BMW 320i Sport Line
Price: $61,752 (MRLP) / $70,335 (as tested)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol
Output: 135kW / 270Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Wheels / Tyres: 17 x 7.5 / 225/50
Fuel / CO2: 6.0L/100km / 141g/km
Safety: Eight airbags / Five-star (Euro NCAP)
What we liked:
>> Flexible engine
>> Neutral handling
>> Intelligent packaging
Not so much:
>> Options pricing
>> Lesser warranty
>> Cost of ownership
Lexus IS 250 F Sport
Price: $64,900 (MRLP and as tested)
Engine: 2.5-litre six-cylinder petrol
Output: 153kW / 252Nm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Wheels / Tyres: 18x8.5 / 225/40
Fuel / CO2: 9.2L/100km / 213g/km
Safety: Eight airbags / TBA
What we liked:
>> Engine note under load
>> High-tech instrument panel
>> Value for money
Not so much:
>> Busy six-speed transmission
>> Front seat hip and kneeroom
>> Foot-operated park brake
Lexus IS and the Bavarian benchmark
The BMW 3 Series is often considered the yardstick car of its category. Indeed, the latest 3 Series – released in Australia in February 2012 – was one of the cars Lexus benchmarked during the development its new IS.
So what better way to establish exactly how far the third-generation Lexus IS sedan has come than to pit it against the yardstick of the mid-size prestige class? Given the penchant of many buyers in this class to plumb for sporting versions of entry-level variants, motoring.com.au chose to compare near-rivals in the BMW 320i Sport Line and Lexus IS 250 F Sport.
On the showroom floor the German and Japanese challengers are quite well matched, with the 320i Sport Line retailing from $61,752 (plus on-road costs) and the IS 250 F Sport priced from $64,900 (plus ORCs).
Our test examples were close on specification and equipment, too. The 320i Sport Line was optioned with Adaptive M Suspension ($1692) and a number of other tech items that raised it to a level comparable with the standard IS 250 F Sport. This did, however, see the price advantage swing even further towards the Lexus before we so much as turned the key ($70,335 for the BMW v $64,900 for the Lexus).
It’s obvious upon driving the pair back to back that the intense development work Lexus has invested in the IS has served to more closely synchronise the prestige pair. But finding out just how close the two have become, especially from a driver’s viewpoint, was an exercise as interesting as it was fun.
All roads lead to chrome
Bling is one thing, but where drivetrains are concerned, the BMW and Lexus arrive at their similar results by very different means.
What the BMW gains in torque it loses in power and, as is natural with atmospheric engines, the Lexus’ 2.5-litre V6 (153kW/252Nm) needs a lot of revs on board before it can really deliver.
The 3 Series’ turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder (135kW/270Nm) has better step-off torque and more poke in its bottom-end, but it isn’t afraid to rev and, ultimately, this makes the 320i Sport Line more driveable.
However, this isn’t a feat that’s achieved with the same aural ambience as the IS 250 F Sport. Lexus’ work in tuning the intake plenum to deliver a profondi bassi resonance over 4000rpm really invites spirited driving, even if it has come at a cost to NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) levels.
The resonance is a little artificial and does send a tactile timbre through the Lexus’ pedal box -- especially the throttle pedal. For a manufacturer that actively spruiks its achievement in NVH suppression, the issue is a little out of character, as is a couple of light buzzing sounds throughout the cabin.
But Lexus isn’t alone in this department. The BMW shares similar levels of tyre thrum to the Lexus, and has more wind noise about the wing mirrors.
The feel behind the wheel
The 3 Series offers better suspension compliance across the board, and is notably more acquiescent at low speeds. The BMW retains its composure on washboard surfaces that cause the Lexus to ‘skip’ across the tarmac. It’s peculiar, then, that the IS 250 F Sport had a tendency to ‘roll over’ more in hard cornering, contradicting the firmness it presents at lower speeds.
Both models were fitted with adaptive dampers (standard on IS 250 F Sport, but a $1692 cost-option on the 320i Sport Line), though where the Lexus was concerned, these did little to improve handling performance. The BMW fared better when set in ‘NORMAL’ mode, and was more compliant across a broader range of conditions.
The BMW’s chassis was also more neutral than the Lexus, which has a tendency to understeer when pushed. At the limit, the IS 250 F Sport also displays signs of steering rack rattle.
The 3 Series was more communicative too. The steering, though lighter, offers more feedback than the Lexus, whose tiller weight feels as if it is added for the sake of it. Both cars point accurately and both offer a similar rack speed, but once on the move the F Sport’s variable-ratio steering did not impress as much.
The 250’s steering doesn’t have the same combination of low-speed lightness and high-speed mass as the BMW’s. It also feels heavy during quick directional changes and we found ourselves constantly winding off lock, making the IS steering wheel feel inclined to stay where it had previously been directed.
When it comes to stopping, the BMW again presents a slight advantage. The pedal feels more consistent than that of its Japanese rival and is more progressive across its length of travel. This made it not only easier to modulate in corners, but also to achieve a comfortable ‘soft stop’ for all on board.
A shift in time
Lexus has adopted an eight-speed transmission in its high-grade IS 350 models, but for the model on test a carry-over six-speed unit from the previous-generation IS is utilised.
Conversely, BMW offers an eight-speed unit across the board in its 3 Series range (excluding M3 models). In the case of the 320i Sport Line, the transmission works wonders in not only managing pace, but also in improving fuel-efficiency and in-cabin composure.
