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by Daniel DeGasperi

Rarely does a single car define the segment in which it resides, but that’s exactly the case with the BMW 3 Series. For three decades it has been a synonym for the compact luxury sedan genre; the yardstick rivals have long measured themselves against.

When this generation of Mercedes-Benz C-Class launched in 2007, the manufacturer claimed it was better than a 3 Series (implicitly acknowledging the BMW was the one to beat). It was much the same with this generation of Audi A4 in 2008. Within one year, those two rivals had transformed themselves to properly front the plucky Bavarian.

Now, the Lexus IS is the latest car to be tagged as a 3 Series-beater. The Japanese car’s chief engineer reckons the IS is the better driver’s car.

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BMW has certainly given its rivals their best shot yet. The standard suspension on the F30 generation sedan has been softened to compensate for the hard sidewalls of the run-flat tyres – which allow owners to drive with a puncture but also had owners of the previous generation 3 screaming at BMW because the hard tyres created an uncomfortable ride.

But this shifts the problem; softening the suspension results in severely compromised handling on country roads. The worse the road surface, the poorer the BMW handles.

So just as the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class – and, presumably, the new Lexus IS – have finally caught up with the class benchmark set by the previous 3 Series, BMW fumbled the ball with the new one.

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That’s not the end of the story, however. Option adaptive dampers on the latest 3 Series and it is transformed. Shock absorbers that constantly adjust themselves depending on the conditions deliver the control to match the smooth road handling – and on smooth roads, the current BMW 3 Series retains the status quo.

That adaptive suspension is fitted to our test 3 Series so the BMW is fully armed, at least in our dynamic evaluation. The Lexus IS, the catalyst for this test, better be on its game.

We’ve chosen $60,000 petrol automatic sedans to fill our quartet – including the Audi A4 1.8T Sport Edition and Mercedes-Benz C200 each with a $59,900 pricetag and 1.8-litre turbo, the $61,752 BMW 320i Sport Line with 2.0-litre turbo, and the $64,900 Lexus IS250 F Sport with 2.5-litre V6; it’s the only upper spec grade here, though, and also the best equipped.

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PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

Lexus standard equipment lists have consistently been longer than its options lists, though – in complete contrast to the three rival German brands. The IS is no exception.

Although Lexus could only offer an IS250 F Sport, even the standard $55,900 Luxury comes with satellite navigation, reversing camera, auto keyless entry, heated and ventilated leather, digital radio and bi-xenon HID headlights. The 320i gets none of that lot, the C-Class only gets standard sat-nav, while the Audi scores navigation and xenons.

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To match the kit in the base Lexus, the Beemer and Benz need an extra $5396 and $2951 respectively, yet the 320i still doesn’t get ventilated seats, and the C200 doesn’t get that or a reversing camera.

Adding the abovementioned equipment puts an unoptioned C200 ($59,900) and 320i ($58,600) at worst $10,000 or 20 per cent more expensive than the IS250 Luxury.

Alternatively, the IS250 F Sport we’re testing can be purchased, which for $64,900 further adds 18-inch wheels, sports seats, a bodykit and adaptive dampers, among others.

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Not that the Audi A4 1.8T is exempt from looking undernourished alongside the plump Lexus in standard form, though the 250-unit Sport Edition helps it along. Priced $5500 higher than the standard 1.8T, the limited run model gets 19-inch alloy wheels, sports suspension, satellite navigation, xenon headlights, and sports front seats and wheel.

Tellingly, however, adding that kit to the standard A4 1.8T would usually cost $10K, meaning all three Germans look average value for money when viewed alongside the Lexus.

Unlike BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz at least offer packages that bunch a whole lot of kit up for less and help improve the value equation.

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Our test C200 included a $3839 Vision package, which bundles a glass sunroof with Harman Kardon audio and swivelling bi-xenon headlights with auto high beam. The standard A4 1.8T, meanwhile, gets a $5300 Technik package including sat-nav, xenons and front parking sensors.

