Lexus IS VS Volkswagen Passat
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
- Awesome fun
- Wagon practicality
- Feature laden
- Not cheap
- Interior a little dated
- Destined to be underappreciated
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|
Is life prying a hot hatch from your cold, dead hands? The story haunts car enthusiasts and echoes through time.
Family life has come knocking, so the go-fast hatchback must go, ultimately to be replaced by something more ‘sensible.’
Don’t worry, though, life isn’t over yet, you don’t have to kick around a dealership letting the depression sink in as you stare at SUV after SUV in a vain hope for something with a bit of spirit.
Volkswagen, the brand which likely gave you the hot hatch problem in the first place with its legendary Golf GTI and R, has the answer. While the word ‘Passat’ might not ring with much force in the minds of enthusiasts, this latest iteration, the 206TSI R-Line might just be the 'sensible family car' solution you’re searching for, and VW’s best kept secret.
|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.
Dear former hot-hatch owner and wagon appreciator. The search is over. This is the anti-SUV your heart desires at a fraction of the cost of Audi’s S4, or bahn-storming RS4. It’s as comfortable as it is fun, with subtle looks to boot, just don’t expect it to knock your socks off in quite the same way as a Golf R. You’ll have passengers to think about, after all.
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.
The Passat is attractive but understated. Not a head-turner, but the kind of car which needs to be properly looked at to be appreciated.
In the case of the R-Line, VW has gone to lengths to toughen it up with its sleek bodykit. The 'Lapiz Blue' signature colour aligns it with performance heroes in the VW range like the Golf R, and the mean looking gunmetal wheels and slim rubber is enough to get those in the know rubbernecking at it.
It’s the market’s latest quiet performer, epitomising the ‘sleeper wagon’ vibe, evoking echoes of legends past like the Volvo V70 R without being as loud as Audi’s RS4. A car that's seen, but not looked at.
The interior continues this theme with a simple but attractive design adorned with LED lighting, highlight strips across the dash, and quality trims in the doors.
The Passat has been augmented with today’s expected digital features, including VW’s stellar digital cockpit and classy 9.2-inch multimedia screen.
Volkswagen’s Audi-descended digital features are some of the smoothest and best looking on the market, and the multimedia suite slots nicely into its gloss surroundings.
The interior is well built and inoffensive, but in terms of its design I cant help but notice the Passat is starting to feel a little old, especially compared to the new-generation Golf and its more revolutionary interior design which also arrived this year.
While it’s nice the Passat scores the brand’s new steering wheel and logo, areas like the centre console, shifter, and some trim surrounds are just starting to feel a bit dated.
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.
Even if you’ve got a significant other breathing down your neck, you can tell them the Passat is even more practical than its Tiguan sibling!
In the cockpit the usual quality Volkswagen ergonomics are present. The key for drivers will be the R-Line’s lovely bolstered seats, quality partial leather interior trims which extend into the doors for comfort, and the sporty low seating position.
Adjustability is excellent, and that new wheel feels great.
Unlike the Tiguan R-Line, the Passat doesn’t get the haptic-feedback touch panel wheel controls, but to be honest you don’t need them, the nice clicky buttons on this wheel are the best.
Unfortunately, this is where the collection of lovely clicky buttons ends. The multimedia and climate panels in the updated Passat have gone completely touch.
To be fair to VW here, it is one of the better executions of touch interfaces I’ve had the misfortune to be forced to use.
The shortcut buttons which flank the multimedia screen have nice big areas so you don’t fumble them, and the climate panel is remarkably easy to use, with tap, slide, and hold functions for shortcuts.
Still, what I wouldn’t give for a volume or fan-speed dial at the very least. It mightn’t look as slick but a dial is unbeatable for adjustment while you’re concentrating on the road.
The back seat in every Passat variant is superb. I have leagues of legroom back there behind my own (182cm/6'0" tall) seating position and there isn’t a single area where VW has skimped out on the quality trims which appear in the front seats.
Rear passengers even get their own climate zone with easy adjust buttons and directional air vents. There are large bottle holders in the doors and three more in the drop-down armrest.
Rear passengers also score pockets on the backs of the front seats (although they miss out on the triple pockets in the new Tiguan and Golf), and for ease of access (you know, for fitting that child seat) the rear doors are huge and open nice and wide. They even have built-in sunshades to protect little ones from the sun.
Boot space? Now, this is where a wagon shines. Despite all that cabin room, the Passat R-Line still manages to sport a gigantic 650-litre boot capacity, complete with tie-down nets, a luggage cover, and even a built-in retractable divider between the boot and cabin – great for if you have a larger dog, and safe if you need to carry around lots of luggage.
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.
Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in a wagon. If you could relate to my preamble you’re looking for the rush this car offers.
And if you were once willing to fork out the extra for a hot hatch, I’m willing to bet you’ll appreciate what the extra spend ($63,790, before on-road costs) gets you in the R-Line.
If not? You can save significant dollars looking to the stalwart Mazda6 wagon (even a top-spec Atenza will only set you back $51,390), Style-focused Peugeot 508 GT Sportwagon ($59,490), or the Skoda Octavia RS ($52,990), which is essentially a less powerful front-drive variation on the Passat theme.
