AUDI A4 v BMW 330i v LEXUS IS300
FOR ANYONE PREPARED TO SWIM AGAINST THE SUV TIDE, THESE THREE PREMIUM MID-SIZE SEDANS DELIVER AMPLE DRIVER REWARDS. BUT WHICH DOES IT BEST?
Mid-size executive sedans make their case in an SUV-centric world, and in the process hammer out a pecking order
REMEMBER VINYL? The LP record? Maybe you don’t. But just as digital formats have taken over the music world, so have new-age packaging and technology alternatives (yes, the SUV and hybrids) colonised the motoring landscape almost to an equivalent extent, largely at the expense of the previously conventional.
And yet here we are, faced with three mid-sized sedans, vinyl throwbacks the lot of them, none of which rely on electrified driveline tech (the Audi claims hybrid content, but stay with us), front-wheel-drive packaging nor, crucially, the SUV mindset. Be they dinosaurs, then? No, they are not. They simply represent an alternative that will appeal to the purists out there. People like us.
Again, the comparison with vinyl is too much to resist. Aficionados of the Long Player will gladly forgo the clinical cleanliness, convenience and portability of digital tunes, claiming that a flow of electrons can never offer the warmth of sound of vinyl. From the lush, bassy plop of the stylus onto the LP to the mohair-static of the lead-in and finally to the party-in-a-groove that is Side One, the LP offers the fidelity that digital can’t. And let’s not even start on sleeve artwork.
Similarly, the old-school sedan offers a centre of gravity, steering feel and sense of purpose in terms of tyres and seating position (and more) that an SUV cannot. Not even a really good SUV (again, stay with us) can hope to match the poise, at-the-wheel entertainment and ability to cover ground quickly with any member of this trio.
There is progress and then there is improvement. Confusing something different with something better has seen the demise of cultures, marriages and vinyl records. And, we would suggest, is also threatening proper driver’s cars we know and love.
So, having established the case for the existence of conventional sedans, which one do you want? The Lexus IS300 F Sport is fresh from a facelift (with better connectivity including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and important safety additions including AEB (with pedestrian and cyclist recognition), rear cross-traffic alert with braking and intersection turn-assist. Lexus has also done plenty of work making the car lighter and stronger, with increased front and rear tracks for this updated version, yet with a 30kg weight reduction. Call it $70,000 on the nose, although a lot of folks will be tempted by the Enhancement Pack that provides a sunroof, powered rear blind and a 17-speaker sound system, and adds $3100.
Also feeling nice and crisp after a trip through the mill is the Audi A4 45. Okay, so the look isn’t a radical departure (although Audi claims nearly every panel is different), but the mechanical layout will also be familiar; a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission driving all four wheels as per the quattro mantra. All the things that have made the A4 such a good gadget forever. The hybrid system? Um, a 12-volt system said to be able to lower fuel consumption by 0.3 litres per 100km by allowing the car to coast. If you can pick it, well done.
So, having established the case for the existence of conventional sedans, which one do you want?
The BMW 330i M Sport is, if not the old bloke with grey hair, certainly the least changed in recent times
Bigger news is inside, where Audi has finally adapted its MMI infotainment system from pricier, larger models to fit the A4. It’s simply a better mousetrap but will require some acclimatisation, mainly because gone are the familiar rotary dial and button on the centre console. But you will need to pay extra for the driverassistance gear including adaptive cruise, active lane-assist, Pre-Sense front, collision avoidance, high-beam assist, turn assist, head-up display, 360-degree camera and park assist. That will pile an extra $3770 onto the basic but fairly sharp $68,900 ask. Our test car also had the S-Line interior package (Nappa leather, flat-bottomed tiller, black headlining, ambient lighting and more) at $2730 and the carbonfibre kit for $3770 (which Audi could keep). Throw in metallic paint (yes, it’s extra) at $1990 and you’re looking at a significant $81,160.