The 320i partially redeems itself by uniquely offering multi-way electrically adjustable front seats as standard, where the A4 and C200 only get driver’s seat partial-electric adjustment. It still can’t, however, match the limited edition Audi and the nav-equipped Mercedes-Benz, let alone the fullsome Lexus.

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INTERIORS

In addition to being the best equipped, the Lexus IS250 also has the most adventurous interior. And the best seats. And the most rear legroom.

Cool touches abound. In F Sport guise, the speedometer is digital only and along with the tachometer is projected on a TFT colour screen derived from the LFA supercar.

The all-encompassing single circular dial also physically moves to the right of the binnacle to show trip computer and sat-nav functions where required.

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The temperature adjustment for the dual-zone climate control is a touch sensitive ‘slider’ scroll that works beautifully. The steering wheel is great to hold, and the driver’s seat is superbly bolstered.

With our dawn photo shoot starting at 5am in the Sydney CBD, there was also a fight among our testers to snare the only car here with heated seats.

Equally, however, there are a couple of issues. The computer-like mouse Lexus persists with is ergonomically flawed. It’s easy to use when at standstill, but it’s difficult to accurately pin-point functions when the car is thumping over bumps. Lexus blanks out functions when driving, though, which also frustratingly means passengers can’t use the sat-nav when on the move.

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The Lexus IS has gone from having the least amount of rear legroom to offering the most, with 295mm of back seat legroom to the driving position of a 183cm male – 25mm up on 3 Series, 45mm more than C-Class and a full 75mm greater than A4.

Not so good is the intrusive centre transmission tunnel of the IS, severely restricting space for the middle rider.

For the first time the Lexus IS gets a 60:40 split fold rear seat. It also now exactly matches its Audi and BMW rivals with a 480-litre boot capacity, though the IS remains 15L shy of the Mercedes-Benz.

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By comparison to the funky Lexus, the three German interiors are unified in their conservatism.

Redesigned in 2011, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class interior leads with the traits expected from the brand with an impervious solidity that extends from the thunk of a closing door to the tight fitting plastic parts.

And no longer does the C200 feel like a taxi-ranked base model. Our test car’s cream-on-grey trim blends nicely with polished black trim on the dashboard and silver highlights on the four spoke steering wheel.

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Curiously, though, Mercedes-Benz uses fine Nappa leather on the steering wheel and gearshifter – both of which are great to hold – but cheaper ARTICO (or ‘artificial cow’) hide on the seats.

Not only are the front seats of the C-Class the least yielding here but the C200 also gets manual tilt adjustment for the driver’s seat, yet it still doesn’t tilt enough to ensure a perfect driving position.

Ergonomically, the C-Class triumphs against its rivals. The trip computer and audio functions displayed on a colour screen within the circular speedometer are a cinch to navigate via the steering wheel mounted controls; the BMW and Audi require fiddling with buttons on the end of the indicator stalk.

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The Mercedes-Benz Comand entertainment suite in the centre console isn’t quite as intuitive as BMW’s iDrive – once pilloried, now the benchmark – and the inclusion of sat-nav proves to be a double edged sword. Unlike the ‘Comand’ sat-nav in higher spec C-Classes, the base C200 gets a ‘Becker Map’ system that isn’t properly integrated; you can select Nav on the home screen of Comand, but when it switches to the map, you can no longer move back to Audio without hitting Radio or Media on the centre stack. At least sat-nav is standard, though.

The C-Class not only has the largest boot here, at 475 litres, but it’s also the only car with a full-size spare wheel – and an alloy one at that.

For rear legroom the Mercedes-Benz, with 250mm of leg space, splits the difference between the more prodigious 3 Series and less spacious A4. The Mercedes-Benz does, however, have the least intrusive centre tunnel here and the sculptured console bin permits more centre rear leg space than any rival.

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The interior plastics in the BMW 3 Series are the least impressive here, and BMW also dips with coarse-feeling leather on the seats and steering wheel (curiously, smooth high-quality leather is used on the transmission shifter).

