The Lexus IS has a simple mission. It needs to be a car that you'd enjoy owning more than a Mercedes C Class, an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 series, the three leading choices in the compact executive saloon segment. Lexus used to simply try and copy these class leaders but with this third generation IS, they've been a bit cleverer, primarily through the offering of petrol/electric hybrid power rather than the kind of 2.0-litre diesel engine business buyers will be used to. It's a refreshing approach for people in search of something just that little bit different and its been lightly embellished with the introduction of this revised MK3 model.
Lexus has made small changes to both the steering and the suspension of this improved model in an attempt to create a more dynamic feel. Under the bonnet, the brand will offer you a pair of engines. The more conventional of the two is found in an IS 200t model powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo unit developing 245bhp and driving the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's a pleasant enough thing, with decent refinement and crisp acceleration that'll see you to 62mph in 7.0s en route to 143mph - but you'll almost never see one. These days, few people buy thirsty petrol engines in cars like this.
The variant that attracts all the interest in the IS line-up is the model nearly all customers go for, the 2.5-litre IS 300h petrol/electric hybrid. Unlike the brand's slightly smaller CT 200h hybrid model, it's more than a smartened-up Toyota Prius, instead based on a proper large Lexus, the BMW 5 Series-sized GS 300h. True, the 2.5-litre engine used may only offer four cylinders, but it does develop 178bhp, with a further slug of power contributed by an electric motor, resulting in a combined 223bhp output. That's enough to easily match the performance of the rival 2.0-litre diesel models at which this car is aimed, 0-62mph occupying 8.3s on the way to 124mph.
You access that performance via a thrashy, rubber belt-driven CVT auto gearbox which doesn't help this car's sports saloon aspirations. On the plus side, the handling changes make the car feel sharper than before into corners, the steering's much better and you get a 'Drive Mode Select' system that allows you to tweak engine output, throttle response, gearshift times and even the air conditioning to suit four different driving modes. Plus, there's an electric-only EV setting on the hybrid so that you can trickle along on battery power for short distances.
Changes to this improved third generation IS are subtle but significant. Buyers get restyled headlamps, larger and deeper air intakes integrated in the bumper and a further evolution of the signature Lexus spindle grille. In profile, the character line along the side of the car has been made stronger and at the rear, chrome detailing has been added to the lower bumper panel. The rear lights have also been redesigned, with LED lamps and smarter light guides that create an L-shape motif.
Inside, the high-resolution multi-information screen that accompanies the Lexus Premium Navigation system has been increased from seven to 10.25 inches, presenting larger, clearer images and providing a split-screen function so that different information displays can be presented at the same time. Changes have also been made to the steering wheel (matching the design of that in the Lexus RC coupe) and the driver and front passenger knee pads now run the full length of the centre console. There are also new cupholders, a satin finish for the gear lever, a larger, leather-wrapped and stitched palm rest for the Remote Touch Interface control, and classier dial markings on the analogue clock.
Otherwise, things are much as they were before, which means a classy cabin with best-in-class standards of kneeroom at the back. And the boot? Well the batteries that must be housed beneath its floor in the hybrid IS 300h model rob you of 30-litres of space, but that still leaves a class-competitive 450-litres of room on offer. And, as long as you avoid entry-level trim, there's a 60/40 split-folding rear seat for those times when you want to avoid the home delivery charge after a trip to IKEA.
If you thought that Lexus was the company that tried to copy the Germans and always turned up a day late and a dollar short, you need to try this car. It looks right, it feels good and it makes eminent sense on the balance sheet.
Or at least the hybrid version does. Though the conventional IS200t is a likeable car, it isn't efficient enough to attract the business buyers Lexus needs. People who really ought to be considering this hybrid IS 300h. Lexus didn't do diesel that well but it's hard to argue with the fact that it does hybrid brilliantly with a car that many will feel makes its German rivals look old, noisy and dirty. True, the vague response from the thrashy CVT auto gearbox undermines the driving experience somewhat but if you can live with that, there's plenty else to like.
Affordable running costs and plenty of equipment for example, plus recent tax law changes mean that the pendulum is swinging back towards petrol power once again. Add in the arresting looks and a dealer network routinely steeped in praise by every survey going and I think there's room for this Japanese brand to be optimistic about its prospects with this car. It's the best small Lexus yet made. And that makes it a very desirable thing indeed.Click here to find out more about our Lexus IS range
The Hyundai IONIQ is the first car ever to go on sale with three different forms of electric power. You can choose from pure electric propulsion, hybrid or a plug-in combination. That covers all of the major green car bases and pitches the Korean machine into direct competition with the class leaders. Does it have the credentials to beat them? We tried a Hybrid version to find out.
The IONIQ shares the same basic platform as the Kia Niro, which is a very good place to start from. As a result, the Hyundai handles nimbly and takes corners with more composure than you might expect for a car that's main focus is on low running costs and emissions. The only limiting factor is the reduced rolling resistance tyres, but in day to day driving you'll find this car very capable. It also enjoys a tight turning circle and steering that's light to turn at low speeds. You can add some more weight to the helm by selecting the 'Sport' mode, but we find this makes it too heavy. Around town, the suspension is on the firmer side of comfortable but by no means unsettled. And when you head on to freer flowing routes, it's very composed and much less challenged by side winds than its Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius rivals.
