Lexus IS VS Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
- Angry sound
- Confused nav
- Modest rear headroom
- So-so warranty
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|
If you're after a hot hatch with a boot, you can't have one because it wouldn't be a hatch anymore.
Packing 300kW – that's just over 420hp – and 500Nm its 2.0-litre engine is claimed to be the most powerful series production turbo four ever made.
And Australian deliveries are scheduled for early 2020, with a likely price tag in the mid-$90k bracket.
Mercedes-AMG invited us to the car's global launch in Madrid, Spain, where we got behind the wheel on road and track.
|Engine Type||2.0L 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 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 S is more glorious madness from the hot-rodders in Affalterbach. A design and engineering master-class putting a slightly more mature spin on the fast and furious small AMG formula. But only slightly. It's brilliantly outrageous.
Is the CLA 45 S your kind of 'under the radar' performance four-door? Tell us what you think in the comments section 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.
Claimed to blaze from 0-100km/h in 4.0 seconds the second-generation CLA 45 has the performance credentials of a mid-engine supercar, wrapped in a relatively unassuming three-box body. And while it might look mild-mannered from a distance, this devil's differences are in the detail.
Like it's A 45 sibling the CLA 45 S features AMG's now signature Panamericana grille with 12 vertical louvres, a winged front spoiler treatment, extra aero bits around the front air intakes and 'Power Dome' bumps in the bonnet.
The side skirts are wider, and the 19-inch twin five-spoke rims are standard. While at the back the diffuser treatment is more pronounced than the hatch, but the fat 90mm exhaust pipes are the same, and the lip spoiler is on the boot lid rather than the roof.
The interior is virtually identical to the hatch, the biggest difference being the four-door coupe's frameless doors.
A combination of Merc's 'Artico' faux leather and 'Dinamica' microfibre trim is accented with racy yellow highlights, with a nappa leather and Dinamica AMG Performance wheel and sports pedals completing the picture.
And the twin widescreen MBUX instrument and media display boasts AMG-specific read-outs on everything from gear selection, warm-up menu, car set-up, a G-metre, race timer and engine data. The standard 'Track Pack' even includes specific circuit layouts and data.
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.
At just under 4.7m long (248mm longer than the A 45 S hatch), a bit under 1.9m wide, and fraction over 1.4m tall the A 45 S in the dimensional bullseye for a compact four-door.
The CLA A 45 S driver is presented with the same sleek 'MBUX' widescreen display found in the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, and storage runs to two cupholders in the centre console, a lidded bin/armrest between the seats (including twin USB ports), decent door pockets with room for bottles and a medium-size glove box.
In a swap to the rear, sitting behind the driver's seat set to my (183cm) position, I enjoyed adequate knee and foot room, although headroom isn't as generous.
A centre fold-down armrest incorporates two cupholders, again there are generous pockets in the doors with room for bottles, and adjustable ventilation outlets are set into the back of the front centre console is a welcome inclusion. No map pockets on the racy, hard shell sports front seats, though.
There are three belted positions across the rear, but the adults using them for anything other than short journeys will have to be good friends and flexible. Best for two grown-ups, and three kids will be fine.
Boot volume is a healthy 460 litres (VDA), expanding further with the 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat down. There are tie-down hooks, a 12-volt outlet and elasticised storage pockets either side of the load space to further enhance useability. But beware, the Merc-AMG CLA 45 S is a no-tow zone.
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 new CLA 45 is launching in the premium S variant only (a 'base' non-S version is offered in other markets). The outgoing model was tagged at $93,800, before on-road costs, prior to its discontinuation in January this year, and Mercedes-Benz Australia has hinted strongly that a price increase is likely. So, expect a list price in the mid-$90k range.
We'll cover active and passive safety tech in the safety section, and although final Australian specification is yet to be confirmed you can expect the stand ard features list to include the 19-inch alloys, 'Artico' faux leather and 'Dinamica' microfibre trim upholstery, the 'MBUX' widescreen cockpit display (two 10.25-inch digital screens) and 'MercedesMe' voice recognition, heated and electrically-adjustable sports front seats, auto adaptive LED headlights, LED tail-lights and DRLs, keyless entry and start, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, dual-zone climate-control, sat-nav, multi-function sports steering wheel, active cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, Active Parking Assist' (with ultrasonic proximity sensors front and rear), rear privacy glass, plus premium audio with digital radio, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
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 A 45 S's all-new 2.0-litre (M139) engine is claimed to be the most powerful series production turbo four ever made, pumping out 310kW at 6750rpm and a monumental 500Nm, peaking between 5000-5250rpm. . That's up from an already impressive 280kW/470Nm on the out-going model.
It's an all-alloy, closed deck design fed by a combined direct and port fuel-injection system, with a single, twin-scroll turbo featuring low-friction roller bearings for quick spool up.
It's transversely mounted, but compared to the previous model has been spun 1 80-degrees on its vertical axis so the turbo's near the firewall and the intake system sits at the front to simplify and shorten ducting on the intake and exhaust sides.
The cylinder linings are treated with Merc's patented 'Nanoslide' coating, which delivers an ultra-hard, mirror-like surface for less friction and greater durability. And 'Camtronic' variable valve control sits on the exhaust side.
Drive goes to all four wheels via an eight-speed 'AMG Speedshift DCT 8G' dual-clutch auto, with manual shift paddles attached to the steering wheel.