Our Passat, though, while only just below the Luxury Car Tax (LCT) cut-off, is unique among its peers, offering Golf R levels of power as well as an all-wheel drive system to set it apart for keen drivers.
Standard equipment is good, as you’d expect at this price point, with the R-Line featuring 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ gunmetal alloy wheels to match its more aggressive stance and bodykit, 10.25-inch ‘Digital Cockpit Pro’ instrument cluster, 9.2-inch multimedia touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, built-in sat-nav, 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, leather-appointed interior trim, sports seats with 14-way power adjust for the driver, heated front seats, full ‘Matrix’ LED headlight and tail-light clusters (with progressive LED indicators), and tri-zone climate (with a separate climate zone for the rear seats).
The R-Line also scores some bespoke interior trim items and a panoramic sunroof as standard.
That’s heaps of stuff, and while it’s still missing a holographic head-up display and wireless charging bay offered by rivals, it’s not too bad at the price offered.
Again, the engine and all-wheel drive system are what you’re really paying for here, as the lion’s share of gear is offered on more affordable versions in the Passat range.
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.
The R-Line packs the good stuff here, a version of the brand’s renowned performance ‘EA888’ four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which also appears in the Golf GTI and R.
In this instance it provides the namesake 206kW and 350Nm of torque.
The 162TSI which appears in the Alltrack was great, but this version is even better. The R-Line pairs this engine with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and drives all four wheels via VW’s ‘4Motion’ variable all-wheel drive system.
It’s an excellent powertrain, and none of its rivals provide a car in quite the same performance-oriented niche.
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.
The R-Line’s larger engine does carry a fuel consumption cost over the tamer 140TSI and 162TSI options in the range.
Official combined cycle fuel consumption is up from the mid-sixes in the rest of the range to 8.1L/100km, which is unsurprising.
In my few days of thoroughly enjoying this car, however, it returned a dash-indicated figure of 11L/100km, perhaps a more accurate indication of what you’ll get if you drive this vehicle as intended.
Like all VW petrol cars, the Passat R-Line requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel, and has a large 66-litre fuel tank.
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.
If you’ve driven a VW in recent years the Passat R-Line will be a familiar experience. If you haven’t, I think you’ll welcome what’s on offer here.
Put simply, this car in the 206TSI grade is one of the best engine and transmission combinations Volkswagen offers across its whole range.
This is because the brand’s signature dual-clutch automatics, which are fraught with minor issues when paired with lesser engines, shine when paired with torquier performance options.
In the case of the R-line, this means snappy performance typified by a strong turbo surge, angry engine note, and a responsive transmission.
Once you’re over the initial moment of turbo-lag, this big wagon leans back on its haunches and simply bursts to life out of the gate, with strong low-end torque controlled through momentous grip as the all-wheel drive system balances drive across the two axles.
The dual-clutch responds nicely, whether you leave it in automatic mode or choose to shift yourself, in one of the few instances where paddle-shift systems shine.
The R-Line’s progressive steering program shines when it comes to tilting this wagon into corners, giving you an unforeseen level of confidence, and it’s all backed by superb grip from the performance rubber and again, that variable AWD system keeping everything well and truly under control.
Despite the large power on offer, I struggled to get so much as a peep out of the tyres. And while performance is not quite Golf R level, it’s certainly somewhere between there and the Golf GTI, weighed down quite literally by the heft of the Passat’s larger body.
The trade off is well worth it. This is a car that allows the driver to have an absolute blast behind the wheel while also ferrying passengers in relative luxury and comfort.
Even the ride is finely finessed despite the large 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres. It’s far from invincible though.
You’ll still want to steer well clear of potholes. What’s unpleasant in the cabin will be doubly so for the poor (expensive) tyres, and this makes the low-set ride not quite as ready for the trials of the suburbs as many of its more comfort-focused rivals.
Still, this is a performance variant by name and nature and while the goalposts are still way up in RS4 territory for hot mid-size wagons, this is the kind of reasonably-priced, warmed-over wagon which hot hatch lovers will be craving.
Suffice to say it’s more fun than you’ll have in pretty much any SUV.
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.
Volkswagen’s new ethos is one we can get on board with, and that’s to provide the full safety suite across the whole range in its latest offerings.
In the case of the Passat, that means even the base 140TSI Business gets its collection of ‘IQ Drive’ active features, including freeway speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control with ‘semi-autonomous’ steering features.
Extra stuff includes proactive occupant protection, which prepares the cabin in the instant before an imminent collision for optimal airbag deployment and seat belt tension, and a new emergency assist feature which will bring the vehicle to a halt when the driver becomes unresponsive.
The Passat range has the full array of airbags including a driver’s knee airbag, as well as the expected electronic stability, traction, and brake controls, for a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, carried over from the pre-facelift model in 2015.
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.
Volkswagen continues to offer its five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty across its range, placing it alongside most of its Japanese and Korean rivals, but behind Kia and the latest batch of Chinese up-and-comers.
Still, none offer a performance wagon in this space, so the Passat remains the standard here.
Volkswagen offers its cars with pre-packaged servicing which we recommend as it comes at a significant discount overpaying as you go.
In the case of the R-Line this means $1600 for the three-year pack or $2500 for the five year pack, saving you a max of $786 against the capped-price program.
It’s not the cheapest we’ve seen, but it could be much worse for a performance-focused European car.