Lexus IS VS Audi A4
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
- 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
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|
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.