If you’ve been considering the step into ‘luxury motoring’, the midsize premium sedan segment contains some affordable surprises.
We’re looking at two of the entry-level contenders that line up nearly exactly on price: the Lexus IS 200t F Sport, and BMW’s 318i Luxury Line. Each carries the cachet of a premium badge, looks smart inside and out, has a classy on-road feel and is priced within reach of middle Australia.
The BMW, in this case, is making a return to the market. Before the 1 Series came along, the 318i was the first rung on the BMW product ladder, but it’s been missing from BMW Australia showrooms for a decade.
But now there’s a new one, and what better way to welcome it back than by pitting it against another D-segment luxury sedan and the newest member of the Lexus IS family, the Lexus IS 200t?
The 318i, with no options or dress-ups added, retails for $54,900, while the base Lexus IS 200t Luxury is slightly more expensive at $57,500.
The Lexus also has 80kW more power and 130Nm more torque from its bigger 2.0 litre turbocharged four, which leaves the 318i’s 100kW/220Nm turbo inline-three at an on-paper disadvantage.
But our first drive of the 318i suggested it had a powertrain with pep, while conversely the IS 200t felt less-lively than we expected of its 180kW.
Not only that, but the only 318i press car we could wrangle out of BMW had a bunch of options fitted, taking its retail price up to $65,972 – just $472 off the price of a similarly-specced IS 200t F Sport. (A close match, then.)
So, when price is almost equal, just how different are these two entry-level RWD sedans?
Our Luxury Line 318i tester looks traditionally upper-class thanks to its tan-coloured leather, wood trim and more contemporary design, but there’s no denying that the Lexus has a handsome cabin too – it’s just a little more business-like than the Beemer.
Both cars suffer from small-screen syndrome, where the entry-level infotainment screen (6.5 inches for the BMW, 7 inches for the Lexus) is housed in an enclosure designed for a more substantial up-scale system.
Result – big blank borders around the screen that do nothing but remind you that you’re in the poverty-pack model.
But on that note, the BMW wins the infotainment war. Its iDrive rotary dial interface not only takes up less real estate on the centre console, but it’s easier, more intuitive and faster to use than the mouse-type controller of Lexus’ Remote Touch system.
It’s worth noting though that Lexus Remote Touch brings a digital radio tuner as standard and some limited internet connectivity apps, while both are cost options on the BMW ($385 for a DAB+ tuner, $484 for the ‘ConnectedDrive Freedom’ package and internet connection)
The IS 200t F Sport claws back points for visual presentation thanks to its trick ‘motorised’ instrument panel, which features a large central tachometer that slides sideways at a push of the button to reveal the car’s trip computer and multi-function display (a feature only available on F Sport models).
The particular cars we ended up with are pitched at slightly different buyers – the IS 200t in F Sport trim is targeted to drivers looking for performance, the Luxury Line 318i to a more mature demographic.
That may be so, but when it comes to comfort the winner is the Lexus.
You sit low in the Lexus with a feet-forward posture that feels like you’ve dropped ourself into a race car, but the hip point isn’t much closer to the ground than the BMW’s driver seat.
More crucially the front seats are also superior in the Lexus. With more generous bolstering and well-placed padding, they hold the body better and provide excellent under-thigh and lower-back support.
The BMW, by contrast, has incredibly flat seat-cushions on the squab and backrest, and though there’s plenty of adjustment for height, recline and lumbar, they simply lack the contouring necessary to properly support a body.
It’s like BMW’s interior designers folded an ironing board in half and called it a day.
The competition runs a little bit closer in the back seat with both cars providing similar levels of head and legroom (with slightly more knee clearance in the BMW).
But, again, the IS edges ahead thanks to better-sculpted outboard seat cushions than the BMW.
Transmission tunnel intrusion in both is fairly significant, with the Lexus worse off. Don’t try and squeeze three adults across the rear bench for any great deal of time either – especially in the Lexus, whose centre seat is much higher than the outboard pair and puts the head in contact with the headlining.
Both cars offer 480 litres of boot space with the rear seatbacks in the raised position, but the BMW has a little added flexibility by way of its 40:20:40 split backrest and larger aperture between cabin and boot.
There’s no ski port in the Lexus (unlike the 318i) and with its back seats down there’s a big step between boot floor and backrest. The BMW, seats down, has a smoother, flatter load area which helps when loading long, bulky objects.
