Lexus GS VS Audi S4
- Super-smooth V6
- Lots of interesting tech
- Lovely (if old-fashioned) interior
- Media system
- No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
- Understated looks
- Goes like stink
- Overly heavy steering in Dynamic mode
- Tyre roar on some surfaces
- Can feel a bit computer-driven
Ah, yes, the Lexus GS. Toyota's luxury off-shoot had high hopes for the new big boy when I first saw it a few years ago. Not thousands-of-sales high hopes, but the company thought a rear-wheel drive luxury sedan stacked with gear you didn't even know you wanted would be a dead-set winner.
And to be fair, they were right. I ran a GS as a long-termer and it was impeccably-mannered. In hybrid form. It wasn't sparkling, but my goodness, it used barely any fuel; especially impressive given its size.
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Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the new Audi S4 sedan and Avant, with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its Australian launch between Bathurst and Canberra.
Sometimes year a year flashes by and it's almost a shock to realise that Audi's B9 A4 has been with us here in Australia for almost that long. Performance buffs have had to wait for the first quick version of the A4 while the Allroad was rolled out, but here we finally have the first Audi Sport variant in the line-up - the S4.
As with the standard A4, there's a stack of new stuff and a stout standard specification list along with technical packages. There's one big piece of news, too - it's the first S4 to land with a price tag under $100,000.
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Weirdly, given all the good things I've had to say about the GS F Sport, it doesn't quite hang together. It's missing that certain something the Europeans have in their chassis, particularly the BMW 5 Series, and with ageing interior tech, it's struggling to keep up.
It's a car built for specific tastes, and they're more California than Straya. And that's perfectly okay, but unfortunately, that doesn't translate to a stampede of buyers. Having said that, none of its German rivals (or its beleaguered Japanese counterpart, Infiniti) could claim wild sales success either.
The GS is a terrific car, underrated but also just not quite there for my taste. The GS F, though, that's another thing altogether.
Does Lexus even register on your big luxury sedan radar? If it does, what stops you from taking the plunge?
It's not an exuberant machine and you can tell there's still a ton of room for the inevitable RS4 mean machine to go after the BMW M3/M4 and AMG C63. That means, however, that the S4 is a proper sleeper. Hardly anyone will notice what it is until they're eating your fumes while you whisk yourself away in (mostly) quiet and comfort.
The new S4 is lighter, slightly faster and more technologically advanced than its predecessor, while bringing the A4's charms to the go-faster part of the executive sedan segment. This one will rattle a few cages.
Audi S4 Sedan and Avant Specifications
List price: $99,900 (Sedan) / $102,900 (Avant)
Fuel Consumption: 7.7L/100km (Sedan) / 7.9L/100km (Avant)
CO2: 175g/km (Sedan) / 178g/km (Avant)
Fuel Tank: 58L
ANCAP: 5 stars
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service Interval: 15,000km or 12 months
Engine size: 2995cc
Fuel Type: PULP
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Spare: space saver
Turning Circle: 11.6m
Length: 4745mm (Sedan) / 4745mm (Avant)
Width: 1842mm (Sedan) / 1842mm (Avant)
Height: 1404mm (Sedan) / 1411mm (Avant)
The GS is ageing well, but it's still a bit heavy-handed around the headlights and a little on the slabby side along the flanks. It doesn't look poised for action, even with the F Sport additions, but nor does it look frumpy, mostly due to the whopping blacked-out spindle grille, a Lexus signature.
The rear end is good looking but a bit bluff, again neither surprising or delighting.
Little has changed inside, but it's still a very nice cabin, and always will be apart from a couple of clangers (the gear shifter looks super-cheap).
What's more, it's welcoming, lots of very nice materials, comfortable, seats - it's exactly what it needs to be. Whatever you might think of the looks, one thing is absolutely certain - if anyone builds cars better than Lexus, it's a very, very short list.
