers would enjoy owning more than a Mercedes C Class, an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 series, the three leading choices in the compact-to-mid-sized executive saloon segment. The objective then, was straightforward - but achieving it proved to be anything but, as other brands who've simply tried to copy the winning Teutonic formula have found to their cost. Lexus used to be one of these, but with this MK3 model IS, they were at least a bit cleverer, primarily through the offering of petrol/electric hybrid power rather than the kind of 2.0-litre diesel engine business buyers were used to in this period. It was a refreshing approach for people in search of something just that little bit different. And still is.
Here's an interesting car, the Lexus IS. Here, we're looking at the lightly improved version of the third generation model we first saw in 2013, this update introduced in 2017 claiming to be smarter, safer, better to drive - and still very different, not least in the way it championed hybrid power in this segment.
The uniqueness of this car was always its most important selling point. After all, for many potential buyers, its main appeal lay not in what it was but also in what it wasn't. Namely a BMW, an Audi or a Mercedes, these being the three Teutonic heavyweight brands who then, as now, dominate the compact-to-mid-sized executive saloon sector in which this Japanese contender competed. As a result, back in 2017, UK company carparks were overflowing with 3 Series, A4 and C-Class models, with the cars in question nearly all powered by clattery diesel engines and mainly driven via the kind of over-firm sporty set-ups that the magazines insisted buyers should have. If though, you're fed up with these predictable choices from this period and want something that re-interprets what a car of this kind should be, then this, we'd suggest, is one of the places you'll need to start your search.
With the first generation version of this model, launched back in 1998, Lexus messed around with different body shapes. With the MK2 design of 2005, the brand dabbled with diesel power. When this third generation arrived in mid-2013 though, Lexus had become more comfortable in itself, content to concentrate on its strengths, no longer feeling the need to copy what others were doing. Sure enough, almost everything about this IS was different from the norm in its chosen segment. The styling, the single saloon body style, the absence of manual transmission and, perhaps most notably, the fact that you couldn't have a diesel. Here instead, you got a unique four-door look, an auto gearbox and an overwhelming emphasis on petrol/electric hybrid power, with its sensible running costs and limo-like silent start-up.
By 2017 of course, much had changed since this MK3 IS model's original introduction back in 2013. The three German class leaders had all been forced to up their games by the arrival of Jaguar's desirable XE, while those wanting something distinctively different in this segment were by then also being targeted by cars like the Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Infiniti Q50. Hence the need for this revised, re-engineered third generation IS model, mainly offered in IS300h hybrid form (a conventionally-engined IS200h 2.0-litre turbo petrol model was offered in 2017, but quickly deleted). Overall, this IS update was a decent improvement but when production finished in 2021, this model line wasn't replaced, Lexus directing customers instead to the slightly larger ES saloon.
What You Get
Lexus switched decisively from bland to bold with this MK3 model IS and this revised version adopted an even more assertive persona. It's difficult to believe that when work first started on this third generation design back in 2008, the original plan was for it to be a badge-engineered Toyota Avensis. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and what we ended up with is a properly credible alternative to the established premium players in this segment. As with the earlier version of this MK3 IS model, the saloon body style was all that Lexus was prepared to offer.
As for the changes introduced as part of this mid-term refresh, well they were most evident at the front. There was fresh full-LED technology for re-shaped headlamps that gained a more pronounced look than before and better emphasised the smart 'L' configuration of the tick-shaped daytime running light slashes. The main lamp units were restyled to extend further inwards towards the subtly re-styled spindle-shaped grille which in this form, blended more smoothly into the sleeker bonnet. An even bigger change was made to the shape of the lower corner air intakes, which in this restyled form delivered a more powerful road presence. At the rear the tail light clusters were restyled, featuring full LED technology.
And inside? Well with most rivals in this segment from this period, original buyers had to spend quite a lot to get a really luxurious-feeling cabin but in this IS, there was a premium feel to the interior right across the range. The update changes made here were as subtle as the outside ones, with perhaps the most significant alteration being a slight reduction in the width of the console provided for the audio and ventilation controls. That allowed the driver and passenger knee pad panels to run right up into the centre stack where twin vents got separated by a lovely analogue clock.
Above that sits the obligatory infotainment screen, this the 7-inch monitor provided with the 'Lexus Media Display' fitted to most IS models. This isn't the touchscreen set-up you'll find in most rivals, but it works quote effectively via a rotary dial near the gearstick that lets you click through the usual audio, telephone, navigation and car-related segments, plus there's a section that adds further climate control features. Go for one of the really plush variants and you may get yourself a version of this car fitted with Lexus's larger 10.3-inch screen, provided as part of the 'Lexus Premium Navigation' system. With this though, you have to have what Lexus calls a 'Remote Touch Interface controller', essentially an eight-way moveable 'mouse' that works a screen cursor requiring quite a subtle touch. Overall, we prefer the functionality of the lesser set-up.
