Lexus IS VS Audi A4
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
- Stylish, but simple, design
- New cabin tech a hit
- Sophisticated cabin feel
- Can lack some driving excitement
- Extra safety will cost you
- It's time to move past three-year warranties
No it isn’t an all-new car. It might look like it, but the 2021 Lexus IS is actually a heavy facelift of the existing model, which originally went on sale way back in 2013.
There have been significant changes to the look of the new Lexus IS, including a revised front and rear end, and the company has widened the track and made “substantial chassis changes” to make it handle more adeptly, too. Plus there is a whole raft of newly added safety features and in-car technology, despite the cabin being, largely, a carryover affair.
Suffice to say that the new Lexus IS 2021 model - which the brand describes as having been “reimagined” - carries over a few strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. But does this Japanese luxury sedan still have enough quality traits to compete with the likes of its main rivals - the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class?
Let’s find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
It's easy to think SUVs have already consumed Australia's new-car market, but a deeper dive into the numbers throws up some surprising results for some brands.
The question now is, is this plucky premium passenger car good enough to fight off the SUV hordes? Join me as we find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
The new-look Lexus IS takes several steps forward over its predecessor - it’s safer, smarter, sharper to look at and still pretty well priced and equipped.
It is feeling its age inside, and the competition has moved on in terms of engines and EV tech. But even so, if I was buying a 2021 Lexus IS, it would have to be the IS350 F Sport, which is just the most fitting version of this car, though the IS300h Luxury does have plenty to like for the money, too.
You either get the Lexus look or you don’t, and I think this latest version is possibly more agreeable than the IS in years gone by.
That’s partly because the brand has finally done away with the odd spider-eyes twin-section headlights and daytime running lights - now there are more traditional headlight clusters, which look a lot more resolved than before.
The front end still features a bold ‘spindle’ grille, which gets different treatment depending on the grade, and the front, to my eye, looks better than before but still very much stuck in its ways.
At the side you’ll notice the giveaway windowline hasn’t changed, despite the chrome trim line having broadened as part of this facelift, but you can tell the haunches have muscled up a bit, with the new IS now 30mm wider overall, and the wheel sizes are 18s or 19s, depending on the grade.
The rear accentuates that width, with an L-shaped lighting signature now spanning the entire re-sculpted boot lid, giving the IS a pretty tidy rear end design.
Overall dimensions for the IS are 4710mm long, making it 30mm longer nose to tail (on an unchanged 2800mm wheelbase), while it now spreads across 1840mm (+30mm) and is 1435mm tall (+5mm).
The exterior changes really are impressive - I think it is a more purposeful but also more pleasant looking car now than it ever has been in this current generation.
The interior? Well, there’s not a whole lot to talk about in terms of design changes, aside from the repositioned and larger media screen - which sits 150mm closer to the driver because it’s now a touchscreen with the latest smartphone mirroring tech. Otherwise it’s a carryover affair, as you can see from the interior pictures.
It's undeniably handsome, the A4, in all of its guises. I have a particular soft spot for the stance of the sedan, but wagon lovers will find plenty to like about the Avant, too.
Ask Audi, and they'll tell you how this is a major design update for then A4 (albeit one that's arrived in the middle of its life, rather than for a whole new model), and how almost every exterior panel has been changed or altered.
The reality, though, is it still looks like an A4, only now with a wider grille, and redesigned headlight and DRL clusters, both of which combine to give the muscular mid-sizer a lower, more athletic-looking front-end.
The sharp creases that flow down each flank give the side-view some clear definition, and I do particularly like the way those alloys fill the wheel arches, genuinely making the A4 look tough and purposeful.
The biggest change, though, is arguably reserved for the interior, where a new 10.1-inch screen takes pride of place in the dash. Audi says the new model offers 10 times the computing power of the outgoing model, owing mostly to connected car features including live traffic, weather reports and fuel pricing, as well as the ability to remote unlock or lock you car from your phone, or pre-plan destinations and send them to the vehicle's nav.
Better still, it's a touch screen, which is eleventy-billion times easier to use than fiddling with the centre controls. In fact, it's so much easier that Audi has done away with them entirely, replacing them with extra storage in the centre console.
The flat-bottomed wheel feels great under touch, leather abounds, and the dash and centre console received lashing of metallic or carbon-fibre trim.