Audi tells us that S4 owners don't like to shout about their purchase, which is just as well, because the S4 looks like a very mildly gussied up A4. That means the same sharp looks as the A4 but lower, 23mm to be exact. The standard 19s make it look lower still but all the standard A4 cues are there. This has been covered at length already, but just to be sure, every inch of the car is new, it just looks a lot like the old one.
Get up closer, though, and you'll see the serrated shape of the headlight, the clamshell bonnet and shutlines tighter than Scott Morrison on Budget night when it comes to funding hospitals. Audi says the body kit is aggressive but I think it's safe to say that the drug of choice at Audi's styling bureau is chamomile tea - it's fairly restrained, with just a few details (including a slightly daggy V6T badge on the front guards) to mark it out.
Inside is standard A4, too, with plenty of leather (both real and man-made), with some extra zing in the form of carbon and aluminium bits.
It's as roomy and comfortable as the standard car and looks just as good. It's a fine interior, the best in its class.
Being a big car, there's plenty of room inside. Four passengers will be very comfortable although rear legroom was a bit on the skinny side given the car's size.
The cabin contains a good-sized console bin, four cupholders and each door pocket into which you could conceivably slot a bottle.
The 520-litre boot is a useful shape, with a sensible load height and a space-saver spare under the floor. The 5 Series and E Class both best the Lexus by 10 litres, so the GS isn't far off the norm.
The S4 has four bottle holders, cupholders front and rear for a total of four and various slots and spots for phones and keys in the front while the rear is a little less accommodating of bits and pieces.
The sedan's boot is the same as the rest of the A4s (and mid-size Germans) at 480 litres while the Avant bumps that up to a 505 litre minimum and a 1510 litre maximum when you drop the seatbacks.
Price and features
We had the pleasure of the GS 350 F Sport for the week, which is well over $10,000 cheaper than the Luxury and is therefore the 'default. If you're not sure what F Sport means, it's Lexus' answer to an M Sport or AMG pack, without all the high-powered engine shenanigans to go with it. If that's what you're after, the V8-powered Lexus GS F is definitely for you.
Starting at $95,300, the F Sport has a spectacular standard features list - 17-speaker stereo, 19-inch alloys, variable-geared four-wheel steer (!), adaptive suspension, dual-zone climate control (with moisturising function), hectares of leather trim, head-up display, electrically-operated heated and ventilated front seats, rear sunshade, F Sport instrument screen, auto LED headlights, keyless entry and start, sat nav, front and rear parking sensors with around-view cameras and a space-saver spare.
The media system is run from Lexus' 12.3-inch screen embedded in the dashboard and controlled from an infuriating console-mounted mouse-clicker with a couple of shortcut buttons. It really is spectacularly irritating and made worse by the rotary dial stationed next to it that acts as the drive mode selector. Why not use that instead?
As ever, the system is mildly baffling to use and hard to look at, but the sound is absolutely lovely from the Mark Levinson-branded speakers. Lexus is persisting with a DVD player but it also has DAB+.
The S4 is available in two versions - sedan and Avant wagon. The sedan opens the bidding at $99,900 and the Avant closes it at $102,900. Both come with identical specifications and are available with much the same options. For a bit of pricing perspective, the first S4 was an Audi 100-based five-cylinder turbo that landed with a price tag of $132,000. In 1993.
The S4 has arrived with 19-inch alloys, adaptive dampers, around-view camera, reversing camera, up-spec sat nav, adaptive cruise control, auto parking, auto headlights and wipers, high beam assist, keyless entry and start, electric tailgate (Avant only), heated folding electric mirrors, LED headlights, dynamic scrolling rear indicators, electric heated sports front seats, leather and Alcantara trim, three-zone climate control and interior LED lighting.
A ten speaker stereo is powered by Audi's MMI rotary dial system and the same 8.3-inch screen as the rest of the A4 range, which also means you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as two USB ports in the centre console to go with the Bluetooth. There's also a DAB+ digital radio.
Audi's Virtual Cockpit is standard and has an additional S mode which switches the dial view for a big tacho and a huge digital speed readout.
