The new car business is like running a marathon. You can’t win it in the first half of the race, but you can certainly lose it in the first half of the race. If you go out too fast, you won’t have the energy for a strong finish. If you don’t hydrate, you will feel more fatigue sooner. If you don’t adequately fuel your body in the lead up to the race, you will, literally, “hit the wall”, or “bonk” before finishing, when you feel like you won’t be able to take another step.
Running a marathon is all about preparation. I’ll be running my third half marathon tomorrow. Eighteen weeks of training, almost 500 kilometres divided over that time, at various speeds and intensities, will culminate in one day and one race where it will all be put on the line.
Come Sunday afternoon, I can sit back and rest. The car business? Not so much.
BMW has taken more than 40 years to burnish a reputation for producing vehicles that respond to a driver’s every whim. Outstanding steering reflexes, supple suspensions that take no prisoners in corners, responsive, torquey engines that delivery a visceral jolt to the base of the spine, and enough amenities in a businesslike interior to keep a driver with sporting intentions satisfied have made BMW and sports sedan synonymous.
They’ve run the first half of their marathon, establishing a great reputation along the way. But lately, everything I read, and from what I’ve driven, BMW appears to be struggling.
There was a time that BMW was at the top of the list, and then there was everyone else. Now Cadillac has a very strong entry in this segment with the ATS, Infiniti’s Q50 is now on sale and Mercedes has crowded the market with their new CLA. What has knocked BMW off its lofty perch? The new Lexus IS. It would appear that hell, indeed, has frozen over. Car and Driver, in their July 2013 issue, crowned the new 2014 Lexus IS350 F Sport superior vehicle to the BMW 335i M Sport.
Lexus has been accused of becoming ‘your father’s Oldsmobile’, and we all know how that turned out for Oldsmobile. Lexus has taken a different approach with this iteration of the IS. The styling of the former IS was, to be kind, conservative. Vehicles in this class have to make a statement. Whether it’s Audi’s large grille, the over-sized Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star or BMW’s twin-kidney nose, the look starts up front. Lexus’s spindle grille is particularly successful on the IS, giving it the appearance of being extremely low to the ground. A pronounced shoulder runs the length of the car, cutting down the fenders to the tip of the grille. This is a very tasteful way to handle the European pedestrian standards, which have led to a higher hood for any car sold on the continent.
The rear tail lights wrap around the fenders and point downward to the side sill, which is engaged in a half twist, then wraps under the cut line for the doors. It’s a bit busy, but the lines on this car flow and end logically, demonstrate continuity and don’t fade into oblivion just because the designers and the engineers couldn’t get together on how the panels would be stamped.
Inside, it’s easy to see that BMW was the target. A driver-focussed cockpit is wrapped by the bulky centre console. The seats have substantial side bolsters, and you sit in them, bucking the trend of many vehicles these days where you sit “on” the seats. Chrome accents are burnished; there’s nothing shiny about the interior, keeping interior glare to a minimum and muting the visual conversation. The obligatory wood interior trim is also available.
As usual, an extremely high level of standard equipment is found on these vehicles.
The value story:
What does $50 buy? $1540 in value. At this price point, navigation is standard on the IS. A six cylinder engine over a turbo four has fewer ponies under the hood, and the BMW returns 9 litres/100km in the city and 6L/100km on the highway. The Lexus? 10.9L/100 km city, 7.7L/100km on the highway. With the BMW, you can have your cake (more power) and eat it (but not consume as much fuel) too. BMW’s start/stop technology and 8-speed automatic transmission play a large role in the fuel economy sweepstakes. BMW also includes rear air conditioning, but I’m not convinced it’s necessary in a vehicle of this size. Speaking of size:
The BMW has more interior room in a slightly shorter package. Both vehicles have a long wheelbase to improve ride quality. Taller drivers will choose the BMW, with 53mm (two inches) of additional front headroom.
Lexus has the automotive press talking about the IS in the same breath as BMW. The previous IS wasn’t in the same class. The new IS is a worthy competitor to the BMW 3 series. There is even a value advantage to the IS over the BMW 328. The question is, is the Lexus brand the equal of the BMW brand? Would a $1540 difference in value at a $46,000 price point sway a potential purchaser? We’ll find out in the coming months.
The next part of BMW’s run includes electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and their renowned sports sedans. Lexus almost lost the race with the original IS. Lexus has refueled, bulked up, done their training and are challenging at the front. Will BMW be able to reset, align to the criticism of their most recent vehicles and stay on track?
This race is beginning anew.
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