All of which makes the BMW 330i M Sport, if not the old bloke with grey hair, certainly the least changed in recent times. That, however, should be no bad thing, as the first-seen-in-2019 G20 3 Series platform was a big step forward for a car that had recently ceased to be the company’s biggest seller (though you should blame SUVs for that rather than any fault of the outgoing 3). And what was interesting was that the new G20 in 330i guise clung tightly to the elements that had made the previous 330i – and the 328i before that – such a sweet spot within the whole 3 Series line-up. Including, of course, the 2.0-litre engine tuned to just below 200kW and an eight-speed automatic.
The BMW is, however, the dearest of the lot with an initial ask of $77,900. On top of that, our test car was also fitted with the $2900 glass sunroof option and, like many manufacturers, BMW still wants to charge extra for metallic paint. In this case, it’s a $2000 whack, for a grand total of $82,800.
But that BMW driveline remains one of the best in the business, regardless of the fact that inline sixes have traditionally claimed best-in-show in 3 Series Beemers. But there’s something about the feisty, zingy 2.0-litre in the 330i that stamps it as special. It’s also the most accomplished of this trio and feels a fraction quicker than the Audi, mainly due to a small extra dollop of ambition when it comes to tagging the redline.
Oh, the A4’s mill is just as smooth and equally spritzy, but it’s tuned more for mid-range flexibility, with simply less to be gained by holding each gear to 6500rpm. It sounds good, though, even if the BMW exhaust note is a bit louder (and played through the speakers, sadly, just to confound the vinyl-record analogy), and it won’t disappoint when you pin the throttle. Which is not something you can always say of the Lexus...
Look, this isn’t a bad engine, but the 2.0-litre in the IS300 just isn’t in the same league as the other two in terms of throttle response, low-end grunt and mid-range balls. The throttle calibration is lazy and the engine feels a lot slower to build boost. In fact, it’s simply softer everywhere. ‘Indifferent’ is a strong word, but there we are. Against the clock, it promises to be at least a second or two slower to 100km/h (there’s precious little to split the BMW and Audi in that particular contest) and even the raspy little over-run blat on full-rpm upshifts can’t save it in this company.
Of course, as with any modern driveline, the transmission has at least as big a task as the engine, and again the Lexus simply doesn’t cut it in this division. Upshifts are okay, but downshifts are
lazy and, even when you give the slightly plasticky down-paddle a solid flapping, the actual ’box doesn’t always respond as per the owner’s handbook. As in, it doesn’t always shift down. At all. We’ve seen cars with less-than-stunning engines saved by a clever-clogs transmission. The IS300 is not one of those.
Audi’s seven-speed dual-clutch, on the other hand, has been a praiseworthy contraption for many years. Nothing has changed there, and the relationship between the engine and transmission is absolutely blissful. Okay, in Comfort mode there can be a bit of a delay between adding some throttle percentage and feeling the kick-down, but we suspect that’s mainly so the shifts can be even faster in Sport mode. The calibration engineers simply needed to leave some headroom so that the Sport setting was somehow sharper. Beyond that, the gearbox shifts cleanly and crisply, and faithfully obeys the paddles with not just any old downshift but a perfect one with a seamlessness that requires you to watch the tacho to know it has even happened.
But here’s the kicker: Even though it uses more conventional torque-converter engineering, the eight-speed in the BMW is just as darn good. You can poke it and prod it with the paddles and force it to downshift with a trailing throttle, steady throttle or even full throttle and the result is always the same degree of buttered satin and pin-point rev-matching accuracy. Upshifts? Maybe, just maybe, the Audi is a nano-smidge quicker to complete the ratio switch, but there’s really nothing in it.
