The Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class accounted for three-quarters of their segment’s sales in 2013, though that still meant one in four buyers looking for a mid-sized luxury car priced above $60,000 wanted something non-German.
We had this factoid in mind when we decided to do something a bit different with our plan to compare the new-generation C-Class just released.
After finding the best of the German rivals between the A4 and 3 Series in part one of a knockout series to find the pick of the challengers, for part two we’re comparing what you might call ‘The Alternatives’: The Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS and Volvo S60.
The Lexus IS has been Japan’s front-running competitor to the Teutonic triumvirate since the late 1990s.
The Volvo S60 is barely newer (since 2000), and while its ancestry includes the likes of the 850 and 200 series, it’s only now the Swedish brand is pushing hard to move its image further into the luxury realm.
Meanwhile the Infiniti Q50 has a similarly long lineage dating back to the Prince/Nissan Skylines, though it too has more recently been expanding its focus on the Germans – particularly in the US with the Q50’s predecessor, the G series, and now in Australia with Infiniti’s 2013 launch.
Our test models have been selected as a suitable match-up to the $68,900 Mercedes-Benz C250 that awaits the victor in the final shoot-out.
We have the $65,300 Lexus IS350 Luxury, $67,900 Infiniti Q50 Hybrid S, and Volvo S60 T5 Luxury that starts at $59,890 but in as-tested form costs $67,075 with some worthwhile options.
With regards to the IS, if want more features and a sportier suspension for the money, you could have the $65,230 IS250 F Sport. However, we think the IS350 Luxury is a better rival for the C-Class with its stronger V6 and more comfort-focused suspension.
The IS350 Luxury still has plenty of good features, among them dual-zone climate control, digital radio, electric front seats with heating and ventilation, leather seating, one-touch power windows, power adjustable steering wheel, keyless start/entry, tyre pressure monitor, front and rear parking sensors, rear-view camera, xenon headlights, foglights and daytime running lights, and satellite navigation (with live traffic updates).
Lexus models are typically well equipped, though its Japanese counterpart, the Q50, is also generous. It matches the above except the ventilated seats but adds a 14-speaker Bose audio, rain sensors and power boot lid.
The Volvo S60 T5 Luxury misses out on front parking sensors and power adjustable steering column, has an eight-speaker audio like the IS350 but has auto wipers and includes as standard a full low-speed auto-braking system that can help avoid those common rear-enders.
Add the $5000 Driver Support Pack that’s fitted to our test car and takes this S60 closer to the IS350 Luxury and Q50 Hybrid S price tags and the Volvo extends its technology advantage – at least on the driver aid front.
The pack includes blind spot monitoring, cross traffic alert (to aid reversing out of perpendicular parking spots), lane keeping aid and lane departure warning, radar cruise with full autobrake, auto high beam, plus Road Sign Information that uses a camera to ‘read’ speed limit postings and relay them to the digital information panel ahead of the driver (watch our video on the system). Front sensors and auto-dimming mirrors are also added.
You’d have to upgrade to the range-topping IS350, the $84,330 Sports Luxury, to get even radar cruise, while Q50 buyers need the $73,400 Hybrid S Premium that brings a raft of Volvo-rivaling tech, as well as all-wheel drive.
For connectivity tech, however, the Japanese duo leads the Swede with smartphone-to-car app integration.
The IS350 comes with Lexus’s Enform system that includes current weather, search function for restaurants and cheapest nearby servos, destination download for the nav, and a call-centre-based ‘concierge’ system for other help.
Infiniti’s InTouch system – linking Android phones via Bluetooth or iPhones via a USB cable – enables access to emails, calendar, and the ability to sync popular apps such as Facebook, Google, TripAdvisor and Reuters.
And where the size of an infotainment screen has been an area of upmanship in the world of luxury cars, the Q50 goes further by having not one but two displays.
The stacked, high-resolution touchscreens are divided into an LCD 8.0-inch bottom display for menu icons and a 7.0-inch LCD/VGA top screen for the info displays (such as map). There’s inconsistency with fonts and graphics between the two, though, and touch response isn’t the quickest we’ve experienced.
