Lexus IS VS Audi RS3
- Smooth powertrain
- Bulletproof quality
- Individual looks
- Feels heavy
- Odd-bod interior
- Some ergonomic failures
- Tough styling
- Great engine
- Excellent handling
- Firm ride could be hard to live with
- Small dash display screen
- Interior too similar to regular A3
Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the Lexus IS350 Sport Luxury with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.
The Lexus IS has carved out a niche in the executive sedan market - some owners would require dynamite to shift them to another brand. With an unparalleled commitment to post-sales service and a reputation for absolutely bulletproof reliability, Lexus hasn't exactly beaten the Germans into submission here in Australia, but it has given them a good fright. If you want to take on Audi, BMW and Mercedes, you've got to bring what Americans call 'your A-game.'
Explore the 2016-2017 Lexus IS Range
Lexus IS 2016 review | first drive video
Lexus IS300h 2016 review | snapshot
Lexus IS350 2016 review | snapshot
Lexus IS200t Luxury 2017 review | road test
Lexus IS200t F Sport 2017 review | road test
The IS350 is a niche within a niche, though. At this level, the Germans have convinced their customers that forced induction fours or sixes are the go, while Lexus soldiers on with a naturally aspirated V6 and a specification list as long as your arm.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
BMW has its M-stamped cars, Mercedes has its AMG models and Audi has its performance-focused RS range. All three are taken very seriously, and rightly so, because the vehicles that wear those badges are the most hardcore road cars the three big German brands produce.
Even the smallest and most affordable (though the latter is relative) of them aren’t to be underestimated. Take the Audi RS3 Sportback, for example, which received an update at the end of 2017 that introduced a more powerful five-cylinder engine and new styling.
So, is the RS3 Sportback, with its almost 300kW and all-wheel drive, the ultimate hot hatch? Does it do anything better than its RS3 Sedan sibling? Or is it as unbearable to live with as a German flatmate who has recently discovered body building, spray tans and steroids?
|Engine Type||2.5L turbo|
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The IS350 is a fine car and is edging ever closer to the truly European feel the marque seems to crave. It's also different enough for those who don't want to be a part of the German triad and want to do something different while getting an after-sales experience that's hard to beat.
The thing about the IS is that it feels a little old - the interior tech and naturally-aspirated V6 are a bit 2009. That's not to criticise the car itself because it's beautifully made and if past IS generations are anything to go by, will outlast humanity. The 350 feels, and is heavy. It's a bit thirsty and doesn't quite tick all the boxes many in the sector are looking for. But wow, is it getting closer.
Is the Lexus IS in the running for you? Or does your wallet only speak German?
The RS3 Sportback is going to take some commitment; the ride isn’t comfortable on less than great roads, but the performance payoff is outstanding. And at the same time, you have the convenience and practicality of a regular Audi A3 Sportback.
Like all RS models it’s a good compromise - just hardcore enough to be taking seriously, but just soft enough to live with every day.
What would you rather, the Audi RS3, a Mercdes-AMG A45, a BMW M140i or a Golf R? Tell us what you think in the comments below
This third-generation IS is, at last, a distinctive looker. The first car was a clean design that aged reasonably well (as did the car - there's still a ton of them kicking around) but the second one seemed a bit timid, a sort of slimmed version of the first car's styling ideas in a bigger body. Things weren't quite right and that car's look has not aged well at all.
The third generation, though, is much more aggressive, more individualistic. The mid-life refresh made the front end look a bit frowny, but the Lexus spindle grille really looks the business even if the headlights appear awkwardly finished. In profile it fits in well with the pack and then it all gets a bit aggro again at the back, with that extravagant downward sweep of the taillights. Pretty, no, memorable, yep.
Inside is less adventurous and, annoyingly, not ageing as well as Lexus might have hoped. The two-storey dash feels a little heavy-handed with its double chin rolls. I can see what the designers were going for, but they missed.
And that chintzy analogue clock in the centre stack. Please. Stop.
There are also too many Toyota-style buttons littering the dash. Having said all of that, the obvious Lexus bits are terrific to touch and use, apart from the entertainment system's click mouse thing. That's a bit of a mess and the screen's software actively works against precise operation.
All is mostly well on the instrument pack except when the sun is coming over your shoulder. The reflections obliterate both of the traditional dials and if you'd already driven, say, an IS200t with the digital dash, you would be asking tough questions about why that instrument set isn't in the top-of-the-range machine.
