Car group tests

Audi A4 vs Lexus IS

The IS has been a consistent top choice in Driver Power. How will it measure up to our favourite, the new A4?

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Ask who enjoys the best service, reliability and build quality, and Lexus drivers will shout loudest. In the executive class, these attributes carry the most weight, which partly explains why the brand has been such a dominant force in all our Driver Power reports.

Yet is the firm’s IS compact executive car really all it’s cracked up to be? Since the original was replaced in 2005,it has failed to topple Audi, BMW and Mercedes rivals in Auto Express group tests. So how would it fare against the very latest contender in the sector: the new A4?

Putting Audi’s most fashionable design cues to good use, this is a great-looking saloon. It merges the appeal of the A5 coupé into a four-door body, giving a sleek shape, which could only be criticised for not standing out from the crowd.The Lexus is just as discreet, with sharp lines and accurate details making it well proportioned, rather than daring.

Take a seat behind the wheel of the Audi, and it instantly feels more modern than its rival. The A4 cabin is packed with the latest features, including lane keep assistance, the MMI cabin control system and a stylish typeface on the dials. While the IS deserves all the accolades for its build quality, it simply isn’t as up-to-date as the A4.

Considering all the success Lexus has enjoyed in Driver Power over the years, it’s amazing that the saloon finished an abysmal 93rd out of 100 in one category of the 2008 poll. You told us the model’s practicality is unacceptable, especially now there is no estate variant available.

According to our tape measure, the IS provides only 680mm of rear legroom – less than all but the Mazda 2 in this test! The A4 isn’t much better, with 690mm. What lets the Lexus down most of all, though, is the boot.

At 378 litres, the capacity is 102 litres short of the A4’s, while the odd-shaped Lexus load bay measures 950mm in length. In comparison, the Audi’s luggage area is 1,050mm long. What’s more, IS owners have to put up with a ski hatch when loading awkward items; A4 buyers get full-width folding rear seats.

Maybe the Japanese model can make up some ground out on the road? The key attraction for any Lexus has always been refinement, and you can see why from inside the IS. You rated it highly for comfort, and the saloon is a quiet and relaxing car to drive or be driven in. But your scores rightly point out that the ride isn’t class-leading. The A4 teaches the IS a thing or two about dynamics with its brand new platform. It’s far more grown-up than its predecessor, and offers great body control, inspiring plenty of confidence when cornering. The Audi’s sharp steering and keen handling abilities leave the IS feeling heavy on its feet in comparison.

Another blot on the Lexus’s Driver Power scorecard is in the performance category. While the new range-topping version, the V8-powered IS F, is too new to have featured in our report, the 2.5-litre V6 petrol and 2.2-litre diesel models are off the pace, according to owners. On paper they’re reasonable enough, with both covering 0-60mph in less than nine seconds. But as the Lexus puts the emphasis on refinement, its lazy power delivery and slurring auto box can make for an unresponsive experience in everyday driving conditions. Manual models also suffer from an awkward clutch, so smooth getaways are tricky.

Go for a base 1.8-litre A4, and straight-line speed is even more sluggish. But the petrol and diesel V6s are sparkling performers, and both the manual and automatic transmissions are superb.

The IS finished at the top of the running costs category in Driver Power 2008, which is impressive for a compact executive model. The diesel puts 40mpg economy within genuine reach, while solid build and great reliability help Lexus owners avoid unexpected maintenance bills, too.

And that will only add to the IS’s appeal come service time. Lexus’s network has topped the dealer ranking since Driver Power began, with faultless scores right across the board. Prices for the Japanese car start at £23,142, and rise to £51,105 for the IS F flagship. Audi offers a cheaper entry-level model for £19,900, and with no sign of the new RS4 yet, the current range-topper weighs in at £33,640.

Driven back-to-back, the A4 is clearly the better all-round choice. But will that make it the more satisfying car to own? With such a well polished dealer network and stress-free ownership experience. the Lexus IS continues to set a strong benchmark for other compact executive models.

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