The ‘Best Small Executive Saloon’ crown is the most coveted of all in European cardom. Possess it, as BMW has done since it more-or-less invented the segment thirty years ago, and you can expect to have quarter of a million buyers lined up around the corner every year with awards and accolades falling from the sky. Has BMW used some kind of witchcraft to lead the segment for so long? No, in fact there’s never been anything particularly mysterious about the 3-Series’success.It has always looked great, driven well and had a quality feel to it. It also doesn’t hurt that it offers a massive range of engines and body styles or that it’s led into battle by the mad M3, either. The Audi A4 lacks the 3-Series’dynamic sparkle but it does have the engine range, the body-styles, the quality and the S4 halo car, not to mention a few tricks of its own like Quattro, Tiptronic and DSG. Indeed, in the first ten months of 2005, the A4 actually outsold the 3-Series in Western Europe, finding 221,059 buyers compared to 3’s 199, 256. This has much to do with the fact that the 3-Series is in the middle of a model transition but even so, could this be an indication that the 3 Series reign is coming to an end?
So think of this twin-test as a two-parter: Is the BMW 3-Series’royal goose cooked and is the Lexus IS the rebel to gorge on its drumsticks? While I, personally, rather like the sculpted surfacing and the stance of the new 3-Series, it’s clear that many others aren’t so enamoured with its looks. I agree that the rear end is an unhappy place, but the rest of the 3-Series is chunky and muscular to my eyes. Living in America probably helps because over here most cars are equipped with huge alloy wheels that make them look like Hot Wheels toys, though now and again I will come across a 3-Series on its standard 16inch wheels and I have to concede it does look pretty grim. The current 3-Series probably won’t go down as a design milestone, as almost every previous 3-Series has, but it’s still a forceful and evocative creation. Lexus designers have eschewed trendy ‘flame surfacing’ in favour of clean, crisp metalwork while also giving their new IS a strong stance and broad shoulders, but it’s clear they didn’t want the kind of backlash BMW has endured so kept the car as conservative as possible. That didn’t stop them dipping into the 3-Series design pockets, though. The shape of the bonnet; relationship between grille, lights and wings; even the kink in the rear quarter-light all have BMW undertones.
Compared to the first IS, which still looks good to this day, the new car’s styling isn’t going to have many heads turning for a second glance, especially when shod with the basic 16-inch wheels. Lexus should have modelled the IS after the striking and beautiful GS and worried less about what BMW was up to, I think. Inside, things improve for both cars. The BMW’s cabin might be a relentless bombardment of black plastic, but it’s the well-made, high-quality stuff that’s nice to touch and keep unwanted reflections, smudges and scratches to a minimum. The cabin is also the epitome of ergonomic simplicity with buttons that are simple to find and satisfying to use, which only serves to remind us of the tragedy of i-Drive (it only rears its ugly head if a 3 is ordered with satellite navigation).The Lexus is much less oppressive thanks to the lighter hues, the variety of materials and the more inviting design of its cabin, though there’s a disappointing number of Toyota bits dotted about the place and the silvery plastic on the centre console looks out of place in such an expensive car.
Our Lexus was equipped with optional touch-screen Sat Nav, so many of the ventilation and stereo controls were split between solid dash buttons and on-screen virtual buttons, making basic operations unnecessarily complex and awkward. What is the objection to dashboard buttons, I wonder? I had expected the Lexus to claw back a lot of ground in terms of interior space but, surprisingly, the IS interior dimensions are smaller than the BMW’s in most respect even if it is longer overall and has a bigger boot. However, when you compare the standard specification of two similarly priced and powered models – say the €50,850 325i SE and €50,930 Lexus IS250 Executive - the differences in specification weigh heavily in the Lexus’ favour.
The BMW has 10 more bhp, 80 kgs less weight and offers an acceptable level of standard equipment including rear parking sensors as standard, while the Lexus boasts powered, heated leather seats; keyless entry; dual zone climate control; knee airbags; headlamp washers; a heated windscreen, Xenon lights and a 13-speaker 6-CD changer over and above what the BMW offers. The entry-level, €43,790 177 bhp IS220d also compares very well toBMW’s€44,500, 163 bhp 320d, whereas the best value Lexus of all is the €44,950 base model which rides on 16-inch wheels and has cloth seats but is otherwise pretty much loaded. Bottom line, if toys are your ‘thing’ then the Lexus is definitely the way to go. However, if you want a driver’s car then it has to be the Beemer. At low speeds the Lexus feels like it could be fun but wind things up a notch and it becomes clear that the focus is on grip and safety whereas the 3-Series is all about fun and high-jinx.
The BMW’s steering, though not the info-fest I had anticipated, is still sharp and quick compared to the Lexus’ mute and stodgy helm, while throttle response and brake-feel are also more intuitive in the BMW than they are in the Lexus. The BMW even rides more comfortably than the Lexus, despite being more firmly sprung, though the Lexus seems to be a quieter cruiser. The IS’ biggest flaw is its gear-change, which is long-winded and clunky - a problem compounded by an engine that refuses to let the revs drop between shifts. It feels like a big flywheel to me, though Lexus says the ECU is programmed that way to burn off hydrocarbons. All I can say is that it’s annoying and makes shifting gears even more awkward than it already is. The sad thing is that the chassis (when you sneakily turn off the traction control) is actually fairly balanced and its dynamic dreariness could easily be righted with a reworked suspension and tighter steering tuning. As it is, though, the IS and 3-Series are in different leagues and while safety and competence might be fine for some markets, it just won’t cut it with European buyers. Don’t feel too bad for Lexus, though. They’ll sell every single IS they can build in North America, where there’s an insatiable appetite for Toyota’s flagship brand and a willingness to embrace the new which is very different to Europe’s more traditional tastes.
Nonetheless, this could have been the car to finally turn Europe on to Lexus on a grand scale but as long as Lexus keeps turning out great products, rather than great cars, they will never topple the likes of the 3-Series from the throne it calls home. BMW might be floundering at the moment, losing its once rock-solid grasp on design and allowing rivals to eat into its dominance, but the 3 is still a fine machine and with the new coupé, hardtop convertible and M3 still in the works, it’ll reclaim its top sales spot before long. The 3-Series’goose may be thawing out a little bit, but it’s a long way from golden brown and Lexus is going to need a much sharper tool than this IS if it wants to take a proper slice out of it.
INFO BMW 325i SE ★★★★
Engine: 2,497cc, inline-6,218 bhp,250 Nm
Transmission:6-speed manual, RWD
Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 7.0 seconds
Top Speed: 241 km/h
Economy: 8.4 L/100 km
Boot Cap: 340 litres