Hell yeah, there is. The RS3 Sportback is the hatch version of the RS3 Sedan, and it looks like a serious weapon - impressive, given it’s based on the incredibly sedate-looking A3 Sportback. Audi is magnificent at doing the Clark Kent-into-Superman trick, transforming its regular models into RS heroes.
There’s that big gloss-black grille with its quattro lettering and the splitter which wraps around under it, making the hatch look wide and low. Check out the images; it looks like an evil hover-car from the front.
The RS3 Sportback looks just as potent from the back, too, with its gloss-black and finned diffuser, meaty tail pipes and a roof-top spoiler that’s so sharp-looking it would surely be confiscated from your carry-on luggage. That front-three-quarter shot shows off the widened wheel arches best, too.
Our test car wore the optional 19-inch anthracite black alloys with the five-arm design (part of the $5900 'RS Performance Package 2'), but I think the standard 19-inch alloys with the matt-titanium finish look tougher. Red brake calipers are standard, but the back matt roof rails are an option.
Our car’s 'Ara Blue crystal' paint is a $2015 option, and so is the 'Panther Black crystal'. The only paint colour you won’t have to pay for is 'Nardo Grey', and while the rest are optional, they cost less than the crystal colours (at $1495), and include 'Catalunya Red', 'Floret Silver', 'Glacier White' and 'Mythos Black'.
If only Audi was as good at transforming interiors as it is a car’s outsides. Although the RS seats look great, the rest of the interior is almost identical to a regular A3 Sportback. I’m serious, I’m staring at a shot I took of the 1.4 TFSI Sportback’s cabin and another I took of the RS3 Sportback’s side by side, and they are pretty much the same, apart from the carbon inlays (part of the optional RS Performance Package), the Alcantara steering wheel and door trim, and the ignition button.
Compared to a regular A3 Sportback, the RS3 version is 22mm longer at 4335mm end-to-end, 15mm wider at 1800mm across, and sits 15mm lower to the ground at 1411mm tall.
What are the RS3 Sportback’s rivals? As a model comparison, there’s the Mercedes-AMG A45 - which looks like it’s ready to bite you - and there’s BMW’s M140i, which is low-key looking but never to be underestimated. An outsider that’s actually so closely related to the RS3 that it would expect an invite to its wedding is the Golf R – it has a less powerful engine, but it’s built on the same platform, shares much of the same technology and costs a whole lot less.
This is probably the weakest part of the Lexus equation. While front and rear seat passengers enjoy a pair of cupholders per row, there's little in the way of storage for our ubiquitous phones. A centre console bin is provided (from which your USB cable must sprout), but the dash and console are bereft of a good place to stow your phone. Each front door will carry a small bottle but rear seat passengers miss out. The glovebox is a good size and cooled for your convenience.
There are practical benefits to the RS3 Sportback that don’t come with the RS3 Sedan.
First, legroom is better in the Sportback, but when I sit behind my 191cm-tall driving position, my knees are still digging into that thick seat back. Headroom is good though, thanks to that high, flat roofline.
Both Sedan and Sportback seat three across the second row, but you won’t want to be in the middle seat.
The Sedan has a bigger boot than the Sportback’s 335 litres of luggage space, but the Sportback’s hatch opening is larger and those seats fold down to give you 1175 litres of space. A mini-wagon of sorts.
Cabin storage isn’t spectacular, with a small centre-console bin and two cup holders up front, plus two in the rear fold-down centre armrest. You’ll also find large door pockets up front and two slim ones in the rear.
If you like nets, then make sure you’re sitting down because there are storage nets everywhere; in the front passenger footwell, on the seatbacks and in the boot to stop your oranges rolling away.
For your electrical bits there’s a USB up front and a 12V power outlet, there’s another 12V in the second row and a third in the cargo area.
Price and features
The IS range kicks off at $59,340 for the base IS200t but it's not until you're spending $65,390 that you'll find yourself in a V6-powered IS350. Another twenty large will see you in the Sports Luxury we had for the week, at a not inconsiderable $84,160 (although that's $4000 less than a BMW 340i). What do you get for that? Quite a bit, as it happens.
A 15-speaker stereo (with Mark Levinson branding, whoever that is), 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, a hefty safety package, active cruise control, LED headlights and daytime running lights, auto headlights and wipers, heated, cooled and electrically-adjustable front seats with three memory settings on the driver's side, sat nav, lots of leather, park assist and power everything including sunroof.
