Vehicle Comparisons

BMW 3 Series

BMW 3 Series

The BMW 3 Series has ruled the compact part of the mid-sized executive segment for more than forty years and the company's hopes are high for this seventh generation version. It's smarter, slightly larger, more efficient and considerably high-tech. All the things you'd expect really. Something else you'd expect from this model is rear wheel drive handling purity. It doesn't disappoint in that regard either.

It's still rear wheel drive of course - though xDrive 4WD is, as before, as option. Upgraded four-cylinder engines from BMW's Efficient Dynamics family are used across the powerplant range, which kicks off with the 184hp 320i. The same engine's also used in the 330e plug-in hybrid model. The other mainstream petrol engine available is the 258hp unit in the 330i. If you want six cylinders, you'll need the 374hp engine of the rare M340i. Diesel drivers can start their perusals with the 150hp 318d, before going on to consider the 190hp 320d derivative that most choose. This mid-range diesel model generates 400Nm of torque which enables a 0-62mph sprint time of 7.1s (or just 6.8s for the auto). At the top of the diesel line-up is the 265hp 330d. The brand's xDrive 4WD system is optional on the 320i, the 320d and the 330d. And you have to have it on the M340i. A new generation six-speed manual gearbox is available - thoiugh only on the base 318d diesel variant. Otherwise, your 3 Series will come with eight-speed Steptronic auto transmission.

The handling promises to be even sharper thanks to a wider track, and a chassis that's up to 50% stiffer in some areas and which features special lift-related dampers. A 55kg weight reduction this time round also helps. Adaptive M suspension can be specified on 'M Sport' models. And 330i and 330d buyers will be offered an optional M Sport differential for the rear axle which helps to enhance traction, agility and cornering. This is standard on the M340i.

This seventh generation 3 Series model has had its proportions radically revised. The MK7 design is 85mm longer than its predecessor and 16mm wider, but just 1mm taller. Added to that, its wheelbase has been extended by 41mm and its track widths are wider too. As usual, there'll be saloon and Touring estate body styles. At the front, the large BMW kidney grille elements are framed by a single surround and split up by wide bars and link to the headlight units. The Munich brand's customary twin headlights feature the familiar two-way split that is further emphasised by an eye-catching notch in the front apron that rises into the headlight contour.

The bonnet has four contour lines leading to the BMW kidney grille. A pair of character lines rise to the rear of the car at door-handle level and a contour line near the side skirts guides the eye to the sculpted rear wheel arches. There's the usual 'Hofmeister kink' near the rear C- pillar. And at the rear, slim, darkened light units house L-shaped taillights. Inside, the instrument panel has a modern, light look with horizontal lines, high quality electroplated trim strips and contours that extend into the doors. The newly-designed instrument cluster and Control Display form a large surfaced screen grouping, while the controls not included in these units are arranged into clearly structured function panels. Your dealer will also be keen to tell you about this MK7 model's clever 'Intelligent Personal Assistant', a voice-activated infotainment system that responds to the prompt "Hey BMW".

'More where you need more and less where you want less - otherwise leave well alone' seems to be the mantra of this seventh generation BMW 3 Series. If BMW wanted to build a model that would convert those who didn't previously fancy a 3 Series, then this MK7 design probably isn't that car. Its appeal is largely the same. If, on the other hand, you're crunching hard numbers, then it's hard to see this Munich maker's much improved mid-sized executive model coming off second best to anything in its division. The class-leading rear-wheel drive driving dynamics are merely the icing on the cake.

Beneath the styling changes and interior upgrades are some serious engineering updates. A new family of petrol engines and big changes to the diesel powerplants come winging in, delivering unprecedented performance/economy combinations. The 3 Series has changed a lot about the way we buy cars in this class, continually forcing its rivals to play catch up. This one's no different. As you were, people.

