Lexus IS VS Audi A3
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
- Sedan styling looks superb
- Quattro all-wheel drive on highest grade
- AEB on all grades
- Plain standard interior
- Limited rear legroom
- Low on standard features
This generation of the Lexus IS has been with us for a while now, and it has a lot more to contend with than it did on its debut. The Infiniti Q50 has come and gone, but a new Audi A4 (soon to be refreshed) and a very impressive new BMW 3 Series made life difficult. And that's before everybody wakes up to Genesis, which could bloom into a real threat.
Lexus has carved itself a bit of a niche in this country, going after just about every luxury segment worth chasing (and one or two that possibly weren't...) but the IS has been getting on with the job of presenting itself to customers who have either tired of German luxury or just weren't interested in the first place.
The third-generation IS must soon be heading for replacement, so it's worth having another look to see how the Japanese challenger fares.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Audi’s A3 is one of the most affordable ways into this prestige German brand. But like some amusement park mirror maze you’ll find with so many A3 variations there are numerous, seemingly identical ways into the model.
Which one do you choose? There’s a sedan, a hatch, and a convertible with four different engines, not to mention front- or all-wheel drive.
That’s why this range review is here – to guide you through the A3 hall of mirrors, and identify the right model for you.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
It's difficult to place the Lexus against any of the Germans because it's a different sort of car. Its intent is probably closer to the Benz C-Class than the more overtly sporting BMW 3 Series or the all-rounder Audi A4. All three of those cars are way ahead for cabin, chassis and engine technology (depending on spec levels, of course).
None of them feel as solid or, ultimately, as tightly built as the Lexus. The IS has a very consistent idea of what it's meant to be and it goes all the way back to the LS400 - something identifiably similar but different enough to lure you to Japan.
The Audi A3 is now five years into this current generation and it’s beginning to show its age in terms of tech and styling in the cabin, despite updates adding new equipment. It’s expensive compared to most small cars but is spot-on for a prestige vehicle.
The Sedan is, in my view, the best looking small sedan on the planet and offers the biggest boot space in the A3 range. The Sportback, however, is arguably more practical, with better legroom, headroom and cargo carrying ability (with the rear seats down). The Cabriolet has the same perfect proportions as the sedan, but like all good convertibles doesn’t make practicality a priority.
The sweet spot of the range would have to be the Sportback 2.0 TFSI quattro S Line with its $50,000 list price making it the most affordable but most 'specced up' A3 in the entire range.
You have $50,000. Do you buy an entry-grade Audi A3 Cabriolet, a 2.0 TFSI Sport Sedan or a Volkswagen Golf R? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The first IS is still - remarkably - a common sight on our roads and couldn't be more different to the current generation. This car is low and sleek, with fast glass and big bold statements, like the huge spindle grille. That grille was a bit weak when this first generation arrived, but the mid-life facelift fixed that, but didn't touch the headlights, which still look a bit melted. Then there are the "big tick" daytime running lights, which don't really work with the headlights. It's all a bit odd.
Inside, things are very grey and sober. Obviously, it's astonishingly well-built, but there are just too many carefully labelled buttons and way too many switches you can spot in your neighbour's Toyota Corolla. They're not bad buttons, they just don't fit with the vibe of the rest of the car. Everything is clear and crisp, though, and the materials feel and look fantastic. It feels properly expensive.
The A3 comes in three body styles: a five-door hatch, which Audi calls the Sportback; the four-door Sedan, and a two-door convertible which it refers to as the Cabriolet. It may not surprise you to learn they're all different sizes, too.
The Sportback doesn’t look like the shortest of the three but at 4313mm end-to-end it’s 145mm shy of the Sedan and 110mm shorter than the Cabriolet. But those exterior dimensions don’t tell the whole story on interior space. So, which one is more practical? We’ll get to that.
But first, the looks. The Sportback has a wagon-like appearance with its large (for a hatch) rear quarter windows. If you think it looks longer than a regular hatchback, you’re right: a Volkswagen Golf is 50mm shorter even though it shares the same platform as the A3.
However, unlike the Golf, there’s something about the Sportback’s proportions which doesn’t seem balanced.
Then there’s the A3 sedan. Now this is a perfectly proportioned car. Looking like a miniature version of the A8 limo, the A3 is one of the only tiny sedans on the planet that looks fantastic.
