Lexus IS VS Audi S4
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
- Understated looks
- Goes like stink
- Overly heavy steering in Dynamic mode
- Tyre roar on some surfaces
- Can feel a bit computer-driven
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|
Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the new Audi S4 sedan and Avant, with specs, fuel consumption and verdict at its Australian launch between Bathurst and Canberra.
Sometimes year a year flashes by and it's almost a shock to realise that Audi's B9 A4 has been with us here in Australia for almost that long. Performance buffs have had to wait for the first quick version of the A4 while the Allroad was rolled out, but here we finally have the first Audi Sport variant in the line-up - the S4.
As with the standard A4, there's a stack of new stuff and a stout standard specification list along with technical packages. There's one big piece of news, too - it's the first S4 to land with a price tag under $100,000.
|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.
It's not an exuberant machine and you can tell there's still a ton of room for the inevitable RS4 mean machine to go after the BMW M3/M4 and AMG C63. That means, however, that the S4 is a proper sleeper. Hardly anyone will notice what it is until they're eating your fumes while you whisk yourself away in (mostly) quiet and comfort.
The new S4 is lighter, slightly faster and more technologically advanced than its predecessor, while bringing the A4's charms to the go-faster part of the executive sedan segment. This one will rattle a few cages.
Audi S4 Sedan and Avant Specifications
List price: $99,900 (Sedan) / $102,900 (Avant)
Fuel Consumption: 7.7L/100km (Sedan) / 7.9L/100km (Avant)
CO2: 175g/km (Sedan) / 178g/km (Avant)
Fuel Tank: 58L
ANCAP: 5 stars
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service Interval: 15,000km or 12 months
Engine size: 2995cc
Fuel Type: PULP
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Spare: space saver
Turning Circle: 11.6m
Length: 4745mm (Sedan) / 4745mm (Avant)
Width: 1842mm (Sedan) / 1842mm (Avant)
Height: 1404mm (Sedan) / 1411mm (Avant)
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.
Audi tells us that S4 owners don't like to shout about their purchase, which is just as well, because the S4 looks like a very mildly gussied up A4. That means the same sharp looks as the A4 but lower, 23mm to be exact. The standard 19s make it look lower still but all the standard A4 cues are there. This has been covered at length already, but just to be sure, every inch of the car is new, it just looks a lot like the old one.
Get up closer, though, and you'll see the serrated shape of the headlight, the clamshell bonnet and shutlines tighter than Scott Morrison on Budget night when it comes to funding hospitals. Audi says the body kit is aggressive but I think it's safe to say that the drug of choice at Audi's styling bureau is chamomile tea - it's fairly restrained, with just a few details (including a slightly daggy V6T badge on the front guards) to mark it out.
Inside is standard A4, too, with plenty of leather (both real and man-made), with some extra zing in the form of carbon and aluminium bits.
It's as roomy and comfortable as the standard car and looks just as good. It's a fine interior, the best in its class.
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.
The S4 has four bottle holders, cupholders front and rear for a total of four and various slots and spots for phones and keys in the front while the rear is a little less accommodating of bits and pieces.
The sedan's boot is the same as the rest of the A4s (and mid-size Germans) at 480 litres while the Avant bumps that up to a 505 litre minimum and a 1510 litre maximum when you drop the seatbacks.
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 S4 is available in two versions - sedan and Avant wagon. The sedan opens the bidding at $99,900 and the Avant closes it at $102,900. Both come with identical specifications and are available with much the same options. For a bit of pricing perspective, the first S4 was an Audi 100-based five-cylinder turbo that landed with a price tag of $132,000. In 1993.
The S4 has arrived with 19-inch alloys, adaptive dampers, around-view camera, reversing camera, up-spec sat nav, adaptive cruise control, auto parking, auto headlights and wipers, high beam assist, keyless entry and start, electric tailgate (Avant only), heated folding electric mirrors, LED headlights, dynamic scrolling rear indicators, electric heated sports front seats, leather and Alcantara trim, three-zone climate control and interior LED lighting.
A ten speaker stereo is powered by Audi's MMI rotary dial system and the same 8.3-inch screen as the rest of the A4 range, which also means you get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as two USB ports in the centre console to go with the Bluetooth. There's also a DAB+ digital radio.
Audi's Virtual Cockpit is standard and has an additional S mode which switches the dial view for a big tacho and a huge digital speed readout.
Being an Audi, you can get a collection of options in packs. The S Performance Package ($5900) adds an excellent pair of massaging S sport front seats with diamond stitching and Nappa leather, red brake calipers, more (synthetic) leather and carbon inlays in the interior.