There’s also a strong common theme in the way both German cars feel to drive. Both are superbly damped and there’s a flowing feel to the way they consume corners that has a lot to do with nicely matched front and rear ends. The BMW, however, scores a few extra points for the clarity of its steering and the substantial feel that makes an incredibly good first impression. The Audi helm is also deadly accurate but, perhaps because of the quattro all-wheel-drive system, there seems to be a slight division of labour between the front suspension and the steering rack. It’s almost as if the up-and-down playbook for the suspension has been filed one drawer down from the side-to-side steering stuff, rather than being squished together to form a single feedback matrix as it has been in the BMW. The pay-off, though, is that the all-paw Audi will be a couple of kilometres per hour later to chirp its tyres mid-corner. That said, the A4 is also a firmer ride and clearly leans towards body control over plushness.
The BMW’s steering and comfort edge, however, is all predicated on you leaving the drive mode in Comfort and pretending Sport and Sport Plus don’t even exist. Dialling up either of the Sport modes suddenly takes ride harshness way beyond the A4’s and makes the steering leaden and stodgy.
So, Comfort it is then.
But if the BMW Comfort steering is your favourite jeans and T-shirt, the Lexus is a naturist colony. The IS might lack a little steering weight for some tastes, but it is absolutely the pick of the bunch in terms of processing input, adding some electronic assistance, producing a result at the front tyres and then back along the wheelbase to the centre of the driver’s seat. And, while fiddling about with the IS’s adaptive dampers and drive
If BMW’s Comfort steering is your favourite jeans and T-shirt, the Lexus is a naturist colony
modes does very little, that’s preferable to the demolition job the BMW’s mode switch can perform.
It all falls away a bit for the Lexus in the rear-end department, though, and what feels like a lack of travel and preload give the IS300 a slight tendency to pogo post-apex should you locate a bump with the rear end still wound up from the corner itself. The spring can be felt nearing the end of its travel, with a sharp uptick in rate at the same time. It’s not crude per se, but it’s not as good as the others.
Brakes? No problems with any of these, the only relevant comment being that the Audi’s stoppers seem a fraction overassisted during the first few millimetres of the pedal’s travel. Oh, and the BMW, despite being a two-pedal car, positions its brake pedal more or less where it would be in a manual rather than slightly towards the centre of the footwell, which will only be of consequence if you’re a left-foot braker.
We’ve covered the driving environments in a breakout (opposite), but it remains that these are all driver-focused cars. Which means life in the back seat isn’t always a major consideration, a view that completely ignores reality for many of us. To be fair, modern packaging has made great leaps in keeping the whole family happy, but there are some important differences.
The Lexus, for instance, features a relative lack of both leg and toe-room against the others when set up for a 182cm driver and a 172cm passenger directly behind. The rear pew itself is good apart from a slight lack of under-thigh support and there are two air-vents, but no USB or 12-volt sockets and no rear door bins.
The Audi is better, with extra visibility from the rear seat, more room in every direction, a pair of vents, a single 12-volt outlet (though no USB), rear-seat climate controls and door bins sufficient for a 600ml bottle. Only a flat seat cushion really plays against it.
Meanwhile, the BMW feels just a bit nicer in the rear in terms of materials and leather-clad touch-points and there’s even more leg and foot-room (headroom is fine in all three). There’s better upper-body support from the rear seat itself, it’s quieter back there and you get more stuff, including map lights, vents, climate controls, 12-volt outlet and two USB ports. The bigger your kids, the more the BMW will shine.
There’s clearly been some homework copying in the bootdesign departments because all three have very similar spaces out back. The Audi has a slightly bigger opening than the BMW and both get 40/20/40 split rear seats. The BMW has a bigger pair of netted bins on each side of the boot, but the Audi has a floor net, which is more useful than it sounds. The Lexus gets a more conventional 60/40 split rear seat, but benefits from a bigger boot opening than the others. It misses out on nets and bins, but at least has a spare tyre (albeit a space-saver).
Fuel tank sizes range from 58 and 59 litres (Audi and BMW respectively) to 66 litres for the Lexus. However, despite an on-paper fuel consumption discrepancy of as much as 1.8 litres per 100km between the sippiest (BMW) and the guzzliest (Lexus), in the real world our recorded fuel consumption figures were all within 0.12 litres per 100km of each other.