The parallel Hybrid version we tried features a 1.6-litre petrol engine with help from an electric motor. It swaps seamlessly between the two types of propulsion depending on which is best for the situation or combines both for maximum acceleration. Driven like this, the Hybrid covers 0-62mph in 10.8 seconds on 15-inch alloys or 11.1 seconds with the optional 17-inch wheels. Accelerate hard in this way and you'll really notice the benefits of this IONIQ's use of a proper cog-driven 6DCT dual-clutch auto transmission, a much better gearbox than the jerky belt-driven set-up used in a rival Toyota Prius and other hybrids.
There's not much point building a new car that offers three different electrified power trains for the first time ever if you're not going to make the most of every facet of its design. This is why Hyundai has gone to great lengths with the IONIQ to come up with a shape that has a drag coefficient of just 0.24. That makes this one of the most slippery shapes ever for a car as it cuts through the air, which helps reduce energy use and noise.
And inside? Well, inside this Hyundai, it doesn't feel futuristic. It's not that it's dull in the cabin: it's just that it's not trying to be too clever for its own good. We like that. What you get is a dash that bears a strong resemblance to the Korean company's other models such as the i30 and Tuscon. That's a very good thing as it's clear and made from excellent materials. There are hints, though, at what lies under the bonnet, such as the battery indicator gauge on the left-hand side of the main 7-inch instrument display. Choose the entry-level trim and this is scaled back to a4.2-inch monitor. It tells you how economically you're driving and whether or not you are using energy reserves or topping them up. In the centre is a simple to read speedo, while on the right is a configurable screen for information such as doors left open and water temperature. The Hybrid models get a 443-litre boot.
Hyundai has pulled off quite a feat here. To come from nowhere and put yourself among the best in this sector is impressive. And to do this while keeping prices at a level where the IONIQ is a serious alternative to mainstream petrol and diesel hatches is even more impressive. Of course, it's not perfect and some might find the low speed ride a little unsettled. There's also a shortage of head room in the rear seats for adults, while some might like a few more options to make the car their own.
There's no doubt, though, that overall the Hyundai is a very tempting package. Is it enough to lure drivers away from other hatches with and without electric motors? It ticks more than enough boxes for it to warrant serious consideration.Click here to find out more about our Hyundai IONIQ range
Toyota has changed things again with its fourth generation Prius. Not content with the extraordinary success of this pioneering hybrid model to date, the Japanese brand has ripped up its own rule book and redesigned the entire platform on which this car sits, underpinnings that'll also be used for many of its future products. This MK4 model Prius is the first model to feature the revised architecture, benefiting from improvements in space, safety and handling.
Hybrids are known to be much heavier than traditionally fuelled cars because of the big pile of battery-cells that provide the electric power. What is crucial to handling though, is where the extra weight is positioned. Toyota's modular architecture allows the centre of gravity to be lower and closer to the middle of the Prius, which translates into a better-balanced ride for passengers but not a car you would ever describe as 'sporty'. It takes a fraction longer to get going than the model it replaced, reaching 62mph in 10.6 seconds, but the emphasis is now on making this car appeal to business users, so a comfortable, economical ride takes precedence over speed.
That being said, efforts have been made to make the Prius a more pleasant car to drive. The nickel-metal hydride battery pack gets the electric motor turning first and only when the Prius starts to pick up speed does an updated version of the familiar 1.8-litre petrol engine from previous models fire up and seamlessly take over. The engine can be switched off if you need to run entirely on batteries, say, through Central London's Ultra Low Emissions zone. If you can afford more, a Plug-in model is being offered that can go up to 39 miles on electric power alone.
It will certainly stand out in Central London. The new styling is bold with more than a flavour of Toyota's hydrogen Mirai model, particularly towards the rear end. Like previous versions of the Prius, the design won't be everyone's cup of cocoa but, apparently, form follows fuel-efficiency. The body is said to scythe through the air with very little resistance and while the blacked-out rear pillar might play tricks on the eyes, the hump-backed shape that has become something of a Prius silhouette remains. The side profile suggests more of a saloon than a hatchback, but the flat surface on the rear acts as a spoiler that helps create the 'sudden drop' common in low-drag designs.
Inside, the cabin has been refreshed but continues with the theme of mounting all the useful displays and information in the centre of the cockpit rather than putting the dials directly in front of the driver. Instead of an instrument binnacle behind the steering wheel, the speed and other info is shown on an upper information display mounted just below the front windscreen. This gives a much greater sense of space inside the cabin than most rivals. While the wheelbase remains the same as the previous generation, the longer body and repositioned battery pack lend themselves to improved luggage space. The boot is over 500-litres in size and if extra space is needed, the rear seats can split 60/40 and fold down. This might not be quite as impressive a space as you'd get from, say, a comparably-priced Ford Mondeo Hybrid but, given the compromises that petrol/electric cars have to make in the pursuit of fuel-efficiency, it represents a significant improvement on the previous model, by almost 60-litres.
As eco-competitors like Vauxhall Ampera and Honda's Insight have come and gone, Toyota's Prius has retained its appeal amongst family buyers wanting to make an environmental statement - and sharpens those credentials in this much improved fourth generation guise. It still faces challenges from a raft of plug-in hybrid, electric and highly efficient diesel-powered cars but arguably, the only ones that really come close to the quality and refinement of this MK4 model Prius are the other hybrids in the Toyota and Lexus ranges.
This car's use of the company's new modular 'Global Architecture' has enabled it to set a fresh benchmark for high-quality, low-cost family motoring. Lower, wider and longer than previous generations, the design now features improved handling and space - though there's a price to pay for that. The business customers that Toyota is increasingly seeking here should be receptive to this though, and better-heeled family buyers will want to try one too. As ever, it seems, there still is nothing quite like a Prius.Click here to find out more about our Toyota Prius range