Lexus IS VS Alpina B5
- Smooth powertrain
- Bulletproof quality
- Individual looks
- Feels heavy
- Odd-bod interior
- Some ergonomic failures
- Cleaning the wheels
- Room and storage space could be better
- Not the most engaging car to drive
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|
The BMW Alpina B5 Bi-Turbo is not actually a BMW. Not according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, at least.
Nope, the modifications applied by tuning house Alpina to the 5 Series are deemed so significant that if you open the bonnet and look inside the engine bay, you'll see that the BMW VIN has been struck through twice and an Alpina vehicle number stamped underneath it.
The B5 is not the first model to be recognised in this way, either; the German government has recognised Alpina as a seperate car manufacturer since 1983.
The B5 has other ‘B' siblings, too. There's the B3 S Bi-Turbo, which is based on the BMW 3 Series, the B4 S Bi-Turbo (the BMW 4 Series) and the B7 Bi-Turbo (I don't need to tell you what this is based on, right?) which I've reviewed, too.
So just what has Alpina done to this unsuspecting BMW 5 Series? Is it really worth the extra money? How does the B5 compare to an M5? Could it actually be superior? And did they really take the speed limiter off to let it warp-speed to beyond 300km/h?
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 Alpina B5 is a special car – more special than most people will ever give you credit for if you own one. Those that do know what an Alpina is will let you know; people will cross dangerously busy streets to talk to you about your car. Insanely fast, almost incomprehensibly comfortable and effortlessly powerful to drive.
Does the Alpina B5 make a BMW even better? Or do you think the M5? 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.
Interesting is the right word for it, because while it might be questionable that Alpina's changes to the exterior are aesthetic pleasing, they are definitely intriguing to those who aren't familiar with the brand.
First, there are those 20-spoke wheels. Alpinas have worn this style of wheel forever and they've become the most famous outward sign that this is not just another BMW. So don't under any circumstances take them off and replace them with anything else. You'd be run out of town by the Alpina mafia.
Yes, they're more painful to clean than a cheese grater (trust me, I know. And if you look closely at these images you can see the dirty bits I've missed), but if you really don't like them then perhaps it's a sign this car isn't for you.
Then there's the boot-lid spoiler. It's square and 1980s'-looking, it also appears a bit like it's been bought online and installed by a teenager, but again, this is another Alpina tradition and it suits the car's character perfectly.
All right, those pinstripes; they're known as the Deco-Set and are a hat-tip to the Alpina racecars of the 1970s and '80s. Again, don't take these off, your Alpina will drop through the centre of the Earth in value. These are also part-and-parcel of owning one of these cars. I'm not a massive fan of them.
But I'm all about that front spoiler, with the floating Alpina lettering that you can option in silver, high-gloss black or gold.
Inside, there are fewer Alpina additions, but they're nonetheless unmissable. There's the Alpina-badged steering wheel, and a new virtual instrument cluster, embossed headrests and illuminated door sills.
There's also the little numbered plaque on the centre console which proves its authenticity, ours was number 49. Out of how many? I don't know. But I do know Alpina produces only about 1700 cars globally a year. Rolls Royce does about 4000. So, you can rest assured your B5 is exclusive.
At almost 5m long, 1.9m wide and 1.5m tall, the B5 is a large saloon, but having recently reviewed the Alpina B7 it feels small in comparison. How does it drive? We're getting there.
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.
Practicality is not really a BMW strong point no matter which model you pick. See, BMW mostly makes the car equivalent of uber-stylish and skin-tight active wear which looks good and performs brilliantly, but sometimes you just want pockets and a bit of room for your… um… bits and pieces.
So while there are two cup holders up front and two in the back, the bottle holders in the doors aren't huge, the centre console bin is on the small side, there's a hidy-hole in front of the shifter, the glove box is just a box for little more than gloves and there's no other great cabin storage options.
Legroom in the rear is good but not great, too - I'm 191cm tall and have about 30mm between my knees and the seat back in my driving position. Middle-seat passengers will also have to straddle the drive shaft hump in the floor. Headroom is restricted in the back, too (you could blame the sunroof) with my hair just skimming the headlining (I do have big hair).
Under that power tailgate, the B5's boot capacity is 530 litres which is 15L more than its big sister, the B7. There are two plastic storage areas either side of the luggage space for wet things. While there is one USB outlet in the front there aren't any in the rear.
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 BMW Alpina B5 lists for $210,000, making it only $10K more the BMW M5 which comes with almost identical features apart from the Alpina engineering to the engine and chassis.