The end result of all this is a clean and uncluttered interior space that feels very well screwed together, and rather premium.
The interior design of the IS, as mentioned, hasn’t changed dramatically, and it is starting to feel old compared to some of its contemporaries.
It’s still a nice place to be, with comfortable front seats with electric adjustment and heating across all grades, and cooling on many variants, too.
The new 10.3-inch touchscreen media system is a nice unit, and means you can essentially do away with the silly trackpad system that still resides near the gear selector, so you may still end up bumping it accidentally. And the fact the IS now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though neither are wirelessly connectable) does further its appeal on the multimedia front, as does the standard 10-speaker Pioneer stereo - though the 17-speaker Mark Levinson unit is an absolute blinder!
The centre stack below the media screen retains a CD player, and still has the electromagnetic temperature adjustment sliders as well. That part of the design is dating it just as much as the transmission tunnel console area, which looks a bit out of touch by modern standards, though still incorporates a pair of cup holders and a reasonably large centre console bin with soft armrest padding.
The front doors feature trenches with bottle holders as well, while in the rear doors there is still no drink storage - a carryover annoyance from the pre-facelift model. However, the middle seat in the back doubles as an armrest with pop-out cupholders, and there are rear air vents too.
Speaking of that middle seat, you wouldn’t want to sit in it for long, as it has a raised base and uncomfortable backrest, plus there’s a huge transmission tunnel intrusion eating into leg and foot space.
Outboard passengers also miss out on toe room, which - for my size 12s - is an issue. And it’s hardly the roomiest second row in this class for knee room and headroom, as my 182cm frame was a touch squished behind my own driving position.
Children will be better catered for in the back, and there are two ISOFIX anchorages and three top-tether attachment points for baby seats.
The boot capacity varies on the model you buy. Choose an IS300 or IS350 and you score 480 litres (VDA) of cargo capacity, while the IS300h has a battery pack that robs it of some boot space, with 450L available.
It all comes down to your body style, of course, but let's start with the sedan, shall we?
It stretches 4762mm in length, 1847mm in width and 1431mm in height, and will swallow 460 litres of luggage in its boot.
Those numbers translate to pretty spacious cabin, with enough room up front for two adults to never encroach on each other's territory, and enough room in the back for me (I'm 175cm) to sit behind my own driving position with clear air above my head and between my knees and the driver's seat in front.
The Avant, or wagon, increases those dimensions to 4762mm x 1847mm x 1435mm, but also increases the cargo capacity to a considerable 495 litres with the rear seats in place, or 1495 litres with them folded flat. If yours is a life filled with kids' sport and weekends away, this is the model you want.
Finally, the allroad measures in at an identical 4762mm in length, and will deliver the same luggage space as the wagon, but you do get a more off-road focused suspension setup, delivering an extra 46mm ground clearance, a wider track front and rear, and a unique "off road mode" that uses the cars many traction and braking controls to deliver more grip off road.
Elsewhere, you'll find a plethora of storage spaces, two cupholders up front, bottle holders in each of the doors, and a new cubby in the centre console, where the media controls once lived.
Backseat riders share two USB connection ports (as well as ISOFIX attachment points in each window seat), while up-front riders get two of their own, as a 12-volt power source.
Price and features
The updated 2021 Lexus IS range has seen a number of pricing changes, and a reduction of variants, too. There are now five IS models available, down from seven prior to this update as the Sports Luxury model has been axed, and you can only get the IS350 in F Sport trim now. However, the company has expanded its “Enhancement Pack” strategy across the different variants.
Opening the range is the IS300 Luxury, which lists at $61,500 (all prices listed are the MSRP - not including on-road costs, and are correct at time of publishing). It has the exact same equipment as the IS300h Luxury model, which is $64,500, and that ‘h’ stands for hybrid, which will be detailed in the engines section.
The Luxury trim is equipped with items such LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, proximity keyless entry with push-button start, a 10.3-inch touchscreen multimedia system with satellite navigation (including live traffic updates) and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech, plus a 10-speaker sound system, eight-way power-adjustable front seats with heating and memory settings for the driver, and dual-zone climate control. There’s also auto headlights with auto high beam, rain sensing wipers, power steering column adjustment, and adaptive cruise control.
Indeed, there’s a raft of safety technology included - more on that below - and there’s also a number of Enhancement Pack options.