Lexus skips the touchscreen idea, instead opting for its Remote Touch system where controlling the menu operation on the 7.0-inch screen is via a mini joystick. It’s a bit sensitive, though, and lacks the change-at-a-glance effectiveness of the Nissan system or BMW’s benchmark, rotary-dial-based iDrive.
Volvo continues to embrace buttons on its centre stack, along with a quartet of main dials – the bottom two are for adjusting cabin temp and the top two for controlling the infotainment display. Working out the operation of the latter isn’t straightforward but can be learned quickly enough without having to reach for the owner’s manual.
That array of buttons sit on the ‘floating console’ stack design that Volvo has used since the 2003 S40 and continues as a nice signature for the brand’s cabins.
While there’s nothing Germanic about the interiors of any of the cars here, all are successful in looking sufficiently business-like.
Above: Lexus IS350.
The inside of the Lexus IS does a good job of restricting visual commonality with Toyotas, leaving the Infiniti Q50 as the car with the most evident DNA from its parent company (Nissan).
It’s the S60 that comes with the greater design flair, though, with relatively flamboyant curves. Its selection of materials also looks richer than those for the IS and Q50, while even Audi would approve of the Volvo’s ultra-tight fit and finish.
Volvo’s front seats also win the comfort prize here – you could simply sit in them all day without experiencing an ache. Over our long drive day, it was literally a relief at times to swap into the S60 from the IS or the Q50 despite the two Japanese cars hardly being uncomfortable in isolation.
Above: Volvo S60.
Rear seat honours also go to the Swedish mid-sizer. It offers good space above heads and in front of knees, as well as a comfortable bench to match the front seats.
The IS350’s rear headroom is good but legroom is only okay and toe space a bit tight.
It’s tighter in the Q50, where room is more restrictive for heads and limbs despite the Infiniti being the longest car here by some margin (4.80m v next-longest, the 4.67m C250).
Above: Infiniti Q50.
The placement of the battery pack for the hybrid system also cruels the Infiniti’s practicality.
The rear seats don’t fold as they do in the Volvo and the Lexus, and the Q50’s boot is wide but ultimately tiny for the segment.
On paper its 400-litre capacity offers 20 litres more than the S60 but in the real world the boots of the Volvo (380L but featuring a clumsily placed space-saver on top of the floor rather than under it) and Lexus (480L) are far more practical.
At least the hybrid drivetrain balances things a bit for the Infiniti Q50 by giving it excellent performance and fuel economy on the road.
Not even the comparably priced Germans can beat the Q50 Hybrid S for acceleration, despite the Infiniti being a porker at 1773kg – between 330 and 90kg heavier than all its key rivals. Here, its 5.1-second claim for the 0-100km/h sprint places it eight-tenths ahead of the IS350 and 1.2 seconds quicker than the S60 T5.
The Q50 storms off the line at traffic lights, with the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine aided by the instantaneous torque of the electric motor. From there performance remains strong and there’s an enjoyably meaty sound from the six-cylinder.
Lexus’s same-size but unassisted V6 in the IS350 sounds even better, though – growling menacingly under hard acceleration (though with help from an engine sound amplifier).
We’d also put the eight-speed auto in the same bracket as the BMW 3 Series’ brilliant, ratio-matching ZF unit for its ability to deliver seamless and perfectly timed gearchanges, though some transmission whine is evident.
Fuel economy figures also betray the V6’s age. Its official combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 9.7 litres per 100km is already well behind its key competitors that are all in the 6.0L-6.8L bracket, and on test it was easily the thirstiest car with 11.3L/100km.
Infiniti’s hybrid system still shone despite spending more time on test out of the city where it would have its greatest advantage, recording 9.7L/100km versus its official 6.8L/100km.
The S60 sat in the middle with 10.6L/100km, though a fair way off its official 6.4L/100km.
A new-for-2014 combination of turbocharged, direct injection 2.0-litre four-cylinder and eight-speed auto (previously a six-speeder) still steps up efficiency, as well as refinement and drivability, for the Volvo S60.
