Lexus IS pre-prod drive

What have they been taking at Lexus recently? As if the LFA supercar wasn't enough, the brand best known for its hybrid tree-hugging, conservative nature and immaculate build quality unveiled a bonkers 650hp twin-turbo V8 version of its sedate LS saloon at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week.

Lexus will be hoping some of that feelgood factor rubs off on the new IS saloon, which will be officially unveiled at Detroit in January. We managed to sneak a drive of a disguised IS to get an early feel for the car and see if it's finally got what it takes to take on the BMW 3 Series.

Handling is tidy but BMW can sleep tight
Handling is tidy but BMW can sleep tight
The good news for PHers is that there will definitely be a new version of the M3-chasing, V8-powered IS F. The bad news is that it won't arrive for at least 12-18 months until after the standard IS goes on sale in summer 2013.

The baby Lexus range is likely to need that kind of fillip too if it's to prise reps out of their A4s, 3 Series and C-Classes. Lexus sold about 2,000 IS models in 2011, but will be hoping for closer to 4,500-5,000 sales per year when it's up and running. To put that into perspective those are the kind of sales the 3 Series can push out of UK showrooms every six weeks, wider range or no.

And for all the glamour of the IS F and M3 models the reality is diesels are the bread and butter, accounting for four in five sales in the class and symbolised by the all-conquering BMW 320d. Which makes Lexus's decision to drop its previous IS Diesel and put all its weight behind a hybrid all the more peculiar - until that is, you look at the figures. The new IS300h will boast a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine allied to an electric motor and a CVT automatic, with an estimated 0-62mph time of 8.5 seconds and 130mph top speed.

Lexus is staking its wedge on hybrids
Lexus is staking its wedge on hybrids
Headline figures are, unsurprisingly, aimed at tempting 320d drivers away from the black pump with around 64mpg combined and 99g/km. Which isn't as sexy as the IS F's tarmac rippling ability but probably more relevant for company drivers.

So much for number crunching, how does it drive? Back to back with the existing IS, there's no question the new one boasts a sharper turn-in than before and the Lexus engineers' claims that they wanted more driver focus aren't without merit. It's reasonably easy to adjust your line mid-corner via the throttle and feels exactly how a rear-wheel drive car should.

Confident brakes and immediate reaction from the steering wheel paddles suggest plenty of promise for when the IS F eventually arrives, but for the moment the IS isn't quite the match for a 3 Series, even if it's probably a more rewarding and involving car than an A4 or C-Class.

Swiitchable dash inspired by LFA
Swiitchable dash inspired by LFA
There are similar highs and lows inside too. The Active Sound Control system to make the 300h sound rortier than it really is didn't entirely win us over. Instead of similar systems like the 911's exhaust valve, this actually uses a behind-the-dash speaker to attempt to add a secondary element to the existing engine note. Instead of sounding tastier though, it merely sounds like a motorbike is following just behind you. Thankfully you can switch it off.

Similarly gimmicky and bound to split opinion is the F Meter which, as on the LFA, allows you to switch the appearance of the rev counter, speedometer and trip computer by physically moving the dial sideways in the binnacle. It's initially quite fun to play with and isn't entirely dissimilar to the chronometer-style dials in the 1999 original.

We need to reserve our final judgement of the new IS until after we've driven the production version, but certainly our first impressions are positive. It might not be able to match the 3 Series for driver enjoyment and handling, but as an alternative to the big German three, it seems a credible choice. Now we just have to wait for the IS F...

P.H. O'meter

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