The eight-speed unit is cleaner-shifting and does a better job of keeping up with engine and throttle inputs. This is partially due to the extra (early) torque of the turbocharged engine in the 320i Sport Line but also because, with fewer ratios to choose from, the Lexus’ transmission is forced to work harder.
This isn’t something the Lexus transmission feels happy about. The transmission is lazy, often slow to react and its shifts more perceptible. Arguably, perceptible shifts are something an F Sport buyer might favour, though as a prestige car, we felt the ‘pause-and-go’ affect of the six-speed unit was inferior to the BMW’s eight-speeder.
On test, both cars displayed similar variances in fuel economy compared to their official ADR figures. The IS 250 F Sport advertises a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 9.2L/100km whereas the 320i Sport Line claims 6.0L/100km.
Unsurprisingly, in the real world the numbers were higher -- even if the gap between the pair was comparable. The Lexus returned an average of 9.8L/100km on test, while the BMW Line managed 7.9L/100km -- a difference of almost two litres.
During more enthusiastic driving the figures rose to as high as 11.1L/100km in the Lexus and 9.9L/100km in the BMW. On the open road, the pair fell to as low as 8.5L/100km and 5.8L/100km respectively.
The third-generation Lexus is brimming with bells and whistles, though we weren’t sure just how many of these add value and how many were strictly of novelty value.
The Japanese sedan’s dual-screen sat-nav screen and advanced TFT instrument panel with floating tacho needle and ‘glowing-when-angered’ cluster provides a fresh take on a tried formula. And in comparison to the BMW’s classic analogue arrangement, it does look high-tech.
But we’re not certain that the Lexus’ tech frenzy provides any clearer demonstration of the information it displays, and for that reason it was dismissed as gimmickry.
However, there’s no denying the IS 250 F Sport offers better outright value than its Bavarian benchmark. The level of standard equipment on the 320i Sport Line pales into insignificance when compared to the Lexus and, although our test models were nearly identical in terms of their overall kit list, it is worth nothing again that this equipment equilibrium adds eight per cent to the BMW’s base price.
Ergonomically, the Lexus has improved but the BMW still offered a better level of amenity and accommodation. Front seat headroom, rear seat headroom, rear shoulder room and rear legroom all measure up in favour of the 3 Series. The IS made some gains in front seat shoulder and legroom, but hip and knee room between the door and the centre console felt more generous in the 3 Series; despite the fact it has a wider console housing a mechanical park brake.
Oddment storage was also more generous in the BMW thanks to a larger console bin, more spacious door pockets and slightly bigger glovebox.
We also felt the foot-operated park brake of the IS was old-hat and consumes space in the footwell Lexus can’t afford to lose. Nor does it liberate any additional space in the centre console, which is especially anomalous when you consider the GS model from which the IS is essentially derived offers a nifty electronic park brake as standard.
But it isn’t just cabin space that runs at odds to official measurements. The boot space of the new IS is also impacted upon by chunky gooseneck hinges. The same type of hinges are utilised in the 3 Series but because they’re concealed they impinge less on the amount of luggage that can be consumes as the lid closes.
Officially, both cars offer 480 litres of luggage space and the IS now comes with a 60/40-split folding rear seatback -- a first for the IS range. However, this is trumped by the flexible 3 Series with its unique 40/20/40-split flat-folding back seat.
Who’s a pretty boy?
There’s no doubt the IS appears far more masculine than its predecessor and, for a brand as cautious as Lexus, the avant-garde design is as dramatic a departure as the new GS is from its forebears.
Lexus should be commended for its adventurous IS styling this time round, in its search for a more youthful audience for its smallest sedan. We wonder, however, whether the aggressive new look will be an inhibiting factor in Lexus’ bid to achieve greater total sales.
Conversely, you can forgive BMW its conservatism with the new 3 Series’ ‘safe’ design, which has a classic elegance that won’t offend anyone. In trying to break this very mould, we feel Lexus may have gone too far, compartmentalising the IS to those with a focussed sense of style. Those, perhaps, who have time to justify their decision to purchase an IS to those that are certain to question their rationale.
The answer to all of these arguments is of course one of fiduciary commonsense. The hip-pocket equation asks a lot of the BMW driver and, if you’re thinking with your head, the Lexus make a very sensible proposition.
Not least because according to Redbook, a used IS 250 retains 28.5 per cent of its new price after seven years, while an equivalent 320i holds just 20.5 per cent.
Like all Lexus models, the IS also comes with a four-year/100,000km warranty, which trumps the BMW by a full 12 months. During that time, however, you can rack up as many kays as you like in the 3 Series without affecting your warranty.
Lexus is breaking new ground with the styling of the new IS and it should be applauded for trying something new, but you could argue that conservatism is the very thing that makes the BMW so good.
Undoubtedly, the Lexus is a better value car. It has a good chassis and is ultimately as capable as the BMW, even if it has a different personality on-road. If you can forgive its looks and think with your head and not your heart, it makes a lot of sense... But even accountants have to justify their tastes.
The equipment-for-dollar ratio puts serious pressure on BMW, as do cost of ownership issues, servicing fees and customer satisfaction indexes. But badge appeal is another vital factor in this segment and, for many, what they gain in value with Lexus they lose in credibility
Try as it might, Lexus still hasn’t got the cache to match BMW in this all-important area. But take that out of the equation and, as good as the new IS is, the BMW is still a bee’s knee better.
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