Thanks to fully electric seat adjustment standard, the 3 Series offers a more finely tuned driving position than the C-Class.

There is no problem with getting the steering wheel right either – all cars here adjust for tilt and reach – but the top of the BMW’s tiller obscures the odometer and trip display.

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The optional satellite navigation in the 320i is tagged ‘business’ nav, which means it gets a tiny centre screen, not the full-width unit of ‘professional’ nav available in higher grades.

Shockingly, BMW charges $385 for Bluetooth audio connectivity.

Other ergonomic issues exist, too, the worst of which is the lid over the twin cupholders in the centre console which is detachable instead of hinged, so using the cupholders means there’s nowhere to place the lid except in the glovebox.

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There’s also no ‘sync’ button for the dual-zone climate control, so travelling one-up the driver must adjust two temperature dials seperately to keep the same climate.

A mid-fielder for rear space, the 3 Series gets 270mm of legroom but the centre tunnel is more intrusive than the Benz’s.

A standard 40:20:40 split fold rear seat makes the 3 Series the most flexible car here.

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Audi interiors are generally lovely, and the A4, despite turning five this year, is no exception.

Both the plastics and leather quality are the finest here, and in Sport Edition specification the heavily bolstered front seats near-match those in the IS250 F Sport.

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Although inappropriate in a base model badged ‘1.8T’ the flat-bottomed steering wheel is thin rimmed and nice to hold.

The many buttons below the transmission lever for the Audi Multi Media Interface (MMI) system aren’t ideally placed, however, often asking for a lowered driver’s eye to access even simple functions.

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Although the A4 has the least amount of rear legroom here, at 220mm, it counters with the widest bench and the most headroom.

Disappointingly, however, the base 1.8T is the only car here to lack rear-seat air vents.

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ENGINES AND TRANSMISSIONS

There is nothing remotely base model about the engine in the Audi A4 1.8T however.

Its 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol is the second-smallest here, sharing capacity with the Mercedes-Benz, yet it provides the most torque of the quartet with a strong 320Nm available from 1400 to 3700rpm.

Although its 125kW of power is down 10kW on the Benz and (2.0-litre) BMW, the Audi makes that figure between 3800 and 6200rpm, which means from 1400 revs to 6200 revs there is only a 100rpm window where either maximum output isn’t delivered.

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Even more impressive is that the 1.8T is both the quietest and smoothest engine here, and a real joy to wind out. That’s particularly the case in the automatic continuously variable transmission’s manual mode, which packs a wonderfully tight spread of ‘ratio’ presets ideal for hard driving.

Left to its own devices, however, the CVT is the second least impressive transmission here, dozy when the accelerator is suddenly prodded and lurchy off the line.

No doubting the engine and transmission pairing’s efficiency, however. On test it slurped 10.5L/100km to secure second place at the pump by only a few millilitres.

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The 2.0-litre turbocharged BMW steals the economy win, though, recording 10.2L/100km in a mix of urban, freeway and enthusiastic country road driving.

Although compared with the Audi it has a lesser 270Nm, it’s produced even earlier and is maintained later – from 1250 to 4500rpm.

The 135kW at a flat  5000rpm also gives no indication that the 320i loves to swing its tachometer to a 6800rpm cut-out, the highest here.

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The BMW engine is the most obviously sporty with a loud but raunchy and growly engine note flanked by just a fraction of transmission whine.

Speaking of which, the eight-speed ZF automatic is also the best here with fast, clean and crisp shifts and a faithful manual mode with the tipshifter the correct way around (push forward to downshift) and nice steering wheel paddles.

Just to cement its dominance, not only is the BMW the most fuel efficient, but partially thanks to a 1455kg kerb weight (the lightest here) its 0-100km/h claim of 7.3 seconds is about a second quicker than the rest.

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At the other end of the scale, literally, is the Lexus IS250 F Sport, which is the heaviest car here, a staggering 190kg weightier than the 320i.

