Lexus IS VS Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class
- Smooth powertrain
- Bulletproof quality
- Individual looks
- Feels heavy
- Odd-bod interior
- Some ergonomic failures
- Angry sound
- Confused nav
- Modest rear headroom
- So-so warranty
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|
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.
|Fuel Type||98 Ron Petrol|
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 headroom, 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
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 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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.