Lexus IS VS Audi RS3
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
- Tough styling
- Great engine
- Excellent handling
- Firm ride could be hard to live with
- Small dash display screen
- Interior too similar to regular A3
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|
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|
|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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.