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Lexus IS

Lexus IS

The Lexus IS has a simple mission. It needs to be a car that you'd enjoy owning more than a Mercedes C Class, an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 series, the three leading choices in the compact executive saloon segment. Lexus used to simply try and copy these class leaders but with this third generation IS, they've been a bit cleverer, primarily through the offering of petrol/electric hybrid power rather than the kind of 2.0-litre diesel engine business buyers will be used to. It's a refreshing approach for people in search of something just that little bit different and its been lightly embellished with the introduction of this revised MK3 model.

Lexus has made small changes to both the steering and the suspension of this improved model in an attempt to create a more dynamic feel. Under the bonnet, the brand will offer you a pair of engines. The more conventional of the two is found in an IS 200t model powered by a 2.0-litre four cylinder turbo unit developing 245bhp and driving the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. It's a pleasant enough thing, with decent refinement and crisp acceleration that'll see you to 62mph in 7.0s en route to 143mph - but you'll almost never see one. These days, few people buy thirsty petrol engines in cars like this.

The variant that attracts all the interest in the IS line-up is the model nearly all customers go for, the 2.5-litre IS 300h petrol/electric hybrid. Unlike the brand's slightly smaller CT 200h hybrid model, it's more than a smartened up Toyota Prius, instead based on a proper large Lexus, the BMW 5 Series-sized GS 300h. True, the 2.5-litre engine used may only offer four cylinders, but it does develop 178bhp, with a further slug of power contributed by an electric motor, resulting in a combined 223bhp output. That's enough to easily match the performance of the rival 2.0-litre diesel models at which this car is aimed, 0-62mph occupying 8.3s on the way to 124mph.

You access that performance via a thrashy, rubber belt-driven CVT auto gearbox which doesn't help this car's sports saloon aspirations. On the plus side, the handling changes make the car feel sharper than before into corners, the steering's much better and you get a 'Drive Mode Select' system that allows you to tweak engine output, throttle response, gearshift times and even the air conditioning to suit four different driving modes. Plus there's an electric-only EV setting on the hybrid so that you can trickle along on battery power for short distances.

On to design. Changes to this improved third generation IS are subtle but significant. Buyers get restyled headlamps, larger and deeper air intakes integrated in the bumper and a further evolution of the signature Lexus spindle grille. In profile, the character line along the side of the car has been made stronger and at the rear, chrome detailing has been added to the lower bumper panel. The rear lights have also been redesigned, with LED lamps and smarter light guides that create an L-shape motif.

Inside, the high-resolution multi-information screen that accompanies the Lexus Premium Navigation system has been increased from seven to 10.25 inches, presenting larger, clearer images and providing a split-screen function so that different information displays can be presented at the same time. Changes have also been made to the steering wheel (matching the design of that in the Lexus RC coupe) and the driver and front passenger knee pads now run the full length of the centre console. There are also new cupholders, a satin finish for the gear lever, a larger, leather-wrapped and stitched palm rest for the Remote Touch Interface control, and classier dial markings on the analogue clock.

Otherwise, things are much as they were before, which means a classy cabin with best-in-class standards of kneeroom at the back. And the boot? Well the batteries that must be housed beneath its floor in the hybrid IS 300h model rob you of 30-litres of space, but that still leaves a class-competitive 450-litres of room on offer. And, as long as you avoid entry-level trim, there's a 60/40 split-folding rear seat for those times when you want to avoid the home delivery charge after a trip to IKEA.

If you thought that Lexus was the company that tried to copy the Germans and always turned up a day late and a dollar short, you need to try this car. It looks right, it feels good and it makes eminent sense on the balance sheet.

Or at least the hybrid version does. Though the conventional IS200t is a likeable car, it isn't efficient enough to attract the business buyers Lexus needs. People who really ought to be considering this hybrid IS 300h. Lexus didn't do diesel that well but it's hard to argue with the fact that it does hybrid brilliantly with a car that many will feel makes its German rivals look old, noisy and dirty. True, the vague response from the thrashy CVT auto gearbox undermines the driving experience somewhat but if you can live with that, there's plenty else to like.