Being an Audi, you can get a collection of options in packs. The S Performance Package ($5900) adds an excellent pair of massaging S sport front seats with diamond stitching and Nappa leather, red brake calipers, more (synthetic) leather and carbon inlays in the interior.
The Technik Package adds the excellent matrix LED headlights, the 19-speaker B&O 3D sound system and a heads-up display.
Other options include variable ratio Dynamic Steering ($2210), quattro sport differential ($2950), premium paint (ahem, $1846), panoramic sunroof (Avant only, $2990), sunroof ($2470, sedan only), heated rear seats ($750) and the rear seat entertainment system ($2600-$4680 for one or two screens respectively, but you can't have it with the S Performance pack)
Engine & trans
Audi says the turbocharged V6 is brand new from the ground up. Developing 260kW (15kW up) and a nice round 500Nm (up 60Nm), the new engine is 14kg lighter than the supercharged unit it replaces, and more efficient.
Efficiency gains come from clever things like a "hot side inside" turbo placement (inside the V, meaning shorter exhaust paths to better turbo pressure), lift-off coasting and start-stop.
Power reaches the road via an Audi Sport tweaked quattro system which can send 85 percent of power in either direction and is rear-biased with a standard 60/40 rear/front torque split. The seemingly ubiquitous and always excellent eight-speed ZF transmission handles the job of getting the power from the engine to the road.
The standard self-locking centre diff can be flung and replaced with a trick quattro sport unit ($2950) with electro-mechanical control of the rear axle's torque split.
The sedan will rocket to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, the slightly heavier Avant two tenths behind it.
A real world 13.7L/100km is a solid miss of the claimed 9.3L/100km, which itself is hardly earth-shattering. It's a big heavy car and that's the penalty. It drinks fuel fast, so the 66-litre fuel tank does drain quickly and it's worth knowing you have to fill it with the 95 RON or better.
Audi claims 7.7L/100km from the sedan and 7.8L/100km for the Avant. On a stinking hot day in central NSW and the ACT and with the accelerator spending a lot of time carpet-bound, the S4 still returned around 12L/100km. More time being driven less enthusiastically should see a marked improvement.
There are things you expect in a Lexus. Quietness. Composure. Smoothness. The GS delivers all three of those things effortlessly. But it has a few extra things in its bag that I can't say I was expecting.
For a start, the 3.5-litre V6 moves the car without any carry-on and in doing so, I was constantly amazed at how quickly the speed in the head-up display reached the posted limit. It just doesn't feel or sound like a six second car, but there you are. The transmission is virtually faultless, the engine sound distant and refined, the power impressive.
It's a heavy car, no question, but two things work to make it feel much lighter. First - and it doesn't matter which mode you choose - the adaptive suspension somehow knocks about 200kg out of how heavy the car feels. The brakes, while a little soft on pedal feel when you first step on them, are very effective and again help to make the car feel lighter than it is.
The four driving modes are quite distinct. As usual, Eco makes everything soft and doughy or as I prefer to say, unpleasant. Normal is great for every day, with just the right throttle response and steering weight.
Moving to sport ups the aggro slightly while Sport+, while never harsh, firms everything up to the point where it starts to feel like a different car. Sport+ makes the car feel race-car pointy, the suspension holds the body in check and the power seems readily available without jerky progression
The all-wheel steer is a big part of the change in feel. It's is especially sharp in Sport+ mode. The steering's gearing changes up quite a bit, meaning a lot less steering lock required for your favourite hairpin bend. Of course, at real speed it all calms down because neither you nor Lexus are fond of sneezy lane-changes or Armco-swiping. At first I thought it just made the big car feel a bit too nervous but as I got used to it (and was able to dial it down by switching back into a less racy mode) I found it fun but a little bit out of character with the car itself.
And just because it's the F Sport, that doesn't mean it can't do all the things you'd expect from a Lexus. You can still waft, you can still creep up on people and it's really very comfortable when you're cruising or stuck in traffic.