Luxury spec models can be equipped with a choice of two Enhancement Packs: the $2000 Enhancement Pack adds a sunroof (or moonroof in Lexus speak); or Enhancement Pack 2 (or EP2 - $5500) further adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, cooled front seats, high-grade leather-accented interior trim, and a power-operated rear sunshade.
The IS F Sport trim line is available across the IS300 ($70,000), IS300h ($73,000) or the V6-powered IS350 ($75,000), and it adds a number of additional features over the Luxury grade.
As you can probably tell, F Sport models get a sportier look, with a body kit, 19-inch alloy wheels, standard fit adaptive suspension, sports front seats with cooling, sports pedals, and five drive modes to choose from (Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom). The F Sport grade also includes a digital instrument cluster with an 8.0-inch display, as well as leather-accented trim, and scuff plates.
Buying the F Sport grade allows customers to add further goodies by way of the Enhancement Pack for that grade, which costs $3100 and includes the sunroof, 17-speaker sound system and rear sunshade.
What’s missing? Well there’s no wireless phone charging in any grade, and no USB-C connectivity either. Note: the spare wheel is a space saver in the IS300 and IS350, but there is only a repair kit in the IS300h as there are batteries where the spare wheel would go.
There’s no go-fast IS F model sitting at the top of the tree here, nor is there a plug-in hybrid to compete against the circa-$85K BMW 330e and Mercedes C300e. But the fact the IS models all come in below $75K means it’s a pretty decent value proposition.
The cheapest way into an A4 remains the 35 TFSI Sedan, which will set you back $55,900, while the more sport-and-style focused S line variant will cost you $59,900.
For that, you'll find LED headlights, 19-inch alloy wheels, a new 10.1-inch touchscreen that's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto equipped, a smart key with push-button start, leather trim, three-zone climate, standard navigation and a DAB+ digital radio.
The S line version adds Audi's Virtual Cockpit (a 12.3-inch digital display that replaces the traditional driver's binnacle), as well as sportier exterior and interior styling, frameless mirrors and illuminated door sills.
The range then steps up to the A4 45 TFSI quattro S line, which is yours for $68,900 in sedan guise, or $71,400 for the Avant, or wagon. Both are S line only, so you get the sportier style, but you also build on the 35 TFSI S line's equipment list with a memory function for the driver's seat and a better Audi 10-speaker stereo.
Finally, you can opt for the more off-road focused allroad, which is available with the 45 TFSI petrol engine ($72,900), or with a smaller diesel power plant ($69,900), bot of which are quattro AWD.
Both offer aluminium-look exterior highlights, roof rails and new front and rear bumpers, as well as a mite more off-road ability.
Engine & trans
The engine specs depend on the powertrain you choose. And at a glance there’s no variance between the earlier version of the IS and the 2021 facelift.
That means the IS300 model still runs a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor producing 180kW of power (at 5800rpm) and 350Nm of torque (at 1650-4400rpm). It has an eight-speed automatic transmission, and like all IS models, it is rear-wheel drive (RWD/2WD) - there is no all-wheel drive (AWD/4WD) model here.
Next up the spectrum is the IS300h model, which has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol motor teamed to an electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack. The petrol engine is good for a 133kW (at 6000rpm) and 221Nm (at 4200-5400rpm), and the electric motor produces 105kW/300Nm - but the combined total maximum power output is 164kW, and Lexus doesn’t provide a maximum torque figure. The 300h model runs a CVT automatic transmission.
The big horsepower offering here is the IS350, which runs a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine, producing 232kW of power (at 6600rpm) and 380Nm of torque (at 4800-4900rpm). It runs an eight-speed auto.
All models have paddle-shifters, while the two non-hybrid models have seen tweaks to the transmission software that is said to “estimate driver intentions” for better enjoyment.
Let's start with the 35 TFSI, which is home to a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine producing 110kW and 270Nm, and that is now paired with a 12V mild hybrid system that delivers fuel savings of up to 0.3 litres per hundred kilometres.
That engine is paired with a seven-speed S tronic automatic, with power sent to the front wheels. Audi reckons it will knock off the sprint to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds on its way to a 224km/h limited top speed.
The 45 TFSI engine is the same size as the 35 TFSI, but ups the grunt to 183kW and 370Nm. It gets the same gearbox, and the same mild hybrid system, but because it's only offered with quattro, power is sent to all four wheels. Fittingly, there's a drop in the sprint time, now as low as 5.8 seconds, with the top speed increased to 250km/h.