Metallic paint is a breathtaking $1500.
The stereo, sat nav and various functions are controlled from a rectangular click-mouse arrangement reminiscent of a '90s laptop. It isn't great and my impression of the software is that the designers need to go out and buy some Apple and Android devices and learn how modern things work. Or at least have a look at iDrive and MMI. Having said that, the sound is epic, although the radio's insistence on switching to KIIS FM on start-up, no matter which device or station was last used, was irritating.
The sat nav also has some annoying functions that are, mercifully, switchable. The speed camera warnings are helpful and insistent while the incessant school zone warnings were hugely annoying. That's hardly Lexus' fault given there are so many of the things, but the constant 'ding-dong' in urban areas is infuriating and sounds like you're trapped in an airport.
The RS3 Sportback lists for $81,900, which is not just expensive for a small car, but also compared with its Mercedes-AMG A45 rival, too - the other German undercuts it at $78,611. BMW doesn’t have a proper M rival in its 1 Series to go head-to-head with the Audi and can only offer up the M140i at $59,990, while the Golf R is $55,490.
The Audi S3 Sportback is the RS3's far less hardcore 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo-powered sibling, and that one costs $73,000.
So, the RS3 must come loaded with heaps of features, right? Not really. You get some great standard stuff such as the 12.3-inch virtual instrument cluster, those awesome leather RS sports seats, which are heated but manually adjustable, the Alcantara RS steering wheel with paddle shifters, adaptive cruise control and auto parking. Then there are the things you’d expect on any car such as sat nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, digital radio, the 10-speaker stereo, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control and LED headlights.
Then there is some disappointment: the standard display screen is tiny at seven-inches (have you seen the giant screens in the $47,200 A200?), Qi charging is a $325 option and you can’t order head-up display even if you want one.
Want ceramic brakes? That’ll be $9500. Which is fine. Tinted rear windows will cost you $910, and roof racks will set you back $780.
There’s a mountain of safety equipment, which you can read all about below.
And if you don’t like grey then you’ll have to pay for every other paint colour. If you’re wondering how much they’ll add to the price, I’ve listed them in the section on design.
Engine & trans
The IS350's power comes from a 3.5-litre 60-degree V6 producing 233kW and 378Nm. Zero to 100km/h for the 1685kg sedan is dispatched in 5.9 seconds with the aid of an eight-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels.
Towing capacity is rated at 750kg unbraked and 1500kg braked.
The RS3 Sportback is special. It doesn’t just get a tuned version of a regular A3 engine - that would be an insult to the whole RS tradition.
Nope, the RS3 Sportback has a unique 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo-petrol lurking under the bonnet, complete with red bits on the engine cover (have a look at the images).
Five-cylinder turbos are a big part Audi’s performance history, and the one in the RS3 is the same that’s in the Audi TT RS, and with an identical output of 294kW (just under 400 horsepower) and 480Nm. The previous RS3 had a five-cylinder engine, too, but this new one is lighter, more efficient and more powerful.
How fast is the RS3 Sportback? It’s quick; we’re talking 0-100km/h in 4.1 seconds. The TT RS is about 0.2s quicker, but the RS3 is having to shift 70kg more weight, at 1510kg all up.
Mash the accelerator and Audi’s quattro system sends the drive instantaneously to all four wheels through an active centre differential, with gears being shifted - quicker than you or I could - by a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. No manual gearbox, I'm afraid.
I drove the RS3 for a week and put about 200km on the clock, but my actual fuel-testing route took in 81km and covered commuting from my house to the CBD in peak-hour traffic, plus a loop through the national park. For that fuel test I used 11.18L of 98RON (measured at the pump), which gave me fuel consumption of 13.8L/100km. The trip computer reported an average of 12.7L/100km.
Can you guess what Audi’s figure is for a combination of urban and open roads? Officially, the fuel economy should be 8.4L/100km, which is doable with motorways and conservative driving added into the mix.
For some reason, the IS always feels heavy. There's something about the way the car moves that makes it feel chunky. That's not all bad, of course, because it imparts a feeling of solidity and strength, but when you line it up next to a BMW 340i, it tips the scales a further 145kg the wrong way. When you look at it that way, you're always carrying two medium sized people around with you.
It doesn't seem to blunt the performance too much, reaching 100km/h in 5.9 seconds, about eight tenths slower than Beemer with the same number of gears and a torque deficit of almost 70Nm.
