Lexus IS VS Mercedes-Benz E-Class
- Good value
- Great after-sales
- Dodgy entertainment system
- Great drive
- No spare tyre
- Fiddly steering wheel controls
- Tight rear headroom (with roof up)
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|
People that know what they’re doing have a habit of making whatever it is they do look easy. Jack Nicholson, Usain Bolt, J.K. Rowling – how hard can it be to act, run and write like a champion?
And you might think making a convertible car is easy. In fact, why even bother the designers? Just break out the gas axe, lop the roof off, perch a canvas top over the hole you’ve created; job done.
Yet despite the seemingly simple premise, it’s all too easy to get it wrong.
Happily, Australia wasn’t on the receiving end of the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, a text book case study in getting it horribly wrong. Although we did cop the answer to a convertible question few people were asking, in the shape of the Chrysler PT Cruiser Cabriolet. And more recently there have been mutterings about the aesthetic success, or otherwise, of the Range Rover Evoque Convertible. Not to mention the necessity of its existence.
Which brings us to the sleek, subtle, and effortless charm of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet. A masterclass in getting a convertible design exactly right.
|Engine Type||3.0L 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-Benz E-Class Cabriolet fulfils its intended brief, with classic design, exceptional comfort, luxurious specification, flawless quality, and a sporting edge lurking just below the surface. The ‘entry-level’ E 300 is the pick, boasting a big chunk of the E 400’s equipment and performance for significantly fewer dollars. That’s how you get a convertible design right.
Does Merc's new E Class Cabriolet sit at the top of the mainstream luxury convertible tree? 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.
At over 4.8m long, nudging towards 1.9m wide, and around 1.4m high, the new cabrio is substantially larger than the model it replaces. And the increase in exterior dimensions is underpinned by a longer wheelbase and wider track.
Joining the existing E-Class sedan, coupe and ‘All-Terrain’ wagon line-up, sitting on a suspension 15mm lower than the sedan’s, and rolling on fat 20-inch AMG rims, the cabrio shares the two-door coupe’s muscular but refined look.
The exterior manages to combine gentle, rounded transitions between major surfaces with more sharply angled and aggressive elements like the ‘powerdomes’ running the length of the bonnet, a hard character line defining the lower third of the car’s flanks, and a neatly integrated lip spoiler on the boot’s trailing edge.
Lowering the roof does nothing to upset the car’s balanced proportions and athletic stance.
Inside, a cool combination of top-shelf leather and ‘black ash open-pore’ wood trim, is contrasted by brushed alloy and chrome accents on everything from the sports steering wheel and distinctive circular air vents (claimed to be “inspired by turbo engines”), to the door handles and ‘Comand’ multimedia controller.
Dominating the dash is a pair of 12.3-inch hi-res displays, presented in a single widescreen panel, the first housing a configurable ‘virtual’ instrument cluster, and the second, more central screen running a full suite of multimedia functions.
A row of more conventional rocker switches at the top of the centre console controls the air-conditioning and various driver-assistance systems, with digital read-outs underneath.
The overall interior look and feel is luxurious form matched by fuss-free function.
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.
Extra length, and more specifically, a longer wheelbase usually means more interior space, and the new E-Class Cabriolet is no exception.
Seating is for four, and those in the front are provided with ample space as well as helpful touches like a feeder arm that automatically extends the seat belt out to the driver and front passenger (with override control via a button on the centre console).
There are also two cupholders, a decent glovebox, a lidded bin between the seats, and door pockets big enough for bottles.
Access to the rear, even with the roof up, is a civilised process, thanks to front electric seats that not only slide but rise and tip forward at the touch of a single release handle on the backrest.
Merc claims, on a like-for-like measurement, that rear legroom has increased no less than 13 percent (+102mm) and sitting behind the driver’s seat, set for my 183cm frame, there’s plenty of space. It’s also worth noting that sensors in the front seats’ adjustment system stop them from hitting a rear passenger’s knees. Clever, and polite.
With roof up, the solar panel otherwise known as my bare pate was just brushing the soft fabric lining, although headroom improved markedly with the roof down.
Backseaters are well catered for with a pair of cupholders between the seats, adjustable air vents, map pockets, and some oddments space near the outside armrests.
Boot capacity is a handy 385 litres, with a redesigned rear seat splitting 50/50 to offer through-loading space. An electrically controlled, retractable separator defines the space filled by the roof when folded (which still leaves 310 litres). Impressive.
In case you’re keen on towing with your new convertible, forget it, the new E-Class Cabriolet is a no-tow zone, and you won't find a spare wheel of any description because the tyres are run-flats.
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.
There are two E-Class Cabriolet models on offer; the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder E 300 ($123,500), and 3.0-litre, V6 E 400 ($157,500), each boasting a standard equipment list longer than Donald Trump’s register of alternative facts.
Highlights for the E 300 include ambient interior lighting (with 64 different colours!), leather upholstery (with horizontal quilting), AMG sports pedals (brushed stainless steel with black rubber studs), ‘Comand’ multimedia (with touchpad, 3D nav, and smartphone integration via Android Auto or Apple CarPlay), ‘Airscarf’ neck-level heating (in front), DAB+ digital radio, scrolling (directional) indicators, electrically adjustable and heated sports front seats (with three memories for seat and exterior mirror position), illuminated door sill panels (with Mercedes-Benz lettering), sports steering wheel (with flat bottom section), ‘Thermatic’ dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, the 20-inch AMG alloy wheels, ‘Aircap’ automatic draught-stop, ‘Agility Select’ (with five driving programs), keyless entry and start, ‘Multibeam’ LED headlights (with 84 individually controllable LEDs), ‘Adaptive Highbeam Assist Plus’, and ‘Parking Pilot’ with ‘Active Parking Assist’. Phew…
Then, the E 400 adds Burmeister surround-sound audio (13 speakers, nine-channel DSP amplifier, and 590W output), head-up display (with virtual-image windscreen projection), and metallic paint.
