While in the past it was easy to simply write the Lexus ES off as merely being a dolled-up Toyota Camry, with leather seats, the all-new model which arrived at the tail-end of 2018 set out to prove everyone wrong.
Longer, larger, and more luxurious than ever before, it may still share its front-wheel drive underpinnings with the Camry and closely-related US-market Avalon, but it now looks to compete a class above in the large luxury sedan sector – an area typically dominated by the Germans.
That’s why, to see if this pseudo-Euro underdog really can take on the best the Europe actually has to offer, we’ve brought it together with what is, in our opinion, the new class-leader – the new Audi A6.
To get some housekeeping out of the way first, it should be noted that this is a competition that doesn’t appear to be all that fairly stacked on paper, as the Lexus we have on test is the top-of-the-range ES 300h Sports Luxury, while the Audi A6 is a base-spec 45 TFSI with no options added. Skewing things even more heavily in the Lexus’ direction is the fact that although sitting at the top of the totem, its $75,488 price tag sees it come in at $20,012 less than the $95,500 price tag of the base-spec Audi.
However, the Audi, despite being fitted with what is currently the least-powerful engine on offer in Australia, does have a big power advantage and offers up a more sophisticated driveline overall. Plus, it doesn’t exactly feel like a base model when you start looking over the list of standard features.
So, are the financial odds stacked in the Lexus’ favour enough for it to finally conquer the Germans, or is the sportier Audi’s driving experience enough to overcome it? That’s what we’re about to find out…
Inside & Out
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lexus is the car here that makes the biggest impression right off the bat, primarily due to that big grille. Comparisons to Predator and vacuum cleaners aside, it’s a look that’s grown on me a lot now that the overall styling of Lexus’ models has been made more angular and aggressive to tie in with it.
And certainly, the body lines of the ES are surprisingly strong for something so closely-related to the conservative Camry, but that’s a car that in its latest incarnation looks far less dull than before, and so, too, does this.
But where the Lexus, at least from the front, is imposing and screams aggression, the Audi is subdued and understated. It’s subtle in the same way as a Rolex Day-Date on a presidential bracelet – from even one quick glance, you know it’s expensive, but it’s not being rubbed in your face that it is.
And while one could accuse it of potentially looking a bit dull – the grey paint doesn’t help, nor does the lack of the S line visual package – I personally think it’s a real stunner. Even with smaller wheels and a conservative colour choice, it’s a mighty handsome thing, let down only by the totally fake exhausts on the rear bumper.
Although the Lexus looks the most forward thinking on the outside, the inside does, in some regards, feel comparatively old-school, with stacks of buttons, faux wood trim including on the steering wheel, and an analogue clock which, while I personally like it, isn’t entirely likely to appeal to most in the smartphone generation.
With that being said, all of the interior materials you’ll touch on a regular basis feel incredibly supple, plush, soft, and squishy, particularly the leather on the seats and armrests, but some of the upper and lower dash plastics are a bit low-rent by comparison.
In the Audi, however, everything feels high quality, with that German penchant for solid build quality on full display here. There’s nary a surface that feels unpleasant or a bit of trim that doesn’t feel firmly in place.
But above that, it not only looks and feels far more modern than the Lexus inside, but moreso than just about anything else in the class. With the number of buttons pared back to the absolute minimum without sticking absolutely everything within the infotainment system, and with the use of aluminium trim on the doors and centre console, it really does look swanky and futuristic.
Round one, then, has to go to the Audi. It may be more conservatively-styled, but it’s less opinion-splitting as a result and still very handsome, and that interior is a clear step above.
Winner: Audi A6
Technology & Features
While both of these models offer up the very latest technology their respective manufacturers have to offer, but one does come out as the clear winner here.
In terms of driver assistance, however, both are on totally level pegging. With the ES and A6 both offering just about every piece of active safety technology shy of any Level 2 autonomous driving capabilities, there’s nothing to split them there, and nothing but peace of mind for the owners of either to have when it comes to how safe they can feel behind the wheel.
It’s more so when it comes to infotainment technology that the divide becomes clear. While I’m a big fan of the massive screen in the Lexus, the system that runs on it, and the fact that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have finally been added, the silly trackpad used to control it is utterly frustrating to use, particularly when trying to do tasks like entering an address on the sat nav. Yes, it’s better than the old joystick Lexus previously utilised, but it’s still a bit of a bother.
The Audi, however, feels an absolute cut above, not least because it has two big touchscreens on the centre console – the top used primarily for navigation and audio, while the bottom is dedicated to features such as the climate controls, with some clever tricks and graphics to make it easier to adjust things such as the temperature quickly with the ability to turn the one-step buttons into sliders, and it will even transform to allow you to handwrite addresses out when entering a navigation destination.