Another reason it feels heavy is that the sprint itself is one of the most drama-free acceleration events you'll ever experience. The 3.5 V6 is as silky as they come, as smooth as any in-line six, which have the advantage of not having pistons punching away from each other throwing the engine about.
It's not as sharp on the throttle as the 340i or A4, even when in Sport+ mode, so the Sports bit of the Sports Luxury tag is about thirty percent of the equation.
It does steer and brake with great accomplishment, but there's no life in the chassis, really, so it's best regarded as a luxury car rather than a sporting sedan. The IS has always been thus but with the sad demise of the IS F, there's nothing to really go after the quicker Audis, BMWs or Mercs. You have to lose two doors and move on to the RC F for that.
Ride quality is superb and the cabin is seriously quiet. Rough roads with huge expansion joints and zingy concrete surfaces fade into the background, conversation remains easy with just the stereo to push what little wind noise penetrates the cabin into the background. The adaptive damping must take a lot of the credit for the ride and handling refinement - it's unobtrusive and doesn't suddenly pour concrete into the dampers when you switch things up.
If you’re going to live with the RS3 Sportback then you’re going to need to be committed.
The standard wheels are fairly big at 19-inches, the rubber is super low profile and the suspension is on the ‘ouch’ side of firm. So unless the roads around your home are super smooth, the ride is going to be less than comfy.
Our test car was fitted with the RS Performance Package 2, which adds Audi’s 'Magnetic Ride', but even with that clever adaptive damper system set in its cushiest Comfort mode, the ride is still firm. I don’t need to tell you that, with my wife and four year old in the car, the dampers were always in Comfort, and even then my captive audience complained.
For reasons unknown even to me, I personally spent way too much of my time with the dampers in Sport. And combined with our car’s Pirelli P Zero 235/30 R19 tyres at the front and 235/35 R19 at the rear, the ride on Sydney’s patchwork, potholed streets teetered on unbearable. On one mission to the supermarket about 5.0km away, I developed a headache just because of the jarring ride.
But when I was finally on a smooth and twisty bit of country road I quickly forgot the pain of travelling though the city. To be honest, out there in the hills on amazing roads, there were times when I wished the suspension was firmer and that the car was tauter.
Composed, controlled, confident and sharp, the RS3 Sportback is agile, with great turn-in and steering that’s always telling the driver through the wheel everything that’s going on. There’s a moment of turbo lag, but the power comes barging in before you can whinge about it.
Dynamic mode sharpens the throttle response, quickens the shifts, adds weight to the steering and firms up that suspension even more. The exhaust note also become throatier; snarling and crackling on the down-shifts. The traction is outrageous, too, and the grip from those Pirelli P Zeros is outstanding.
The RS3 seats are as good to sit in as they look – comfortable under you, supportive around you. But I’m not a fan of Alcantara steering wheels; they’re grippy if you’re wearing racing gloves but feel slippery in dry bare hands. Also, have you seen how they wear? Google it and prepare to be disgusted.
Eight airbags (including knee bags for front seat occupants), ABS, stability and traction controls, blind spot sensor, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, auto emergency braking, forward collision detection, brake assist and driver attention detection.
The IS scored five ANCAP stars, the highest available.
The only complaint here is that both lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert are too polite - a little more information as to what's going on would be helpful.
The RS3 Sportback has a five-star ANCAP rating. Along with seven airbags, there’s an impressive amount of advanced safety equipment including AEB, lane-keep assistance, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert and road-sign recognition.
For child seats, you’ll find three top-tether mounts across the second row and two ISOFIX points on the outboard seats.
You’re not going to find a spare wheel, the RS3 has puncture repair kit.
The Lexus range comes with a four year/100,000km warranty with roadside assist for the duration. Servicing is every 15,000km or twelve months, whichever comes first.
The ownership experience only loses marks because of the lack of capped or fixed price servicing. Service intervals are well-spaced at 12 months/15,000km but Lexus will only commit to "indicative" pricing after the first service (which is, to be fair, a freebie).
The Lexus experience is legendary - owners with cars well over a decade old still have them collected from their homes come service time. Technically, you may never have to visit a dealer again, just pay the nice person when they comes back with your freshly washed, and serviced car. Or they'll give you a loan car to drive yourself around in for the day.
The RS3 Sportback is covered by Audi’s three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Servicing is recommended every 12 months or 15,000km. It’s a bit disappointing that RS models aren’t eligible for the servicing plan that can be purchased for regular models.