For those bored of the usual German premium medium sedans, Alfa Romeo and Lexus provide stand-out alternatives. But do the Giulia and IS have the substance to back up their good looks?
With the proliferation of SUVs over the last decade, the classic premium midsize sedan has become a niche, second-car option for well-to-do Australian families. But while the SUV has become daily family fodder, manufacturers who battled on Sunday in order to sell on Monday haven’t given up on the sedan quite yet.
Enter stage right: the Lexus IS. In the late 90s this Japanese option emerged in the sports sedan space, pitched somewhere between the athletic 3 Series and the luxury C-Class, but with a much more enticing price tag and guaranteed reliability.
Now we’re onto the third generation of IS, which launched in 2013. It received a heavy update late in 2020 which gave the car a range of radical styling changes, tweaks to engines, suspension and specification levels.
Our IS 300 Luxury test car is the most affordable way into a Lexus IS with pricing from $61,500 before on-roads. Lexus offers several enhancement packs, our car benefits from the EP1 which adds a sunroof and nothing else for $2,000. Sonic Iridium paintwork adds another $1,500 bringing the total price before on-roads to $65,000.
In the grey corner is the Alfa Romeo Giulia, a nameplate that has been around since the 1960s. The original type 105 Giulia took aim at the Fiat 124, though this type 952 Giulia has its sights aimed a little higher.
The new Giulia launched in 2015 to much fanfare, with many declaring it a return to form for Alfa – especially in full-fat Quadrifoglio guise – but Australian sales have never reflected the praise it received from the press for its good handling and beautiful looks.
On test is the new most affordable option, the Giulia Sport. This new variant was added to the line-up in late 2020 along with some other tweaks to make the Giulia more enticing. The Sport is basically the old Super grade, and ditches the vinyl seats of the previous entry model. Prices start from $63,950 but our car was specced up with Vesuvio Grey paintwork and the Lusso pack ($2,950).
Both cars here are the most affordable variants available. The Giulia Sport and Lexus IS 300 compete directly with the Mercedes-Benz C200 ($66,899), BMW 320i ($70,900) and Audi A4 35TFSI ($55,900).
As much as looks are subjective, the Alfa Romeo is about as objectively perfect as a car can be. Crisp and restrained detailing meets proportions to die for. The bulging haunches and confident profile line lend the Alfa a dynamic stance, and it’s one of the best implementations of a heritage grille to date. Every surface of the Giulia is expertly executed.
In other company, the new Lexus IS is a real looker, the new widebody stance has a lot to thank for (it’s also begging for a new IS F). The full-width LED taillight is very on trend and sits below an eye-catching split level bootlid. That grille is impossible to miss, but while it makes plenty of impact, in our eyes the Lexus doesn’t match the timeless perfection that is the Giulia.
Out on the road it might be a very different story. On paper, these two sedans have plenty in common; both have turbocharged, 2.0L four-cylinder petrol engines mounted up front and send power to the rear wheels via eight-speed torque converter transmission.
Both cars offer better engines up the food chain, too, with Lexus offering diversity in the form of a warbling V6 in the IS 350 and a fuel-sipping hybrid powertrain in the IS 300h.
The Alfa Romeo engine lineup is less diverse, with a two-litre turbo doing service at two different output levels before a huge step up to the 2.9L twin-turbo V6 Quadrifoglio.
The Alfa’s engine is the more modest of this pair, with 147kW of power and 330Nm of torque. The four-pot stumbles at low RPMs making manoeuvring a lurchy affair. This is compounded by a poor gearbox tune that is overly relaxed in natural mode and too eager in dynamic.
At least there is a bit of a synthesised engine noise to enjoy, and with some revs on the Alfa’s four-pot does have character with good motivation up to 5,500 rpm. Paddle-actuated downshifts in dynamic mode are accompanied by a blip of throttle for added theatre.
Jump into the IS 300 and the contrast is stark. In fact, the variant name (Luxury) basically sums up how the Japanese competitor differs.
The Lexus pumps out bigger figures with 180kW of power and 350Nm of torque on offer, but a hefty kerb weight of 1,660kg (the Giulia is just 1,394kg) stunts its progress. The Japanese sedan only manages to reach 100km/h in 8.7 seconds – miles adrift of the Alfa’s 6.6 second sprint.
There is some meatiness in the middle of the IS 300’s power band, but the Lexus’ four-pot has no top end sparkle. It kicks back with a slinkier low-speed experience and a gearbox tune smoother than a Gerry Rafferty sax solo.