The Technik Package adds the excellent matrix LED headlights, the 19-speaker B&O 3D sound system and a heads-up display.
Other options include variable ratio Dynamic Steering ($2210), quattro sport differential ($2950), premium paint (ahem, $1846), panoramic sunroof (Avant only, $2990), sunroof ($2470, sedan only), heated rear seats ($750) and the rear seat entertainment system ($2600-$4680 for one or two screens respectively, but you can't have it with the S Performance pack)
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.
Audi says the turbocharged V6 is brand new from the ground up. Developing 260kW (15kW up) and a nice round 500Nm (up 60Nm), the new engine is 14kg lighter than the supercharged unit it replaces, and more efficient.
Efficiency gains come from clever things like a "hot side inside" turbo placement (inside the V, meaning shorter exhaust paths to better turbo pressure), lift-off coasting and start-stop.
Power reaches the road via an Audi Sport tweaked quattro system which can send 85 percent of power in either direction and is rear-biased with a standard 60/40 rear/front torque split. The seemingly ubiquitous and always excellent eight-speed ZF transmission handles the job of getting the power from the engine to the road.
The standard self-locking centre diff can be flung and replaced with a trick quattro sport unit ($2950) with electro-mechanical control of the rear axle's torque split.
The sedan will rocket to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, the slightly heavier Avant two tenths behind it.
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.
Audi claims 7.7L/100km from the sedan and 7.8L/100km for the Avant. On a stinking hot day in central NSW and the ACT and with the accelerator spending a lot of time carpet-bound, the S4 still returned around 12L/100km. More time being driven less enthusiastically should see a marked improvement.
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.
The S4 is terrific fun. It's that simple. The new engine is an absolute belter, with all 500Nm of torque available at just 1370rpm. Lag is almost indistinguishable as the turbo spools up and rockets you along to 100kmh in under five seconds, that huge half-ton of torque sweeping you down the road.
With dynamic mode switched on, the car muscles up with firmer suspension and a slightly growlier exhaust. The steering really weights up, too, which takes a little getting used to after the lighter, friendlier setting in Comfort mode - thankfully you can set up an individual mode to dial the assistance back in while everything else is set up for go-fast.
The key to the fun is the rear-biased quattro system - while it's never going to match the purity of BMW's rear-wheel drive 340i, what you lose in steering feel and ultimate adjustability, you gain in off-the-line and mid-corner grip its German rivals could only dream of.
Going fast in an S4 is easy, leaving you to concentrate a little more on your line and gear selection, listening to the distant bark of the engine and the occasional turbo whistle. All of this is purely down to driving taste, of course but the point is, the S4 offers something a little different to the other two.
For most of the time the S4 defies its 1700kg-plus weight but there is the occasional hesitancy when changing direction through a challenging set of bends, as though the front tyres (245s all around, if you're interested) want to scrub and the quattro system makes a quick adjustment to stop it happening. You don't feel that's what's happening, of course - Audi Sport is better than that - but it's part and parcel of all-wheel drive. It takes a lot to find understeer and for most people, that just won't ever happen.
Further confidence comes from the terrific brakes - 350mm up front and 330mm at the rear, the big forward rotors are gripped by six-pot fixed calipers. Performance is epic and in hard, fast driving they stood up to a fair amount of punishment without fading.
The ride is excellent in all modes, which is quite an achievement given the fat rubber and big wheels, although big bumps at speed make a huge metallic thunk without actually upsetting progress. The eight-speed ZF is brilliant as always and unless you're really motoring, you don't even need its sport mode, which brings impressively fast and positive shifts.
The best thing is, if you don't look in the rear vision mirror, you can't really tell if you're driving sedan or Avant. That might be because it's quite absorbing on a launch drive, but I couldn't split the driving experience between the two.
The only black marks I could easily identify on the S4 is tyre noise on some surfaces and perhaps the steering could be a little more lively like its competitors.
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.
The S4 also retains the exit warning feature that tells you if you're about to door an approaching bicyclist or another car. What Audi calls "pre-sense rear" is a system to warn drivers behind you they're approaching too fast and are quite likely to hit you. Turn assist is also available, stopping you (at low speeds) from turning across approaching traffic.
The A4 scored five ANCAP safety stars, the highest available.
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.
Audi offers a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on the S4 with service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km whichever comes first. Roadside assist is part of the package, lasting for the first three years of the car's life.
You can pre-purchase three years/45,000km of servicing for $1620 under Audi's Genuine Care Service Plan. Full details are available on Audi's website, but it basically covers a scheduled oil changes and inspections and not a lot else.