Although both feature wireless phone charging pads, the Audi adds wireless Apple CarPlay to meaning there’s no need to bring a cord with you for any reason, although the Lexus does at least have a handy slot next to the shifter for standing your phone in.
Back to screens though, the Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster in the A6 is truly phenomenal, able to turn into a full map with an overlaid view of what’s around you using data from Google, while the digital cluster in the ES lacks any such tricks and isn’t quite as crystal-clear, even if it is nice.
The Lexus does counter, however, when it comes to standard features, with luxuries such as heated and ventilated front seats with memory for both, power-adjustable steering column with a two-stage heated steering wheel, head-up display, Mark Levinson premium audio system, powered sunroof, and a swathe of features for the rear seat including power reclining, powered rear sunshade with manual shades for the side windows, and controls for the infotainment system on the rear centre armrest.
Don’t think that the Audi, being a base-model, rubs it in, however, as features like heated front seats with memory for the driver and three-zone climate control still feature – it’s just missing some of the gimmickry, that’s all.
So while the Lexus may be bursting at the seams with features, the simple fact is that the technology the Audi packs in is easier to use, more advanced, and just works much better, and it still has enough of the features you’d hope for to keep you comfortable, with most of what the Lexus features being nice to have but ultimately not necessary. It’s a narrow victory here though, it should be noted.
Winner: Audi A6
Performance & Handling
While it may have been a close shave for the Audi before, it’s in the department of performance where it really shines brightest in this company, even in it’s least powerful or sporty guise.
With the 45 TFSI model on test packing a 2.0-litre turbocharged longitudinally-mounted four-cylinder petrol engine hooked up to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and rear-biased ‘quattro’ all-wheel drive, it’s easily the pick of the two when it comes to performance.
With 180kW and 370Nm on tap, it rockets its way from 0-100km/h in a surprisingly brisk 6.0 seconds, with the small engine seemingly not bothered at all by the weight of the big A6.
The ES 300h, meanwhile, which is the only variant available in Australia, plays the card of being the most forward-thinking drivetrain here, although it is the least powerful of the two.
Featuring Lexus Hybrid Drive technology – a renaming of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive – its 2.5-litre four-pot may be bigger, but it is only naturally aspirated, meaning it makes just 131kW and 221Nm on its own.
It is, however, tied to an electric motor that produces an additional 88kW and 202Nm, which together drive the front wheels through a lazy CVT automatic. Due to the way the two power sources deliver the force they make, however, it’s not as simple as adding those numbers together, so the total system output is just 160kW – a good number and close to what the base A6 makes, although it is still 20kW shy.
Wafting its way from 0-100km/h in 8.9 seconds, it’s far less ferocious than the A6’s eager turbo driveline, in which the dual-clutch bangs through the gears and the blower whistles away happily as it propels you along, always seeming to answer the call for more power.
Instead, the Lexus is all about smoothness. Sure, while there is a good burst of instant electric torque right off the line, the power quickly tapers off, but it never feels anything short of being at ease.
But while the Lexus only really masters smoothness, the turbocharged Audi has both that and aggression in its repertoire. It might be eager and bitey when you put everything in its most aggressive settings, but throw it back into Comfort mode and it’s equally as smooth, quiet and refined.
What’s more, when you’re cruising along in a more relaxed manner, it quietens to nothing thanks the fitment of a 48V mild-hybrid system. Yes, that’s right, it’s a hybrid too!
Well, sort of, that is. While the mild-hybrid system, which replaces the starter motor and alternator, isn’t able to send power to the wheels, it does allow for true engine-off coasting on flat and downhill surfaces to improve fuel efficiency. It seems to have done the trick, too, with it using around a litre less every 100km compared to the same engine without this system, which we previously tested in the A4.
The Lexus, of course, is more conventional by hybrid standards as it can drive the wheels on electric power alone, typically up to around 40km/h when getting off the line, and at sustained higher speeds when there’s enough charge in its small battery pack.
It’s clear that the Lexus’ ability to power itself electrically, plus the fact that two fewer wheels are being driven, makes it easily the more efficient car here – using 6.0L/100km during our time testing it as opposed to the Audi’s 9.1L/100km – but the Audi’s bigger fuel tank does afford it an even longer range between fill-ups.
But for the increased fuel consumption, which is still at an impressive figure all things considered, the A6 has what is easily the more inspiring drivetrain on offer.
What really cements its victory in this round, however, is the way it handles, which really does outclass the Lexus.