It has the least torque in this group with 350Nm, but importantly that peak cranking effort runs all the way from 1500 to 4800rpm, creating an effortless drive.
The new eight-speed auto makes an important contribution, leaving the Q50’s seven-speeder as the least smooth gearbox here due to a tendency for lurching upshifts.
Running changes to the S60 since this generation launched in2011 have turned this Volvo into a strong luxury car contender. Ride quality could be improved further, though. There’s still some suspension fidgeting, even if it’s less pronounced than on S60 models featuring the R-design sports suspension.
Running it close is the IS350 that is generally good but can get fussy on some surfaces including freeways, but some distance behind is the Q50.
The Infiniti, employing a sports tune in Hybrid S guise, offers up pretty much zero compliance, meaning the ride is permanently restless – regardless of your whereabouts and even if the road surface appears smooth.
How well the Q50 steers also depends on which of the plethora of steering modes you have selected. The Q50 boasts the world’s first steer-by-wire system, which dispenses with a conventional mechanical linkage (though there’s one still in place, ready to be engaged via a clutch, as a safety back-up).
You can alter the modes via the touchscreen (not ideal when on the move), but the testers on this comparison found the Standard/Quick selections the only agreeable choice.
In any mode, though, there’s an unnatural absence of weighting when the front tyres are loading up and choosing the Sport mode via the console-mounted Drive Mode selector just sees the steering become horribly heavy and gluggy.
In any mode, the Q50 will also wander in its freeway lane unless you’re almost constantly adjusting the wheel.
There’s no question the steering is quick, though, and the Q50 turns into corners enthusiastically and the car handles decently (to a point), while Toyota/Lexus should take note of how Infiniti has engineered better brake pedal modulation for the hybrid system’s regenerative brakes.
Better calibration of the stability control would be welcome, though.
The Q50’s rear end doesn’t feel as planted in damp/dry conditions as its fellow rear-wheel-driver, the IS350. And when there is some unintended sideways movement when grip levels are reached, the ESC system can be slow to act and then overcompensates when it does.
Both the Lexus and Volvo steer with greater conviction, with the S60 getting the nod as its electric steering is the smoother and more ideally weighted rack – with the Lexus on the light side and exhibiting some notchiness off centre.
We were fans of the updated Volvo S60 we tested individually earlier this year in R-design form, but here on regular suspension the Swede is an even sweeter driver – nicely balanced yet ironically better controlled than on the sports suspension.
There’s also excellent front-drive traction out of corners, thanks to the Continental ContiSport Contact 3 tyres.
In the end results, the battle of the ‘alternatives’ is a clear two-horse race between the IS350 and S60.
The Infiniti Q50 does match the Lexus and Volvo as a car that offers something genuinely different without venturing dangerously into quirky territory. But while the Q50 offers excellent connectivity and an excellent performance-to-economy ratio, it falls down in too many key areas.
Poor ride quality and the tight rear seat not only compromise comfort –the crux of any luxury car – but practicality is hampered by the Hybrid’s small boot and fixed rear seatbacks. The handling can be squirmy, and the steer-by-wire system brings more cons than pros in our view.
The Lexus IS350 is our driver’s pick of this trio (just ahead of the S60), it has a well executed executive-looking interior that distances itself well from any Toyota product, and like the Q50 comes with a four-year warranty (albeit limited to 100,000km to the S60’s 3 years/unlimited).
Going through to the final against the 3 Series and new C-Class, however, is a car that was merely good when it first came out but has since progressed through various updates to become very good and be one of the CarAdvice team’s surprises of 2014.
The Volvo S60 is in no better form than the T5 Luxury, where the standard suspension is preferable to the sports version and the new four-cylinder and eight-speed auto lift the sedan’s drivetrain game. Mix this with standout seat comfort and a beautifully designed and assembled cabin and this is the car most capable of making buyers say nein to the Germans.
Photography by James Ward. Click the ‘Photos’ tab above for more photos.