Lexus claims 0-100km/h in 8.1 seconds, one-tenth quicker than the Audi but three tenths slower than the Mercedes-Benz.

Straight line acceleration is, however, a product of power more than torque, and the old school 2.5-litre non-turbo V6 carried over from the IS250 does make the most grunt here – 153kW at a lofty 6400rpm.

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A closer reflection of the Lexus’s driveability comes from the unboosted torque figure of 252Nm at an equally lofty 4800rpm. Not only does the IS250 need lots of revs to perform, but the weight hampers the eagerness of the engine to spin up to those high revs, while the carry-over six speed auto has one or two less gears than its rivals to try and plug the gaps in the delivery. In manual mode, the Lexus beeps in obstinance at the driver wanting a lower gear during hard driving.

Although it sounds good – lots of meaty, synthesised induction snarl funnels into the cabin – the Lexus engine feels a decade behind the rest. Not coincidentally, it is that old.

In addition to feeling the slowest, the IS250 was also the thirstiest on test, slurping 12.5L/100km, more than a litre behind the Benz and two litres off the BMW and Audi.

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At 11.4L/100km on test, the Mercedes-Benz 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is in the back half of the field for economy. Yet it also makes the same power and torque as the slightly bigger BMW engine.

With a 1490kg kerb weight the C200 is, however, a small child’s worth heavier than the 320i and the seven-speed automatic isn’t quite as sharp and snappy.

Still, foot down, the Benz feels faster than its 7.8 second 0-100km/h claim – it certainly doesn’t feel a half-second slower than the BMW.

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Without paddles, and with only the side-to-side tipshifter the brand has used since, oooh, about the 1983 190E, the C200 isn’t posessed of a sporting drivetrain.

The auto is at least intuitive in Sport mode, which actually needs to be the default setting even around town because Comfort is too lazy.

The engine also sounds the least inspiring of this bunch, with lots of valvetrain noise and high-pitched whine. Block your ears, and it is spirited and brisk – more so than the A4, and in another league compared with the IS250.

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STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING

It’s the Benz and BMW that are in a different dynamic division to the A4 and IS250, too. More specifically, the 320i triumphs all on twisty roads and the C200 is the champion during day to day driving.

With the aforementioned adaptive dampers included, the BMW 320i has the control to match its truly fantastic handling. The way this current-generation 3 Series is engineered makes it feel supremely light on its feet and incredibly sharp at the front end – more so than its predecessors and much more so than any car here.

Along with the sporting drivetrain, the BMW is the friskiest car here on twisty roads; the most keen to oversteer, the fastest from point to point, with the most subtle stability control. Turn off the stability system and an electronic diff lock turns on, braking a spinning inside wheel and allowing beautifully controlled slides. Fun from a four cylinder 3 Series? You bet.

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The Mercedes-Benz C-Class was taunted during the eight hours of our urban photo shoot, from our photographer who thought it looked like an old man’s car and from another tester who wanted to scrap the undersized alloys. The C200 is the only car on test that doesn’t have ‘sporty’ pretension.

Yet, the next day on our drive loop, it proved the second best handling car here. Look closely and the 17-inch Continental ContiSportContact 3 tyres are 245mm wide on the rear wheels, compared with 225mm for the BMW. This is a stable, beautifully balanced chassis that is completely unflappable regardless of the road surface.

Where even the 320i with adaptive dampers gets a bit unsettled on poor road surfaces, the C200 just steamrolls them. It is fantastically brisk on every road, and feels the most planted. It doesn’t need tricky suspension modes and sports bits to impress.

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Yet on that photo shoot the day before, the Mercedes-Benz proved untouchable with its masterful suspension tune. Its ride comfort is superbly plush, far beyond anything the other three can manage, yet over speed humps and backroad dips alike the control is just as impressive.

The Mercedes-Benz also delivers the only genuinely excellent steering system here. Light, quick and precise, the variable ratio set-up – which gets quicker as you turn – in the C-Class is one of the true greats regardless of price.