Finally, the diesel, which is only offered in the allroad body style. The 40 TDI quattro squeezes 140kW and 400Nm from the it's 2.0-litre engine - enough to dispatch 100km/h in 7.9 seconds.
There’s still no diesel model, no plug-in hybrid and no full electric (EV) model - which means that while Lexus was at the forefront of electrification with its so-called “self-charging” hybrids, it is falling behind the times. You can get plug-in versions of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, and the Tesla Model 3 plays in this space in full-electric guise.
As for the fuel-sipping hero of this trio of powertrains, the IS300h is said to use 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle fuel test. In reality, our test car’s dashboard showed 6.1L/100km across a mix of driving.
The IS300 with its turbocharged 2.0L engine is next best for fuel use, claiming 8.2L/100km. On our short launch drive of that model, we saw 9.6L/100km on the dashboard.
And the full-fat IS350 V6 petrol claims consumption of 9.5L/100km, while on test we saw 13.4L/100km.
The emissions for the three models are 191g/km (IS300), 217g/km (IS350) and 116g/km (IS300h). All three are Euro 6B compliant.
Fuel tank capacity is 66 litres for all models, meaning your mileage range for the hybrid model could be considerably longer.
The diesel is the most fuel-efficient option, sipping a claimed 5.2 litres per hundred kilometres on the combined cycle, while emitting 136g/km of C02.
The smaller petrol will use 6.1 litres on the same cycle over the same distance, and expel 167g/km of C02, while the bigger petrol ups the fuel use to to 7.1 litres, but drops the C02 to 162g/km.
Fuel tank sizes vary from 54 litres for the petrol sedan, 61 litres for the diesel, and 58 litres for the petrol wagon.
With the engine at the front and drive to the back, it has the ingredients for a pure driver’s car, and Lexus made a bit of a big deal about the new-look IS being more focused thanks to chassis adjustments and track width improvements - and it does feel a pretty nimble and tied-down car in the twisty stuff.
It is competent at stitching together a series of corners, and the F Sport models are particularly adept. The adaptive suspension in those models includes both anti-dive and anti-squat tech, which is designed to make the car feel solid and flat on the road - and it does, thankfully without feeling twitchy or uncomfortable, with good suspension compliance even in the most aggressive Sport S+ drive mode.
The 19-inch wheels on F Sport models are fitted with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber (235/40 front, 265/35 rear) and there’s plenty of tarmac tenacity.
The grip from Luxury-spec models on 18s could be better, with those Bridgestone Turanza tyres (235/45 all around) proving not quite the most enthralling.
Indeed, the IS300h Luxury I drove felt very different in character to the F Sport IS300 and 350 models. It was surprising how much more of a plush-focused model the Luxury grade feels, and likewise it wasn’t as impressive in dynamic driving due to the tyre grip and less-enthusiastic drive mode system. The non-adaptive suspension is a touch more jittery too, and while it’s not to the point of discomfort, you might expect better for a car on 18s.
Across all models the steering is accurate and direct enough, with predictable response and decent feel to the driver’s hands for this electric power steering setup. The F Sport models have even further retuned steering for “an even sportier drive experience”, though I found at times it could feel a little numb for rapid changes of direction.
As for engines, the IS350 is still the pick. It has the best zest, and feels the most fitting powertrain for this model. It sounds good, too. The auto transmission is pretty clever, there's easily enough pulling power, and it's probably going to be the last of the non-turbo V6s in Lexus's line-up when this cars life-cycle is up.
The IS300's turbo engine was the most disappointing, lacking some urge and constantly feeling bogged down by turbo lag, transmission confusion, or both. It felt underdone in enthusiastic driving, though in dull day-to-day commuting circumstances it came across as more acceptable, though the remapped transmission software was far less impressive in this application than in the IS350.
The IS300h was a lovely, quiet and refined experience all around. It’s the one you should go for if you don’t really care about all that go-fast stuff. The powertrain is proven, it accelerates with nice linear delivery, and at times it’s so hushed I found myself looking down at the instrument cluster to see if the car was in EV mode or if it was using the petrol engine.