Arriving standard is leather upholstery, four-zone climate control, nav, the Alpina embossed-headrests, a 10.25-inch display, digital radio, Alpina door sills, sunroof, proximity key, power front seats, 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, head-up display, Alpina virtual instrument cluster, heated front and rear seats, and the 20-inch Alpina wheels.
The test car I drove had been optioned with a limited-slip differential ($5923), steering-wheel heating ($449); soft-close function for doors ($1150); sunblinds ($1059); TV function ($2065) ambient air package ($575), and front-seat ventilation ($1454).
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 Alpina B5 uses the same 4.4-litre V8 engine found in the BMW M5 (and also the B7). But, and it's a big but, the M5 makes 441kW and 750Nm, while the B5 outdoes it with 447kW and 800Nm. Admittedly, the B5's torque arrives at the 3000rpm mark, while the M5's is all there from 1800rpm.
How does the B5 beat it? Alpina installed its specially developed twin turbochargers and intercoolers, a high-performance cooling system, a reconfigured air intake set up and a different exhaust system.
The B5, though, is a tenth of a second slower to 100km/h compared to the M5 with a time of 3.5 seconds, but it will blast on to a top speed of 330km/h while the M5 is limited to 250km/h in regular form and 305km/h with the optional M Driver's package.
Both uses the same ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with identical gear ratios, and both are all-wheel drive.
The Alpina B5 needs petrol. By that, I mean it needs quite a lot of it if you want to enjoy it properly. What type of mileage does it get? Officially, it should use 11.1L/100km after a combination of urban and open roads, where as the M5 is set to 10.5L/100km.
That makes sense, the B5 produces more power and torque, and it's 85kg heavier than the M5 at 2015kg.
Our test car's trip computer was reporting 13.2L/100km after flying low over country roads and slow city piloting. The more time spent in the urban warfare that is the daily peak hour commute, the more that figure crept and hovered around the 15L/100km mark.
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.
Ok, stay with me here. For this next bit you'll need a fresh egg, a lounge chair, and it might be a good idea to have some plastic bags and carpet cleaner on hand.
First, in front of the lounge chair flatten out the plastic bag and place the egg on it. Next, sit down on the chair and very carefully rest the ball of your foot on the egg with as little pressure as humanly possible.
This is exactly how little force you need to apply to the go-pedal of the B5 to accelerate from a standstill to 60km/h in about five seconds.
If anything sums up the driving experience of the B5, it's that sense of effortlessness.
Stomp on that accelerator, and you'll be shot to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds, without a hint of broken traction thanks to the all-wheel-drive system.
The ride should have been terrible on 20-inch wheels shod in low-profile rubber (Pirelli P Zero 255/35 front, and 295/30 rear), but the Alpina-tuned air suspension is close to miraculous in the way it cushioned and censored the potholes out of Sydney's worst roads. Yes, it can be a touch floaty, particularly in the Comfort Plus setting, but this is benchmark-setting stuff for a comfortable ride.
Don't expect this beast to roar. Unlike the M5, the B5 gets its work done without deafening everybody around it. Sure, the B5's V8 sounds amazing when you push it, but it's not brash, not loud and not lairy. Buy an M5 or Mercedes-AMG E63s if you want to be heard half a block before you get home, but you won't get that with the B5 and its exhaust system.
The B5 also handles well, but I have to say the engagement factor is low. I piloted it effortlessly through the twists and turns of my country test circuit and roads which normally have me grinning like a maniac behind the wheel had me feeling a bit disconnected in the B5. That air suspension, the numb steering and pedal actions make it difficult to ‘feel' the road.
It's highways where the B5 is a king, but even at 110km/h there's the sense that this car is still fast asleep and won't get out of bed for anything less than 150km/h - making it perfect for Germany's autobahns, but maybe not for here in Australia.
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 Alpina B5 is based on the BMW 5 Series which had a five-star ANCAP rating awarded to it in 2017.
Along with the comprehensive suite of airbags, traction and stability control, there's an impressive array of advanced safety equipment. Coming standard is AEB (front and rear), evasive steering, front and rear cross-traffic warning, blind-spot alert and lane-keep assist. The Alpina B5 also comes with BMW's emergency call function.
For child seats you'll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top tether points across the rear row.
If you're unfortunate enough to get a flat tyre, there's a puncture repair kit in the boot which works provided the hole isn't giant, as I've experience in the past with these systems.
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.