Affordable running costs and plenty of equipment for example, plus recent tax law changes mean that the pendulum is swinging back towards petrol power once again. Add in the arresting looks and a dealer network routinely steeped in praise by every survey going and I think there's room for this Japanese brand to be optimistic about its prospects with this car. It's the best small Lexus yet made. And that makes it a very desirable thing indeed.

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Audi A4

Audi A4

This fifth generation Audi A4 now features a sharper look and continues to claim to be class-leading in nearly all the areas that really matter to business buyers in the compact executive segment. That means efficiency, cabin quality, practicality and technology. As a result, it'll be hard to ignore if you're looking for a car of this kind.

Audi is gradually introducing its mild hybrid 48-volt technology across the four and six cylinder petrol and diesel engines in the A4 line-up. Their power outputs range from 150PS to 347PS - from the Audi A4 35 TFSI up to the Audi S4 TDI, that S4 now featuring diesel power for the first time. Audi obviously sees more of a future for diesel than some of its rivals; the brand is introducing two more affordable TDI units to the line-up, the 30 TDI with 136PS and the 35 TDI with 163PS. As before, the A4 differs from its BMW 3 Series rival in its use of front wheel drive for most models. Also as before though, quattro 4WD is optional - and standard on the top V6 variants.

The A4 has always struck an appealing balance between handling and comfort and with this MK5 model, the Ingolstadt engineers sought to improve its credentials still further by developing a sophisticated five-link suspension system. Optional adjustable shock absorbers with 'sports' and 'comfort' modes will enable owners to get the most from this and a dynamic steering system is another extra cost feature that'll reward those who like their driving. Both features can be controlled through the standard Audi drive select driving-dynamics system, which alters throttle response and auto gearshift timings in its most basic form. Talking of auto gearshifts, most variants standardise the seven speed dual clutch 'S tronic' unit that claims to be able to improve both performance and fuel consumption.

The external changes made to this fifth generation A4 are relatively slight. The full-LED headlamps have been re-designed and flank a broader, flatter Singeframe grille complemented by re-sculpted bumpers. Otherwise, it's as you were, which - to remind you - sees this MK5 model A4 riding on a light, stiff MLB platform and boasting the lowest drag coefficient in its class. As ever, there's a choice of either saloon or Avant estate bodystyles, the latter offering 505-litre boot - or 1,510-litres with the rear seats folded.

The interior's been updated too and gains the brand's latest classy centre-dash 10.1-inch 'MMI touch' infotainment display, though unfortunately, that means you lose the previous lower-set rotary controller. The voice control system has been improved and, as before, you get access to the full suite of 'Audi connect' media features. They include online traffic sign and hazard information, an on-street parking search function and newly introduced traffic light information functionality.

You view another screen through the steering wheel; Audi's 'Virtual Cockpit' TFT 12.3-inch monitor has now been standardised, so you have to have virtual dials. Overall, you wouldn't call the appearance of this A4's cabin exciting but it would certainly be a soothing environment for long journeys.

And in summary? Well Audi has spent nearly a quarter of a century perfecting its A4 - and that really shows in the improved version of this fifth generation model. It's a spacious, classy car that's very composed to drive and is fully conversant with the kind of hi-tech design and faultless cabin quality that its target junior executive market likes to expect. So it stacks up in the showroom just as well as it does on the balance sheet, with running cost returns that with most engines will make it your company accountant's go-to choice.

Even more than before, this A4 feels like a car that's been lovingly and very carefully considered. The depth of engineering and the thought that's gone into the tiniest details combine to further enhance the warm fuzzy feeling that's charmed Audi customers for years. If you're one of those people, then you'll like this car very much. And even if you're not, you'll find it hard not to be impressed by way it systematically ticks almost every box on the compact executive market wish list. It's very thorough. And very Audi.

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