You can't help but feel for Audi when you first slink into the driver's seat of the A4 45 TFSI. In today's motoring world, there's a heap of pressure on car company's to deliver something special with each new vehicle - some scintillating wow factor - be it a door-to-door digital screen, rocket ship acceleration or game-changing cabin materials.
And if we're honest, the A4 doesn't really do any of that. Instead, it offers a comfortable, quiet, super-competent drive experience that delivers most everything you might expect from it, and then some.
And while that might sound disappointing, here's the rub. Wow factor eventually fades, or the speeding tickets begin to pile up, and all you're really left with is how well a car goes about its day-to-day business, and it's here the A4 shines.
You'll notice I called out a particular engine at the start there, and that's because the 45 TFSI really is the pick of the bunch. It’s not that the engine is overly potent, it’s more that the power delivery feels perfectly matched to the vibe of the car - easy, plentiful, and hassle-free.
The entry-level petrol engine feels exactly that, like the entry-level choice. Perfectly capable at commuter speeds, but lacking in the fizz department should you find yourself on a winding road, and you do find yourself longing for more grunt as you exit a corner, especially heading up hill.
Same, too, the diesel, which isn't underwhelming, but feels like a particular tool for a particular job, or for those wedded to the idea of a long-distance diesel engine.
But in the words of a particular fairytale heroine, the 45 TFSI quattro feels just right. And even the most prehistoric owner can’t complain about the hybrid tech here, either. It’s seriously unnoticeable, with the Audi behaving like any other turbocharged petrol engine should, only with the added benefit of saving a little fuel.
So, to the drive experience itself. It is, in a word, very Audi. The ride might lean to the firm side of comfortable occasionally, especially over harsher road imperfections, but the cabin is quiet, comfortable, and your forward momentum is effortless, with the steering and gearbox both performing their duties seamlessly.
So seamlessly, in fact, that it can feel a little disconnected. It will get you where you’re going in comfort and with ease, but it won’t necessarily stir the soul on the way. For that, you might have to spring for the incoming S4, due later this year.
The facelifted version scores auto emergency braking (AEB) with day and night pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection (from 10km/h to 80km/h) and car detection (10km/h to 180km/h). There’s also all speed adaptive cruise control with low speed following.
The IS also has lane keeping assistance with lane departure warning, lane trace assist, a new system called Intersection Turning Assist which will brake the car if the system judges the traffic gap isn’t big enough, and there’s also road sign recognition.
Plus the IS has blind-spot monitoring on all grades, as well as rear cross-traffic alert with auto braking (below 15km/h).
And beyond that, Lexus has added new Connected Services features, including an SOS call button, automated collision notification if an airbag deploys, and stolen vehicle tracking.
Where is the Lexus IS built? Japan is the answer.
You can expect AEB with pedestrian detect, an exit warning system, lane change warning, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera - all of which contribute to the A4's five-star ANCAP safety rating.
The high-tech stuff joins the eight airbags (dual front, front side, side bags front and rear and curtains front and rear), but if you want more, you'll have to pay.
Adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go, active lane assist, Audi pre-sense, Collision avoidance assist, high beam assist and turn assist all arrives as a package on the 35 TFSI, costing between $1900 and $2470.
The same kit, only with a head up display, park assist and a 360-degree camera will cost you between $2900 and $3770 on the 35 TFSI S line and 45 TFSI S line.
On paper, Lexus’s ownership offer isn’t quite as enticing as some other luxury car brands - but it has a strong reputation for blissful ownership.
The Lexus Australia warranty period is four years/100,000km, which is better for duration than Audi and BMW (both three years/unlimited km) but not as accommodating as Mercedes-Benz or Genesis, each of which offer five-year/unlimited km warranty.
The company has a three-year capped price servicing plan, with maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km. The first three visits cost $495 each. That’s okay - but Lexus doesn’t offer free servicing like Genesis, and nor does it offer prepaid service plans - for three to five years for a C-Class, and five years for Audi A4/A5, for instance.
There is complimentary roadside assistance for the first three years, too.
That said, the company has its Encore ownership benefits program that allows a number of experiences and deals, and the service team will collect your car and return it, leaving you with a loan car if you need it.
All Audi's are covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with servicing required every 12 months or 15,000km.
You can pre-pay your service costs for three or five years, which will set you back $1710 or $2720 for petrol engines, or $2050 and $3190 for diesel engines.