On The Road
Each car gets a low-displacement, high-boost turbocharged petrol motor up front, an eight-speed transmission in the middle and driven wheels at the rear, but there are profound differences in the way these cars drive.
The Lexus has more on-paper oomph with its 2.0 litre turbo inline-four making 180kW and 350Nm, while the BMW lags behind with 100kW/220Nm 1.5 litre inline-three. That said, from behind the wheel the BMW doesn’t exactly feel like a slug.
It’s got way more pep than the Lexus, and that’s mostly because BMW’s engineers know how to calibrate an automatic transmission properly.
Both cars have an eight-speed transmission as standard (the Lexus has the added bonus of wheel-mounted paddle shifters), but the Lexus’ electronic brain simply doesn’t quite know what to do with that many gears.
In its normal drive mode (you can choose from Eco, Normal, Sport or Sport+) it prefers to leap to the highest possible gear at all times. That wouldn’t be such a big issue if it kicked down faster and didn’t take quite so much time figuring out which gear is best, but it doesn’t.
Steep hills and overtaking manoeuvres see this transmission stumble up and down through its ratios until finally settling, interrupting the flow of power the entire time.
This may be a 180kW engine, but it rarely feels like it. That’s a shame, because the chassis it’s connected to is quite a decent thing when it comes to handling.
The Lexus corners particularly well, with a neutral chassis balance, excellent steering response and decent grip from its 225-section Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres.
Its electronically-assisted steering however lacks feedback through the wheel, but is precise and the weighting is spot-on. It’s a bit distant, a bit “digital” – like an arcade driving game – responsive, but synthetic.
The BMW simply does things better. The steering is more communicative, it’s more softly-sprung but holds tight around bends and its comfort-biased Continentals produce less road noise thanks to slightly taller sidewalls.
And that BMW transmission? It never makes a wrong move. Stick it in D and it will choose the correct gear all day no matter what kind of driving you’re doing. No hunting, no fuss.
That three-pot is such a sweet little motor too, with terrific midrange pull for something so small.
It does feel a bit lazy when off boost and runs out of puff toward the top of its rev range, but it actually doesn’t sweat all that much despite being asked to move something the size of a 3 Series.
It’s worth noting that the 318i is roughly 255kg lighter than the IS 200t, which is a pretty significant weight advantage. And goes a fair way toward explaining why the smaller-engined 3 Series doesn’t feel all that much slower than the 180kW Lexus.
Not only that, but our BMW test car had the optional Adaptive M Suspension and variable-ratio sport steering (alas, we can’t vouch for the standard steering and suspension hardware).
In terms of fuel economy, the gap between the two cars isn’t as big as you may expect.
The factory figures put the BMW at 5.4 l/100km and the Lexus at 7.5 l/100km, but our real-world comparo test had the former drinking 9.2 l/100km and the latter consuming 10.7 l/100km.
VERDICT | BMW WINS
The BMW 318i wins this shoot-out, which some of you may consider a miracle considering its significant power deficit compared to the IS 200t.
The 318i however won us over for its balance of driveability, handling, size and design, and though the IS 200t F Sport had the superior interior, its sub-par transmission and resulting poor driveability put it behind its German rival.
The BMW is simply the better car to drive.
We should however draw attention to the specification differences. The IS 200t had just one option – the $3077 Enhancement Package One that adds a glass sunroof and Mark Levinson sound system – while the BMW we tested had a whopping ten options totalling over $11,000.
And that’s exactly what you’ll need to spend to bring a 318i up to a similar level of equipment as the IS 200t F Sport.
Things like a digital radio tuner, electronically adjustable suspension and radar cruise control cost extra on a 318i, but are standard-issue in the IS 200t F-Sport.
We’d spec our 318i differently to the one supplied by BMW for this comparison though.
We’d forget about the $2150 Luxury Line package and go with the no-cost Sport Line trim which brings better seats, an additional Sport+ drive mode and a sportier vibe to match the IS 200t F Sport.
We’d retain the variable sport steering, Comfort Package, DAB+ tuner and adaptive suspension options, but add the $2366 Innovations Package that brings active cruise control, the higher-spec Navigation System Professional infotainment system (with a far more impressive 8.8-inch screen), and parking assist.
Oh, and heated seats.
That car would be even closer to the IS 200t F Sport in terms of standard equipment and even better to live with thanks to its well-calibrated driveline and versatile suspension tune. The 318i is back, and it’s better than ever.