Slip the IS into sport mode and the automatic gearbox tune does such a fantastic job of keeping the car in its power band on twisty roads the wheel-mounted paddles are almost redundant.
This is one place where the Giulia has an advantage on paper as the Lusso Pack equipped car is decked out with adaptive dampers. In practice, the Alfa’s spring and damper settings feel poorly matched in its default natural mode. The shocks were lacking in rebound damping leading to excess vertical movement.
Slipping the dial into dynamic improves control noticeably when at speed, but introduces extra harshness below 60km/h. As sexy as they are, the 19-inch alloys shod in Pirelli P Zero rubber further hurt the Alfa’s chances as they clobber through and transmit each sharp edge hit into the cabin.
While the Lexus is happy to waft down country roads, it’s also much more cosseting in town. The spring and damper package is pretty close to perfect without adaptive dampers. No doubt this is helped by the smaller 18-inch alloy wheels and their less aggressive Bridgestone Turanza T005A rubber.
The IS 300 does edge out the Giulia in terms of cabin isolation, but both cars have some improvements to make when it comes to NVH suppression on coarse chip roads.
Show the Lexus a challenging road and it feels confident and balanced with that excellent suspension dispatching mid corner bumps without bother.
But the Lexus simply can’t outrun its heavy kerb weight. When pushed harder, the brakes heat up pretty quickly, and as you lean on it the IS is more ready to understeer than its rival. That said, the Lexus never totally gives up, but it responds better if you step just back from the limit and adopt a more graceful cadence, allowing you to revel in its stable front-engine, rear-drive balance.
While the Alfa is underdamped in Natural mode, in the switchable Dynamic setting the Giulia feels much more secure. The ride is firmer than the Lexus, but the Alfa’s lighter kerb weight keeps the Giulia poised.
Where it’s easiest to separate the two cars in terms of subjective feeling is through the tiller; the Lexus’ rack is weighty and slow, the Giulia’s light, frenetic and razor sharp. The Alfa’s turn-in is crisp and confidence inspiring, and the balance mid-corner is ever-so exploitable.
Neither car has any actual steering feel, of course, but the Alfa’s speedy rack is more alive in your hands. The Giulia is a much more involving car on the whole, too, encouraging the driver to play with the car’s attitude on throttle. We imagine this would be even more pronounced in the more powerful Giulia Veloce ($71,450) with its limited-slip differential.
Both cars are fitted with a full complement of safety features, which makes these base models a good option next to the sparsely specified BMW 320i. The Lexus IS 300 is fitted with adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, front and rear AEB, front and rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and traffic-sign recognition.
Meanwhile, the Alfa Giulia Sport is fitted with everything bar reverse AEB. Strangely, the Italians have landed on a better tune for the adaptive cruise and lane-keep assist system than Lexus has.
Outside the Lexus IS 300 may look bang up to date, but inside it isn’t the same story. If you currently own an IS, you’ll recognise many of the shapes and materials in here, with familiar gauges, switchgear and seats carrying over, along with the circa-2015 steering wheel. For such a significant update, the Lexus fails to feel much more contemporary inside.
At least the touchpoints are hewn solidly, with no detectable movement from any of the interior content. One bugbear down this lower end of the range is Lexus’ choice to use synthetic materials to simulate leather which, as Ponch pointed out in his 2021 Lexus IS review, becomes sticky and hot in summer. Add the Enhancement Pack 2 option ($5,500), though, and Lexus switches the vinyl for genuine leather with heating and cooling functions.
The Alfa’s appointments feel more luxurious, the steering wheel is finished in quality leather and the rubber touchpoints feel of higher quality. Like the Lexus, the Alfa’s cabin design feels half a generation behind the latest from the Germans.
However, the Italian hits back with a real sense of occasion – that start button on the steering wheel and the tactile aluminium paddles feel truly special.
The Alfa has an 8.8-inch touchscreen and a rotary dial. It runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto via a cable, and has built-in Tom Tom navigation with live traffic. The software and touchscreen are laggy and small compared to competition, though.
A set of analogue dials are set deep into their circular binnacles, and between them is a 7-inch TFT screen. There is only one button to cycle between the info screens on that display though, which is frustrating.
However, the Lexus isn’t much better and is really feeling its age. Size-wise the Lexus wins, no doubt, with a 10.3-inch touchscreen, but the graphics and user interface feel from five or so years ago. It gets all the same tech though, including navigation, wired phone mirroring and DAB radio.
