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Lexus IS 300h Premier: High breed

Finding My Way

Lexus knows luxe and, surely, the rising price of gas, too.

IS THIS REALLY the best weekend to test-drive a hybrid vehicle or did I just pick the worst time to come home to Manila — on a long weekend when everyone is heading out of the city, and cars on the highways are moving at a head-snapping speed of 20kph?

What is a hybrid car anyway — are you just playing with the tip or do you go all the way in (I mean the electric and gasoline systems, obviously)?

There are three models in the Lexus IS series and the one I’m test-driving, the Lexus IS 300h Premier, is in the middle. Priced at P3.3 million, you might say it’s the second most expensive sports sedan in the series or the second least expensive — depending on whether you’re a millionaire or a multi-millionaire. (The IS 300h is P2.9 million; the IS 350 F Sport is P3.8 million.)

Gabby from Lexus explains to me that a hybrid vehicle combines at least one electric motor with a gasoline engine and charges itself through “regenerative braking.”

Say what again?

Basically, it’s an energy-recovery mechanism where kinetic energy is converted and stored back into the battery or used immediately to move the car. The vehicle switches between electric and gas as you drive, and most importantly, you never have to charge it.

Lexus describes the IS series as “designed to change the game.” It’s my first time to drive a hybrid, so I don’t really know, but I’m going to take their word for it because it’s Lexus and it’s made in Japan. And because it’s the world’s fourth largest luxury brand (behind German brands Mercedes, Audi and BMW).

The front grille features the Lexus logo taking on a hybrid identity with a subtle blue tint surrounding it. Inside, it features everything you would expect a luxury car to have: supple leather seats, easy entertainment system controls, and to my surprise, a DVD player! To my second surprise, it doesn’t have wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. I was gobsmacked that you still have to plug your mobile phone into a USB port inside the compartment on the center console.

Everything else delighted me about this hybrid compact sports sedan, like how quiet it is when you start the engine. Several times, I thought, is the car “on” because I can’t hear the hum of an engine. Good thing there’s a “Ready” indicator on the dashboard to tell you, dummy, it is indeed on, so step on it.

The first thing that pops up on the screen is an indicator that tells you whether the vehicle is using the battery (an “EV” lights up) or gas; it also tells you when energy is being stored into the battery or being used.

Driving this luxury vehicle on the Skyway on Saturday was much better because everyone that planned an out-of-town trip had seemingly left on Friday.

Now I can really test its performance. And it is exhilarating to drive! It responds fast and flawlessly when you increase your speed or when you step on the brakes; it flies over humps you ignore and feels like you’re landing on a pillow as it hits the ground; it’s stable when you do sharp turns and you never feel like you’re going to lose control of the vehicle.

I started my driving life with a sedan like most people but since 2006 I’ve been driving SUVs. I’ve forgotten how much more aerodynamic lowered cars are — and the ground clearance of an unladen Lexus IS 300h is only 140 millimeters or 5.5 inches. It feels fast, it is fast. It can accelerate from zero to 100 in 8.5 seconds.

The vehicle also has driver’s aids that keep you safe under the Lexus Safety System+, whose acronym (LSS+) reminds me of some of the best songs that got stuck in my head for days. Anyway, one of the coolest LSS+ features is the automatic high-beam headlights. Driving in my subdivision at night, I notice the headlights going high and then back to normal on a street that has barriers. How cool is it that it detects what my eyes might miss on a dark street?

Another safety feature is the lane-keeping assistance, which I inadvertently used driving at the top allowable speed. Because there are no vehicles around me, I don’t signal to change lanes, and immediately the indicator lights up and I feel the steering wheel gently nudging me back to my lane (of course when you signal, it doesn’t do that).

The car also has forward-collision warning when you’re too close to the vehicle in front; adaptive cruise control; pedestrian detection; automatic emergency braking; and lane-departure warning.

The Lexus IS series was developed at the Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama in Japan, which features a high-performance test course that’s 5.3-kilometer long. This course has a nearly 250-foot change in elevation, sharp turns, corners and different road types to simulate all driving conditions.

You’ll be glad to know that this hybrid gets you a distance of about 19 kilometers per liter of gas (or 100 kilometers per 5.2 liters), so you go twice the distance for the same amount of gas versus compact to midsized SUV. I almost feel like the 66-liter gas tank is a waste because you really don’t use that much gas.

I drove on the Skyway back and forth over the long weekend because I was seeing friends in Makati, Alabang, Pasig and Quezon City — and the needle on the gas gauge hardly moved (okay, it did a little).

It was the best weekend to test-drive a hybrid after all.