And in the back? Well the lengthened wheelbase of the MK3 IS model always offered much more rear space than the old pre-2013 second generation design could provide, but it's still fairly compact in the rear, though that's also the case with most obvious rivals. There's really only space for two in the back, something guaranteed by the extremely prominent transmission tunnel. As for the boot, well the 480-litre capacity of the minority-interest IS 200t variant matches the prevailing class standard, but the fact that batteries must be housed beneath the floor of the hybrid IS 300h model robs this trunk area of 30-litres of space. Need more space? Well, unlike rivals, there's no estate body style option but if you've avoided entry-level trim, there is the option of being able to push forward the rear seatbacks.
What to Look For
We really struggled to find too many dis-satisfied Lexus IS owners. Not that we expected to find many. The brand has an enviable reputation for reliability and dealer service and that appears to have been continued here. Of the issues that did occur, most seem to be connected with the 12v battery - or other electrics. Noisy creaking brakes seem occasionally to be an issue. One owner had rear shock absorbers that were weeping, a front parking sensor failure and a noisy whirring sound from the dash.
We did come across a few reports of drivetrain vibrations. On the IS 300h models affected, this apparently sets in between 1,200 and 1,400rpm, so look out for that on your test drive. We did come across a couple of owners who complained that on one occasion, their 300h models wouldn't start. In one of these cases, this was because the car had been left for a few weeks. Finally, in one instance, an owner reported a problem with the auto wipers not working. Otherwise, there's little else to report. Check for alloy wheel scuffs - and insist on a full service record.
(approx based on a 2018 IS 300h- Ex Vat) An air filter costs around £16 and an oil filter costs around £7. Brake pads sit in the £30 to £35 bracket for a set. Front brake pads cost in the £23-£33 bracket; it's around £26 for rears. Front brake discs cost in the £37 bracket; it's around £63 for rears. Wiper blades cost in the £4 to £13 bracket. For a replacement wing mirror glass, you're looking at about £28. A thermostat is in the £16-£44 bracket.
On the Road
From the get-go, this IS feels like it's going to be good to drive and the suspension and steering improvements made to this revised third generation model certainly delivered in that regard. As with the original version of this MK3 model, there was no diesel option, buyers instead being restricted to a couple of four cylinder petrol engine choices. These included the conventional 245bhp 2.0-litre turbo unit fitted to the IS 200t variant that almost no one in this country bought; and the full-Hybrid IS 300h petrol/electric model we suggest you focus on, which mates a 2.5-litre petrol unit with a compact electric motor to deliver a system output of 223bhp. Unfortunately, this set-up has to work via a belt-driven E-CVT auto gearbox that's frustratingly unresponsive when you bury the throttle, though it's fine when you're merely ambling about
Lexus included a clever 'ASC' or 'Active Sound Control' set-up to provide a bit of synthesised engine noise, plus all models got a standard 'Drive Mode Select' system that tweaks engine output, throttle response and gearshift times via 'Normal', 'Sport' and 'ECO' settings. Select 'ECO' and an entry-level IS 300h 'SE' variant is capable of up to 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and 97g/km of CO2 (both NEDC figures). That makes the IS300h derivative just as economical as most 2.0-litre diesel rivals from this period, at the same time as being cleaner in emissions generated from cheaper fuel. If you're more interested in drive dynamics, look for an 'F-SPORT'-trimmed variant because many of these were equipped with the option of 'AVS' 'Adaptive Variable Suspension'.
Even by 2017, this third generation IS had been a quietly successful model line for Lexus, clocking up over a million sales, with 6,000 new owners taking delivery every month. So this update should have helped it considerably, particularly in a market switching away from diesel power towards the kind of electrified hybrid powertrain this IS had long been offering. Instead though, this final MK3 model update proved to be the IS model line's final performance and when production finished in 2021, it wasn't replaced, Lexus directing customers instead to the slightly larger ES model.
As a used buy though, this final version of the IS looks a savvy choice - well, in IS300h hybrid guise anyway: we wouldn't bother with the rare alternative IS200t conventional variant. Don't go expecting a choice of body styles or a wide range of different power options. And though on the road, the ride and handling of this post-2017 IS model was much improved, the engineers weren't unfortunately able to do very much about the way that the vague response from the thrashy CVT auto gearbox, which rather undermines the driving experience. But there are also lots of things to like - looks, build quality, efficiency, equipment and luxury for instance. Back in 2017, we rated this car as the best small Lexus yet made. And that makes it a very desirable thing indeed.