The Cabriolet is based on the Sedan, and it too looks beautifully proportioned. Soft tops, when they’re up, never do much for a car’s profile. Be it a Bentley or an A3, they always look better down. When the roof is down the A3 appears lower, sleeker, and tougher.
While all A3’s have the same grille and headlight design the rear treatment of the Sedan and Cabriolet is more refined with their blade-like tail-lights and boot lid lip, than the Sportback, even if it does have a roof-top spoiler.
Interiors are identical across each A3 grade, the cabin benefiting from excellent fit and finish and the use of high-quality materials. But if you like bling-tastic cockpits, maybe you should be looking at a Benz A-Class because even the fanciest A3 money can buy, the RS3, comes with a small display screen and a rather low-key interior design.
As for rivals, the new A-Class (which I’ve just reviewed) is a glitzy competitor in hatch form, with a soon-to-arrive sedan going head-to-head with the little Audi as well.
For some reason, the IS has always had a tight rear seat, despite its growth over the years. Handily, one of my neighbours has the iconic original IS200, and there isn't a big difference between the two cars, despite being separated by two decades.
This IS has such a flat windscreen that you have to be careful not to whack your head when you're getting into the front seats. The glass is super-fast and no doubt that pushes the cabin space towards the rear. The front seats are uncommonly comfortable and you also get heating and cooling, so you're covered all year round for posterior thermal comfort.
Front and rear passengers enjoy a pair of cupholders each and a bottle holder in each door.
The boot swallows a suspiciously identical-to-the-Euros 480 litres.
The Sportback and Sedan have five seats, while the Cabriolet has four. Leg and headroom in the back row for all body styles is limited. The Sportback will give you the most rear legroom, while the sedan has a few millimetres more space for your knees than the Cabriolet.
At 191cm tall I can sit behind my driving position in the Sportback with a pinkie finger’s space, while my knees brush the seatback in the Sedan, and the Cabriolet won’t accommodate my long legs back there at all.
Rear headroom in the Sportback isn’t bad with enough room for my big head to clear the ceiling thanks to that tall(-ish) flat roofline while the sedan is a tighter fit but I just make it under. The Cabriolet’s low fabric roof means only small adults or kids will be able to sit up straight back there – unless the top is down and then you have literally unlimited headroom.
Boot space varies obviously depending on the body style. The Sedan has biggest cargo capacity with 425 litres, the Sportback offers up 340 litres, but fold those rear seats down and you have 1180 litres at your disposal, plus a bigger aperture to fit stuff in. The Cabriolet’s folding roof eats into the boot space, but you’re still left with 320 litres even when it’s down.
The folding roof is automatic and can be raised or lowered at up to 50km/h, but it’s slow - I’ve timed it and it takes about 20 seconds to open or shut.
Storage throughout the cabin is limited, too. There are two cupholders up front in all cars, while the Cabriolet is the only A3 to have two cupholders in the back (they’re between the rear seats). If you want cupholders in the rear of the Sedan and Sportback you’ll have to option the $450 fold-down armrest which houses them.
All grades above the 1.0 TFSI come with storage nets in the seatback and front passenger footwell, 12-volt sockets in the rear centre console and boot, plus cargo nets back there, too. There’s a USB jack in the centre console of all A3s.
Price and features
At $59,340, the IS300 Luxury opens the range, stacking up well against the obvious luxury competition. That scores you a 10-speaker stereo, 17-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, heated and cooled electric front seats, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, active cruise control, sat nav, auto LED headlights with auto high beam, headlight washers, keyless entry and start, partial leather trim, power everything, auto wipers, and a space-saver spare.
The standard complaints about the Lexus entertainment system still apply - it's hard to use, is devoid of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and takes longer than it should to learn where everything is. The sound, however, is excellent from the 10 speakers, the screen is huge and (mostly) pretty and the sat nav works quickly and without fuss.
The A3 isn’t great value for a small car, generally speaking, because while you are getting a high-quality prestige vehicle, it doesn’t come with a mountain of equipment that you might find on a more affordable little hatch or sedan.
Look at it this way: take $40 into a fish and chip shop and you’ll walk out with your arms full of food, take the same amount into a Michelin-starred restaurant and you’ll be lucky to get an entrée. Same with buying a prestige car – and the A3 really is a starter on the Audi menu.