By comparison BMW charges $400 to option its variable ratio system that is far superior to the standard electro-mechanical set-up on our test car, which is muddy on centre, not particularly fast and is especially disappointing considering BMW once reigned supreme for steering feel.

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Likewise with the IS250, which is nervous on centre, requiring constant correction and attention around town. Both the Lexus and BMW steering systems get better at speed and when winding on lock, however. The 320i is pleasingly light in Comfort mode, but switching to the Sport setting that provides firmer damping and sharper throttle also forces the driver to accept needlessly heavy steering. The IS250 steering is at least pleasingly mid weighted between those two modes.

The A4 steering, meanwhile, is typically Audi-light, pretty quick but lacking directness when attempting to pin an accurate line through a corner. Big 19-inch wheels also make the Audi’s turning circle ridiculously large. Proving that rear wheel drive benefits enthusiasts and commuters alike, the C-Class has an incredibly tight turning circle to shame many small hatchbacks.

This test A4 on big wheels and sports suspension also doesn’t ride very well. It’s acceptable around town, but way too jittery on country roads. The Audi mostly relies on the grip from its big 255mm tyres to sprint between corners, but there’s decent chassis balance there. It provides neither the plushness and steering intimacy of the Benz, or the playful friskiness of the BMW, however.

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Lexus has now come within striking distance of BMW for outright handling. The IS250 sits flatter than any car here in corners. It demands high corner entry speeds because it doesn’t have the power to shoot out of them, but it is very composed and reasonably sharp.

Ride quality, too, is impressive, whether the adaptive dampers are in regular or Sport modes. Being an F Sport model with big wheels the IS250 does ride very firmly; not uncomfortably, though, and in tune with the brash personality hinted at by the unique interior and edgy exterior.

The thing that most lets the Lexus down is its stability control calibration. It’s overly aggressive in tight corners, clamping down early and disallowing throttle steer on exit – it may as well be front-drive. It eases up on faster, flowing roads but even when switched completely off, unlike with the BMW, it’s never really off. It still intrudes.

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VERDICT

The Lexus IS250 just edges out the Audi A4 1.8T in this contest, thanks to its superior value equation and better blend of ride and handling. The Audi’s better engine is its single standout feature, and is almost enough to leverage it above the Lexus. Equally, however, it’s the dated engine in the IS250 that means it can move no higher in this test.

The race between the BMW 320i and Mercedes-Benz C200 is far closer. The 320i is brilliant in the bends and in a straight line. It is, however, important to consider that it must be heavily optioned to come close to matching the C200 for steering and ride finesse.

The BMW 320i hits higher highs than the Benz, but it also has more significant flaws. The C-Class is more consistent, more polished, rarely dipping below a high level of achievement in all areas. Add the fact that it’s also better value, and has a better interior, and the Mercedes-Benz C200 can be the only winner of this contest.

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This comparison review first appeared in the August issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.

Photography by Matyas Fulop.

Audi A4 1.8 TFSI Sport Edition
 
Price: $59,900
Engine: 1.8 litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 125kW at 3800-6200rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1400-3700rpm
Transmission: CVT
0-100km/h: 8.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km claimed (10.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 134g/km

BMW 320i Sport Line
 
Price: $61,725
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 135kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 270Nm at 1250-4500rpm
Transmission: 8-sp automatic
0-100km/h: 7.3 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.0L/100km claimed (10.2L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 138-141g/km

Lexus IS250 F Sport
 
Price: $64,900
Engine: 2.5-litre 6-cyl petrol
Power: 153kW at 6400rpm
Torque: 252Nm at 4800rpm
Transmission: 6-sp automatic
0-100km/h: 8.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 9.2L/100km claimed (12.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 213g/km

Mercedes-Benz C200 BlueEfficiency
 
Price: $59,900
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 135kW at 5250rpm
Torque: 270Nm at 1800-4600rpm
Transmission: 7-sp automatic
0-100km/h: 7.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 6.8L/100km claimed (11.4L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 158g/km




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