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Opportunity Missed – Lexus IS and RC Prime Plug-in Hybrid Sports Sedans and Coupes Would Be Amazing

As fans of both the Lexus IS Sports sedan line and the RAV4 Prime’s powertrain, we lament that Lexus has not merged the two. Here’s why.
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Shouldn’t a Lexus wow you? As the premium brand of the Toyota company, shouldn’t Lexus vehicles offer the best of everything? More performance, more features, better fuel economy, lower emissions, and a higher value proposition? We feel that Lexus should. After all, the Toyota line is already great. If we are to consider Lexus a higher-level brand, it must prove itself such.
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We recently tested a vehicle that knocked our socks off. It had outstanding power and torque, was smooth and quiet, and had a 94 MPGe rating. It could even operate as an electric vehicle for up to 42 miles per charge. More than enough to get to and from work every day with zero local emissions. The 0-60 MPH time for the vehicle was a respectable 5.4 seconds when Car and Driver tested it. Was this a Lexus Sports sedan? No. It was a Toyota crossover, the RAV4 Prime AWD.

Related Story: Study Concludes Toyota Hybrids Have Most Satisfied Customers - Here's How Tesla Ranked

By Contrast, we tested a 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD this week and found that its 0-60 time is a half-second slower, and the torque offered by the traditional engine seemed dramatically lower than that offered by the RAV4 Prime. This leads us to ask the simple question, “Why hasn’t Lexus created a sports sedan with the RAV4 Prime’s powerplant?”

Although Lexus does offer a hybrid IS in other markets, the IS would have to be substantially changed to accommodate the RAV4 Prime’s powerplant and drive system. We understand that. But isn’t it time? The Lexus IS has now been basically unchanged since 2006. It is a 14-year-old design. During that time, Tesla has emerged and now dominates the sales in this segment. The Model 3 is hands-down the best car in its class if shopper interest is any gauge.

Frankly, a 5.4-second sprint to sixty is nothing special in 2021, but it is a lot better than the 6.1-seconds that the IS 300 AWD can deliver. If Toyota can make the RAV4 Prime’s plug-in hybrid system work well for a crossover, it is not hard to imagine Lexus engineers making it work even better in a small sports sedan. Maybe that 0-60 time could be improved by a smidge to break into the sub-five second mark?

Toyota has a problem with electric vehicles, and it is one we understand. There is simply no battery supply chain capable of creating electric versions of the vehicles that Toyota sells. And, unlike Tesla, Toyota isn’t two decades into a partnership to develop one. So, Toyota is using plug-in hybrids and their smaller batteries to try to provide a similar result while using much less battery capacity. We have no objections. The 600-mile-plus ranges of plug-in hybrids are great. Being able to fuel up anywhere when on a long trip is great. The way that Toyota has designed out most of the failure items in internal combustion engines is great. “Why hasn’t Lexus adopted this better power delivery system?” is our only question.

As the former owner of an IS 350, a person who has tested the IS F an RC F cars on and off track, let me fill in some blanks in this story for owners and fans of the IS line. The torque offered by the RAV4 Prime’s motors is more satisfying than the feeling one gets from the V6 engines in the IS and RC cars. Not better than the Lexus V8, but it is close. Where the RAV4 Prime’s PHEV system is better than all of the power plants in the IS and RC lines is when underway. The power and torque delivery are much faster than the V6 or V8 engines coupled to geared transmissions provide in the RC and IS cars. It is instant. And when you give the power pedal a push, there is zero hesitation. Isn’t that what we as performance vehicle buyers want?

And 94 MPGe means money. Money saved that can buy you things like a Mark Levinson audio system, a head-up display, and a heated steering wheel. Or better brakes. Or an adaptive suspension. Or whatever floats your boat. An IS Prime would cost its owner about $27,000 less in fuel over the vehicle’s 20-year lifespan compared to an IS 350. How would you use the money to make the IS better?

The Tesla Model 3 is outselling the Lexus IS and RC line combined by 20 to 1. Lexus sold a combined 4,400 RC and IS cars last quarter in America, and Tesla sold 89,000 Model 3 cars. If Lexus had an unlimited supply of IS Primes and RC Primes, would these numbers be different? That is unlikely. Tesla has a strong brand identity now, and it has earned legions of adoring owners and fans. The Teslas would still be stronger in performance and still offer lower energy costs. But at least Lexus would not be bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Toyota has a power delivery system that is much better than what Lexus does in the IS and RC lines. Lexus should adopt it and improve it. And it should have happened for the 2021 model year.

John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. Following his engineering program, John also completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin

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