Coming standard on the entry-grade $36,200 1.0 TFSI Sportback are xenon headlights with LED running lights, cloth upholstery, dual-zone climate control, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with sat nav, reversing camera, multimedia system with voice control, eight-speaker stereo, Bluetooth connectivity, CD player, front and rear parking sensors, rear view camera and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Only the Sportback comes in this 1.0 TFSI grade. The rest of the body styles start with the 1.4 TFSI ($40,300 for the Sportback; $41,900 for Sedan; $49,400 for Cabriolet) which comes with the 1.0 TFSI’s equipment but swaps the cloth seats for leather upholstery and adds paddles shifters, aluminium-look interior elements and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Stepping up to the 2.0 TFSI Sport ($46,400 for Sportback; $48,000 for Sedan; $55,500 for the Cabriolet) adds leather sports front seats, aluminium door sills, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and 17-inch alloys with a different design.
The 2.0 TFSI quattro S line ($50,000 for the Sportback; $51,600 for Sedan and $59,100 for the Cabriolet) brings in lowered sports suspension, 18-inch alloys and LED headlights.
Each grade also attains more safety equipment, which we’ll cover further on.
I’ve also reviewed Mercedes-Benz’s new A200, which is a good model comparison for the A3. At a list price of $48,200 the 1.3-litre four-cylinder A200 is pricier than the 1.4 TFSI, but offers better value than the A3 2.0TFSI with more equipment, including two 10.25-inch display screens.
As for paint colours, only 'Brilliant Black' and 'Ibis White' won't cost you a cent more. Optional colours include 'Cosmos Blue', 'Tango Red' and 'Monsoon Grey'.
Engine & trans
Under the long bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine with a very reasonable 180kW and 350Nm, carrying the code number 8AR-FTS. An eight-speed automatic sends the power to the rear wheels and will propel the 1680kg machine to 100km/h in seven seconds flat.
You can tow 750kg with an unbraked trailer and 1500kg braked.
Now on to the engines. Yes, I’m doing this in what may seem a strange order, but trust me, it’s to guide you safely through the A3 range without anybody getting lost. We don’t leave anybody behind here, not on my watch.
The grades indicate the engines in the A3 line-up – the higher the grade, the more powerful the engine. So, the range starts with the 1.0 TFSI which has a 85kW/200Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, and steps up to the 1.4 TFSI which has a 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder with cylinder on demand (COD) letting it run on two cylinders when not under load). Both are front-wheel drive (FWD) cars.
Next rung up is the 2.0 TFSI Sport and that has a 2.0-litre four making 140kW/320Nm with drive going to the front wheels. The top of the range is the 2.0 TFSI quattro S line which has the same engine but is all-wheel drive (AWD).
Those are all turbo-petrol engines – yes, no diesels and no manual gearbox option either. All have a seven-speed dual-clutch automatics shifting the gears.
If you’re after something more hardcore in the same package, there are two halo ‘models’ that sit above the A3 range: the S3 with a 213kW/380Nm 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four and the RS3 with its 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo-petrol making 294kW/480Nm.
The sticker on the windscreen suggests you might get 7.5L/100km, drinking premium unleaded. Unfortunately, and despite my fervent efforts, the best I could manage was a far more sobering 12.7L/100km.
That's not a great result, and it's quite similar to the 200t I drove a couple of years ago. Even with stop-start.
Fuel usage depends on the engine and body style, with weights varying across the range. The most fuel-efficient engine is the 1.0-litre which is only offered on the Sportback, and Audi says over a combination of urban and open roads you should see it use 4.8L/100km.
The 1.4 TFSI Sportback uses 5.0L/100km, while the Sedan uses 4.9L/100km, but the heavier Cabriolet drinks more at 5.1L/100km.
My most recent A3 test car was a 1.4 TFSI Sportback and the trip computer reported 7.6L/100km over a mix of city and country kays - not bad.
The 2.0 TFSI Sport Sportback uses 5.9L/100km, the Sedan needs 5.8L/100km, the Cabriolet a bit more at 6.0L/100km.
The 2.0 TFSI quattro S Line Sportback uses 6.2L/100km, while the Sedan will go through 6.1L/100km and the Cabriolet again is highest with 6.4L/100km.
That raises the question of how much more does the Cabriolet weigh? About 170kg more than the Sedan and Sportback thanks to the extra reinforcement needed to strengthen the body to compensate for the rigidity it loses by not having a fixed metal roof.
From the driver's seat you get that very appealing sense of solidity that you get in every Lexus, even the baby SUV UX. That's partly because when a car weighs this much, it helps soak up the bumps. Lexus has a particular ride quality, even in its sportier variants, that makes you feel safe and cosseted.