The S4 is terrific fun. It's that simple. The new engine is an absolute belter, with all 500Nm of torque available at just 1370rpm. Lag is almost indistinguishable as the turbo spools up and rockets you along to 100kmh in under five seconds, that huge half-ton of torque sweeping you down the road.
With dynamic mode switched on, the car muscles up with firmer suspension and a slightly growlier exhaust. The steering really weights up, too, which takes a little getting used to after the lighter, friendlier setting in Comfort mode - thankfully you can set up an individual mode to dial the assistance back in while everything else is set up for go-fast.
The key to the fun is the rear-biased quattro system - while it's never going to match the purity of BMW's rear-wheel drive 340i, what you lose in steering feel and ultimate adjustability, you gain in off-the-line and mid-corner grip its German rivals could only dream of.
Going fast in an S4 is easy, leaving you to concentrate a little more on your line and gear selection, listening to the distant bark of the engine and the occasional turbo whistle. All of this is purely down to driving taste, of course but the point is, the S4 offers something a little different to the other two.
For most of the time the S4 defies its 1700kg-plus weight but there is the occasional hesitancy when changing direction through a challenging set of bends, as though the front tyres (245s all around, if you're interested) want to scrub and the quattro system makes a quick adjustment to stop it happening. You don't feel that's what's happening, of course - Audi Sport is better than that - but it's part and parcel of all-wheel drive. It takes a lot to find understeer and for most people, that just won't ever happen.
Further confidence comes from the terrific brakes - 350mm up front and 330mm at the rear, the big forward rotors are gripped by six-pot fixed calipers. Performance is epic and in hard, fast driving they stood up to a fair amount of punishment without fading.
The ride is excellent in all modes, which is quite an achievement given the fat rubber and big wheels, although big bumps at speed make a huge metallic thunk without actually upsetting progress. The eight-speed ZF is brilliant as always and unless you're really motoring, you don't even need its sport mode, which brings impressively fast and positive shifts.
The best thing is, if you don't look in the rear vision mirror, you can't really tell if you're driving sedan or Avant. That might be because it's quite absorbing on a launch drive, but I couldn't split the driving experience between the two.
The only black marks I could easily identify on the S4 is tyre noise on some surfaces and perhaps the steering could be a little more lively like its competitors.
The GS scores 10 airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, forward AEB, active cruise, auto high beams and lane departure warning with lane keep assist.
The GS doesn't have an ANCAP or Euro NCAP rating while the USA's IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) rating is good for each key crash-worthiness measure. The IIHS suite of tests is quite rigorous but differ from our ANCAP/Euro NCAP standards.
The S4 also retains the exit warning feature that tells you if you're about to door an approaching bicyclist or another car. What Audi calls "pre-sense rear" is a system to warn drivers behind you they're approaching too fast and are quite likely to hit you. Turn assist is also available, stopping you (at low speeds) from turning across approaching traffic.
The A4 scored five ANCAP safety stars, the highest available.
There's one area where Lexus smashes the Germans and that's after-sales. While the warranty is hardly ground-breaking at four years/100,000km and service intervals are reasonable at 12 months/15,000km, it's how it all comes together.
For the duration of the warranty, when the car needs a service, Lexus will either come and get it then return it to you, or give you a loan car. Anecdotal evidence suggests this continues long after the warranty runs out. Like, 10 years after the warranty runs out.
This is a small thing, but if there's one thing I hate about car ownership, it's the servicing experience. If I was a betting man, I'd dare you to find someone who genuinely has a problem with Lexus after-sales care.
On top of that, you get a generous roadside assist package for four years.
Audi offers a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on the S4 with service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km whichever comes first. Roadside assist is part of the package, lasting for the first three years of the car's life.
You can pre-purchase three years/45,000km of servicing for $1620 under Audi's Genuine Care Service Plan. Full details are available on Audi's website, but it basically covers a scheduled oil changes and inspections and not a lot else.