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.
Claimed fuel economy to the combined cycle NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) standard is 8.1L/100km, the engine emitting 186g/km of CO2 in the process. Figures for the Australian (ADR 81/02) standard will be issued at the time of the car's local launch in early 2020.
Stop-start is standard, minimum fuel requirement is 98 RON premium unleaded, and you'll need 51 litres of it to fill the tank.
Our combination of furious hot-lapping on the circuit and relatively enthusiastic open road driving on the launch program means we'll wait until we test the car on home soil to log a real world average.
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.
Mercedes-AMG invited us to the Jarama race circuit just outside Madrid in Central Spain, and the twisting B-roads nearby, to sample its latest pride and joy.
In the AMG tradition the engine is assembled by hand, by one technician. And hats off to the spanner twirlers, they do a great job. It's a spectacular unit. Torque delivery is shaped to mimic a naturally aspirated engine, with the maximum figure arriving between 5000-5250rpm.
But that's not to say it's hollow in the mid-range. Around 90 per cent of that peak number is available from below 3000rpm and low-end throttle response is brilliantly crisp and linear, helped in no small part by roller bearings on the turbo for a quicker spool up.
Merc-AMG claims 4.0 seconds for the sprint from 0-100km/h, which is supercar fast and with drive going to all four wheels entertainment is the name of the game.
The eight-speed dual-clutch auto is positive and sharp, especially in manual mode where shifts flick through in much less than the blink of an eye.
And as the A 45 S beefs up the A-Class on the outside, it's the same underneath the skin with body reinforcement including an alloy sheering plate under the engine, a front strut tower brace, extra reinforcement between side members and A-pillars, and diagonal struts on the front and rear of the underbody.
So, the strut front, four-link rear suspension has an extra stiff platform to hang from, and the three-mode 'Ride Control' active damping can transform the ride from soft and compliant to tightly buttoned down.
The speed-sensitive, electromechanical steering is specifically tuned for this car, and it points accurately with good road feel and pleasantly firm weight in Sport and Sport+ modes.
Rubber is Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S, and it grips hard. On the fast and technical Jarama circuit they performed flawlessly, helping the A 45 S transform its prodigious power into maximum forward velocity without fuss.
The icing on the dynamic cake is 'AMG Dynamic Select' with six modes from 'Comfort' to 'Race' adjusting the engine, transmission, steering, suspension, and exhaust.
On top of that 'AMG Dynamics' uses the ESP and torque vectoring (by braking) to vary the level of stability and slip through four levels from 'Basic' up to 'Master'.
We played with all the toys including 'Race Start' and a 'Drift Mode' made possible by a new rear axle featuring two multi-disc clutches - one for each rear wheel.
Torque is split variably between front and rear axles with a default setting of 50/50 rising to around 70 per cent to the rear when pushing hard. Drive is also continuously managed across the rear axle, and like a swan gliding across the lake all the action happens seamlessly out of sight, turning you into a track hero in the process.
The first-gen A45's exhaust was a mass of pops, bangs and crackles, while this car's more rasping and rorty exhaust note is controlled by a flap in the system adjusted by engine speed and load. It's also amplified by the 'AMG Real Performance Sound' system, which puts some actual engine and exhaust noise (nothing is synthesised) through the speakers.
Open road ride comfort in the softest setting is surprisingly good, with rough surfaces unsettling the car only slightly despite the big 19s and high-performance rubber. Body control is S and S+ settings is spot-on, the car feeling planted, predictable and ultra-responsive on tight, twisting backroads.
Braking power is professional grade with six-piston calipers at the front and single piston rear, on vented and perforated rotors all around. Even following session after session on the track there wasn't a hint of fade.
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.
Although final Australian spec is yet to be finalised, you can expect a host of active safety tech including ABS, BA, EBD, stability and traction controls, a reversing camera (with dynamic guidelines), 'Active Brake Assist' (Merc-speak fo AEB), 'Adaptive Brake', 'Attention Assist', 'Blind Spot Assist', 'Cross-wind Assist', 'Lane Keep Assist', a tyre pressure warning system, the 'Pre-Safe' accident anticipatory system, 'Traffic Sign Assist' and 'Adaptive Highbeam Assist'.
If all that fails to prevent an impact you'll be protected by nine airbags (front, pelvis and window for driver and front passenger, side airbags for rear seat occupants and a driver's knee bag), and the 'Active Bonnet' automatically tilts to minimise pedestrian injuries. A first-aid kit and hi-vis vests in the boot are thoughtful additions.
The A-Class was awarded a maximum five ANCAP stars in 2018, and for smaller occupants there are three child restraint/baby capsule top tether points across the back seat, with isofix anchors on the two outer positions.
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 Mercedes-AMG range is covered by a three year/unlimited km warranty, which, like Audi and BMW lags behind the mainstream market where the majority of players are now at five years/unlimited km, with some at seven years.
On the upside, Mercedes-Benz Road Care assistance is included in the deal for three years.
Service is likely to be scheduled (as per the out-going CLA 45) for 12 months/20,000km (whichever comes first) with pricing available on an 'Up-front' or 'Pay-as-you-go' basis.
For the first-gen CLA 45 pre-payment delivers a $500 saving with the first three services set at a total of $2950, compared to $3650 PAYG. Fourth and fifth services are also available for pre-purchase.