The steering's weight is light, but not so light you can't feel what the wheels are doing, yet it's not overly chatty.
But the main contributor to the feeling of solidity and safety is realising how unbelievably quiet and smooth the IS is. Even the turbo four is the most distant of whirrs (without sounding bad), smoothly dishing up the power and torque. I'll admit to more than mild surprise when I saw the 0-100km/h time of seven seconds - it just doesn't feel that quick, but the speed does indeed pick up.
The eight-speed automatic could be more decisive - I often found myself grabbing a lower gear because the transmission had been a bit tardy picking the right cog. It could also drop into third or fourth a little too firmly when in Sport mode. It wasn't bad, it just felt like it was making a last-second decision to pick the gear and then ramming it home a touch enthusiastically. In normal city driving, however, it's smoother than the butter through which a Barry White track is being played.
As a sporty sedan it does okay, too, but the suspension is really set up to keep everything calm and comfortable. The electronics cut in early and often on slippery surfaces and even Sport mode is pretty tame. And that's perfectly okay.
I’ve driven all A3 variants from the 1.0 TFSI to the 2.0 TFSI quattro S Line, plus the S3 and RS3, but most recently I tested the 1.4 TFSI Sportback, which I’ll focus on here.
Our car was fitted with two optional packages – the 'Style Package' which adds LED headlights, 18-inch alloys and sports suspension, and the 'Technik Package' which brings a virtual instrument cluster, an 8.3-inch display and sports steering wheel.
Those larger 18-inch alloys wearing low profile 225/40 Hankook Ventus S1 Evo2 tyres look great, but like thin-soled shoes you’ll feel every imperfection on the road giving a harsher texture to the ride, plus they can be noisy on course-chip bitumen.
I’d stick to the standard 16-inch wheels. Sure, they don’t look as racy, but the ride from those, on 55 profile tyres, is a lot more cushioned.
Despite that grittier feel from the tyres the sports suspension is excellent and manages to soften bigger bumps well. Handling is good too, thanks to that suspension keeping the body well controlled.
Good visibility, steering that’s light but offers decent feel, and a comfortable seating position make the A4 pleasant to pilot, but not hugely engaging. If you're after more of a driver’s car, the S3 and RS3 will deliver – trust me.
Acceleration isn’t bad from the 1.4-litre, with 0-100km/h claimed to be 8.2 seconds. That dual-clutch transmission is a quick shifter and smooth even in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but only if you turn off the stop-start engine system (jerky and hard to tolerate).
I’m also not a fan of the way the stop-start system switches the engine off as you coast to a stop at traffic lights and intersections. For me, that borders on a safety issue, particularly when needing to turn on an amber only to find you momentarily lack steering or power.
As mentioned in the engine/transmission section, the 1.4 TFSI Sportback is a FWD car. Put it on a steep hill, as I did on our test incline, and even in dry conditions it’ll lose traction under hard acceleration. Traction control reins the slippage in, but AWD 'quattro' cars won’t struggle for traction in the same circumstances.
The IS lands with eight airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, brake asssist, forward collision warning, forward AEB with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, active-safety bonnet and tyre-pressure monitoring.
There are also two ISOFIX points and three top-tether anchors.
The IS scored the maximum five ANCAP stars in December 2016.
The A3 has a maximum five-star ANCAP rating from its 2013 crash test, which applies to the Sportback, Sedan and Cabriolet.
While the Sedan and Sportback have seven airbags, the Cabriolet has just five, missing out on the head-level curtain bags.
The amount of advanced safety equipment increases as you step up through the grades, but AEB is standard across the range. Lane keeping assistance, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert becomes standard from the 2.0 TFSI Sport upwards, while the lower grades can attain these with the optional $1500 'Assistance Package'.
For child seats there are two ISOFIX mounts and two top tether anchor points across the back seats in the Sedan, Sportback and Cabriolet.
Lexus offers a slightly unusual four-year/100,000km warranty, which I guess is a good way to separate yourself from the Euro competition, who are stubbornly sticking with three years. Added to the warranty is four years of roadside assist.
Also throwing a punch at the Euro manufacturers' generally lacklustre after-sales offering, Lexus offers to either come and fetch your car from you for servicing or will give you a loan car for the day. And you'll get your car back freshly washed and vacuumed, too.
All of this (and a reputation for bulletproof reliability) is intended to lure you away from the Germans.