Yes, the cost of entry is reassuringly high, but that’s a large basket of standard fruit.
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 E 300 is powered by a 2.0-litre direct-injection, turbo-petrol, four-cylinder engine, producing 180kW/370Nm, and driving the rear wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission (with steering wheel shift paddles).
Step up to the E 400 and a 3.0-litre direct-injection, twin-turbo-petrol V6 sits under the bonnet, pumping out 245kW/480Nm, and driving all four wheels through the same nine-speed auto and Merc’s ‘4Matic’ all-wheel-drive system.
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 for the E 300 on the combined (ADR 81/02 - urban, extra-urban) cycle is 7.4L/100km, with C02 emissions sitting at 170g/km.
Not surprisingly the faster, more powerful E 400 is thirstier, ranked at 8.7L/100km, and 195g/km.
On a launch drive program covering around 300km of city, B-road and freeway running, we saw dash-indicated figures of 8.3L/100km for the E 300, and 9.2L/100km for the E 400. Not bad.
A switchable stop-start function is standard, and you’ll need 66 litres of 95 RON premium unleaded to fill the tank.
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.
The word that most accurately describes the E-Class Cabriolet drive experience is polished. From the supple ride to the flexible drivetrain (in both models) and smart design, this soft-top Merc is a beautifully resolved package.
Although peak power (180kW) arrives at a lofty 5500rpm, the E 300’s maximum torque (370Nm) is available from a more useful 4000rpm, and despite a 100kg weight penalty relative to its coupe equivalent, mid-range response is healthy. A standard sports exhaust (not fitted to the E 400) produces an agreeably spicy note, and you can expect 0-100km/h acceleration in the mid-six second bracket.
It may have more power (245kW) peaking at the same revs as its four-cylinder sibling, but it’s the E 400’s extra spread of torque (480Nm from 1500-4000rpm) that stands the top-spec cabrio apart. With all that pulling power available across such a broad plateau, the E 400 is genuinely rapid, with 0-100km/h achieved in the mid-fives.
The smooth nine-speed auto helps keep both engines in their performance sweet spots (manual shifts via the wheel paddles are sharp), while the ‘Air Body Control’ suspension, working in concert with an electronically controlled adaptive damping system (adjusting each wheel individually), delivers exceptional compliance, even on ordinary backroad surfaces.
A multi-layer, acoustic soft top keeps noise levels down, and can be raised or lowered in 20 seconds, at speeds up to 50km/h. And Merc is determined you should be able to enjoy roofless motoring year-round with a swag of gizmos on board to keep the elements under control.
The ‘Aircap’ wind deflector integrated into the top of the windscreen frame works in parallel with an electric draught stop behind the rear seats to minimise turbulence in the cabin, especially for rear seat occupants.
Raise the side windows and even at highway speeds top-down conversation is relaxed. In cool weather, the ‘Airscarf’ neck-level heating system in the front seats works seamlessly, the seat heating comes into its own, and even the climate-control system recognises when the roof’s down, adjusting its settings accordingly.
‘Agility Select’ offers five modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual) adjusting transmission shift points, steering ratio and weight, throttle response, and suspension tune.
We found the ideal open road ‘Individual’ combination (in both cabrio models) was suspension in Comfort, with the throttle, steering and transmission in Sport. Grip from the 20-inch Goodyear Eagle (run-flat) rubber (245/35 front - 275/30 rear) is tenacious, braking is progressive and powerful, and the ‘Direct-Steer’ speed-sensitive steering delivers good road feel. Eating up the corners and kays in the E-Class Cabrio is a pleasure.
One niggle. While points are awarded for the attempt to simplify steering-wheel functions, the ‘finger swipe touch controls’ for on-board computer, and other systems are frustratingly fiddly.
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.
In terms of active safety the new E-Class Cabriolet showcases an imposing array of technology including ‘Adaptive Brake with Hold’ (plus brake drying and priming, with Hill Start Assist), ESP, ABS, ASR, ‘Brake Assist System’ (BAS), ‘Attention Assist’, ‘Driving Assistance package Plus’ (‘Drive Pilot’ - ‘Active Brake Assist’ with cross-traffic function, ‘Evasive Steering Assist’, ‘Active Blind Spot Assist’, ‘Active Lane Keeping Assist’ and ‘Pre-Safe Plus’), 360-degree camera (with dynamic guidelines), and a brake pad wear indicator.
Then, if all of the above can’t help you avoid a crash, passive-safety features include, roll-over protection (developed specifically for the cabriolet design), nine airbags (front, combined pelvic/thorax bags for the driver and front passenger, sidebags for rear occupants, headbags in the doors and a kneebag for the driver), an active bonnet (to minimise pedestrian impact injury), automatic-locking doors with emergency opening, central locking with interior switch and crash sensor, crash responsive emergency lighting, and a first-aid kit.
Both rear seats feature child restraint top tether points and ISOFIX anchorages, and all E-Class variants score a maximum five ANCAP stars.
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.
Mercedes-Benz Australia’s warranty covers you for three years/unlimited kilometres, and the recommended service interval for the E Class Cabriolet is 12 months/25,000km.
Capped price servicing for the E 300 & E 400 Cabriolet runs to $456 for the first service, then $912 for the second and third, for a total of $2280 over three years.