It’s not that the Lexus’ handling isn’t good – given how soft and supple its ride is and how light its steering is, it actually remains flatter through tight turns and feels less indirect through the wheel than expected – but the body roll that is present combines with the negative traits that long-wheelbase front-wheel drive cars exacerbate to make it feel the less polished of the two.
Namely, it’s a mix of understeer and lift-off oversteer that lets it down, but quite frankly, in this company, it was a hard ask for it to really compete in this regard at all.
With firmer suspension, quicker steering that offers more feedback, and, crucially, all-wheel drive, the A6 outclasses the ES dramatically in this regard. Remaining flat and feeling perfectly balanced, and responding better to command, it’s a very driver-friendly machine that feels far more rewarding from behing the wheel.
An easy victory, then, for the A6 in the performance department. Lexus ES and performance are words that don’t exactly belong in the same sentence together, although it does make more than the most of what it’s got to work with. This is really the department in which the Audi pulls furthest ahead – which, fittingly, it’ll do when the two are pitted against each other in a straight line.
Winner: Audi A6
Comfort & Practicality
Although the Audi’s superior tech may have helped it beat out the incredibly well-equipped Lexus earlier, the creature comforts the Lexus packs, while largely completely unnecessary when all is considered, do make for a more comfortable experience overall beyond just ride quality, in which both cars deliver impressive levels of comfort.
Things such as the slightly softer seats with additional features such as ventilation in addition to heating, the power-reclining rear bench, and the rear sunshades make it a far more relaxed car not just to drive, but particularly to be driven in.
From the Lexus’ rear seat, where you’ll find there’s far more legroom than in the Audi, you can get a real sense of appreciation as to why many of those who can afford to be chauffered around choose to be – and, certainly, the vast majority of ES’ I’ve seen out on the road have been bearing chauffer-driven vehicle plates. With the seat leant back, the sun kept out of your eyes, and the radio and climate controls set to just what you’d like, it truly is serene enough to have a quick kip in.
While the Audi isn’t uncomfortable in any way, it’s not really aimed at that same market, with it clearly being a more driver-focused car, so the rear seat really is just a place to sit, not an experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it’s why it loses out here.
The Lexus’ roomier interior and far larger interior storage areas also help it clinch this round when it comes to practicality as well, although, again, the Audi isn’t exactly lacking in general, but just in this company.
Winner: Lexus ES 300h
Dollars & Sense
If it seemed like the Lexus walked the last round in as if the goalposts were wide open, it’s when it comes to money that it’s a real whitewash of a victory for the ES.
Not only is it far cheaper to buy across the range – the ES 300h ranges from $60,488 up to $75,488 as tested here, while the entry-level A6 45 TFSI starts at $95,500 and runs all the way up to $116,000 with the V6 – but the Lexus is likely to be the cheaper to run, too.
While the Audi’s big fuel tank may give it impressive range and it may be economical given the A6’s size, the ES’ fuel consumption is significantly lower, and being cheaper to buy, the long-term savings only add up more.
A longer four-year warranty to the Audi’s three and cheaper parts with potentially more ready availability given the Camry drivetrain only drive that point home further. The Lexus is cheap to buy and very cheap to run, so its no surprise the likes of hire car operators, who will always be wanting to cut costs where possible, are already employing these.
Winner: Lexus ES 300h
It’s clear to see, then, that this luxurious Lexus really can give the Germans a run for their money, as even when pitted up against our new class favourite, it truly did hold its own.
There’s a lot to be said for its relaxed and cosseting ride, even if it is to the detriment of handling, as there also is for its incredibly efficient but unfortunately uninspiring hybrid drivetrain.
I’ve barely a bad word to say about the Audi A6, however, even if there are some areas it’s outclassed in. Sharp and responsive to drive, far faster and also more efficient than you’d expect, great to look at and a pleasure to be in, and packing some of the slickest tech around right now, there’s a reason why I called it the new large luxury sedan benchmark when I analysed it on its own.
While in this company it may lose out in regards to luxury aspects and running costs to a car that’s designed from the get-go to be spacious and luxurious, and cheap to buy and run, as an overall package, it simply feels more polished and well-rounded.
Make no mistake, the Lexus puts up a real fight and shows just how far Toyota’s luxury arm has come in recent years, and I don’t doubt that in a few more it could be a Lexus winning such a battle as this.
For now though, the Germans remain triumphant in the class that they defined, sculpted, and perfected. It might be more expensive, but the A6 feels worth every extra penny.
Overall winner: Audi A6
Full Disclosure: The vehicles tested here were provided by Audi Australia and Lexus Australia each for a week with a full tank of fuel, along with additional fuel expenses for the Lexus being covered. Additionally, our friends at MPF Detailing gave both cars a complimentary Express Detail prior to our photoshoot.