On Autos: Lexus’ pleasant IS feels dated against slick Audi A4

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The 2017 Lexus IS is a generally pleasant entry-luxury sedan with a dated dashboard. (Brady Holt/The Current)

On a daily basis, most of us are confronted by the rapid advancements in small display screens. Our phones and tablets are bright, crisp and responsive, and they offer wide-ranging and constantly updating applications.

Most of today’s cars haven’t kept up. Although intricate infotainment systems are widely available, even many luxury models can’t rival the aesthetics or functionality of an iPad. A car is often locked in with old-school hardware and software that’s difficult or impossible to update.

The 2017 Lexus IS doesn’t match today’s best premium cars for the aesthetics or user-friendliness of its interior. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Lexus IS, a compact sports sedan priced from $38,820, is one such example. The Lexus’ exterior is modern and stylish, and its rear-wheel-drive-based platform delivers respectable ride and handling composure (all-wheel-drive is also offered). Moreover, you can upgrade from the standard four-cylinder engine to a V6 on the IS 300 or IS 350 models for just $41,195 — some $10,000 less than you’d pay for a competing six-cylinder Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

But the dashboard hasn’t been overhauled since the current IS generation debuted as a 2014 model — and it’s aged badly against some truly outstanding fresh competitors. As with most Lexus models, the infotainment system relies upon a mouse-like remote controller to make selections on the screen, and it can be cumbersome to use during even the best of times. Moreover, the optional navigation system looks like a throwback to 15 years ago.

Beautifully executed display screens dress up the well-built minimalist interior of the 2017 Audi A4. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Lexus’ drawbacks are in sharp relief against the competing Audi A4, which was fully redesigned for 2017. Audi paid particular attention to in-dash technology, and the A4 dazzles like a true modern luxury sedan should. The cabin features two particularly crisp display screens — one at the center, and one replacing the traditional gauge cluster. Both can be customized to present a variety of information, including gorgeous Google Maps satellite images. The extra flash doesn’t compromise everyday functionality, either, and the interior features exceptional build quality and a modern minimalist design.

On the road, the A4 is more competent than amazing. You aren’t blown away by a powerful engine, extra-sharp handling, or a particularly smooth or quiet ride. But all are competitive by the high standards of the entry-luxury sedan class.

The 2017 Audi A4’s subdued exterior styling belies a thoroughly modern cabin. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Audi’s tested 252-horsepower four-cylinder engine is quick but aurally unexciting, delivering the hushed whir typical of four-cylinder luxury cars. The tested IS 300 V6 offers similar horsepower (255), but particularly under heavy acceleration the engine has a richer melody that some luxury buyers would be reluctant to pass up. You pay for the extra cylinders at the pump, though: The EPA rates the IS 300 at a mere 21 mpg in mixed driving, compared to 27 mpg for the A4.

The Lexus does have some further advantages over the Audi. Drivers frequently carrying adults in the back seat will appreciate the extra rear legroom in the IS. Some buyers will find the A4’s exterior design too cautious for an all-new model, and might favor the Lexus’ bolder approach. And the IS offers more features for the money — even though the Audi’s base price of $35,850 undercuts the Lexus’, the A4’s price tag rises more quickly as you add options.

The 2017 Lexus IS 300 offers crisp exterior styling and relatively affordable V6 power. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Note too that if you aren’t wedded to the sound of a six-cylinder engine, the four-cylinder IS 200t gets a more acceptable 26 mpg. However, unlike on the A4, the V6 is standard equipment if you want all-wheel-drive on the Lexus.

But while the IS makes a decent enough impression when viewed in isolation, it’s hard to accept the gulf between its interior and the A4’s. The Audi is simply the more impressive luxury car.

Shop both models against the ultra-posh Mercedes-Benz C-Class; the Lexus also faces a strong competitor in the Infiniti Q60, another model that beats the Europeans for interior space and value. Meanwhile, note that a versatile five-door version of the A4 is now available as the A5 Sportback.