From the driver’s seat, the IS 300’s ergonomics are bang on. It adopts the classic long and low sports sedan driving position, the seats are electrically adjustable and offer tilt for the bottom cushion – something the Alfa doesn’t. They’re heated, but the pews are less shapely than the Giulia’s and again, are appointed in sticky grey vinyl.
This can be rectified with the $5,500 Enhancement Pack 2 which adds leather seats with ventilation, a premium soundsystem and larger 19-inch alloys. Our car was outfitted only with Enhancement Pack 1 which adds a sunroof.
The Alfa gets true leather seats with two position memory function, heating, ample bolstering and great support, though they suffer from a flat squab without adjustment. Points back for sliding under-thigh support, and the option to choose from tan or red leather at no extra cost.
Practicality is also a strong suit for the Alfa, there is a nifty wireless charging pad, generous centre bin, OK doorbins, two cup holders and a tray ahead of the shifter to store odds and ends. The key even has a dedicated, rubberised spot next to the gear stick – nice work Alfa.
Here, the Lexus suffers. When this generation of IS was launched in 2013, the E90 BMW 3 Series had just gone out of production, and manufacturers (including Lexus) weren’t making concessions for bulky smartphones.
So, while the door bins are much better than the Alfa, the central bin is shallow – although flock lined – and despite having two cup holders, the Lexus suffers badly by not offering a storage tray ahead of the shifter. USB points are at two in the IS 300, while the Giulia Sport offers three normal ports, and one fast-charge USB-C outlet.
Rear seat passengers are definitely secondary in the IS, my head was brushing the roof at six-foot-two. Toe room is very tight, too. Both cars have adjustable air vents in the rear seats, and both suffer from mount vesuvius-sized transmission tunnels, making carrying five passengers very uncomfortable.
The back seat of the Giulia is at least more generous, offering a touch more head, toe and knee room as well as a USB charge point, but neither is as good as the physically larger BMW 3 Series.
Neither vehicle can be had as a wagon, which is a shame especially in the Alfa’s case, we only have to look back to the gorgeous 159 to see how good an italian labrador-lugger can look.
Anyway, both cars are compromised by the usual load-lip and rear seat bulkhead encroachment that afflicts sedans, making carrying bicycles difficult. For outright space the two are lineball with 480L of stowage space. The Alfa includes a net, but not a spare tyre, so the Lexus with its space saver wins for regular road-trippers.
It’s difficult to separate these sedans on running costs alone. Alfa Romeo offers five years of capped-price servicing, for the Giulia Sport maintenance will cost a total of $2,865 over that time. Maintenance needs to be carried out 15,000km or 12 months, and the fourth year of ownership will bring a hefty $1,065 service charge.
The IS 300 needs to be serviced just as often, but Lexus only offers three years of capped-price servicing. Each scheduled stop costs $495, if that were to continue for five years then the cost of service would be a little more affordable than the Giulia.
Where the Alfa hits back is in economy stakes, something to do with the combination of lower weight and the Euro-mandated start-stop which defaults to ‘on’ every time you start the car.
On a standardised 40 minute mix of urban, highway and suburban driving the Giulia returned a respectable figure of 7.7L/100km. The same loop saw the Lexus slip a long way behind returning a 9.5L/100km score.
Of course, there’s an elephant in this comparison – the ownership experience of each. We had no issues with the Giulia during the test period, but with a smaller number of dealerships and only a three year unlimited-kilometre warranty owning an Alfa may prove too big a gamble for some.
By contrast, Lexus vehicles are famous for simply working. The addition of a four year, unlimited kilometre warranty standing behind the Lexus is nice, though we would like to see the Japanese marque join Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar in offering five years peace of mind.
So we come to the question – which of these medium sports sedans is better? Well the truth is they are incredibly different vehicles. Despite similar engines and on-paper numbers the sum of each car’s parts equates to a totally different experience.
If you could combine the good traits of each you might end up with a class-best. The Alfa is by far the more engaging car to drive on a country road with that sweet adjustable chassis. No doubt the optional adaptive dampers help here.
Where the Lexus IS 300 kicks back is at the mundane tasks where the more deftly tuned automatic gearbox and smoother engine give it a relaxed demeanour. The expertly-matched spring and damper settings help here, too.
Had the Lexus IS 300 been specified with Enhancement Pack 2 with leather seats and a stereo to match the Giulia’s Harman Kardon item this verdict may very well have gone the other way, tipped by the Alfa’s historical reliability perhaps.
As it stands, the Alfa scores more highly in what gets us excited about a car; engaging dynamics, gorgeous looks, but above all a sense of occasion that no other car in this class quite nails.
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