Under that aggressive new look, the latest Lexus IS isn’t much different.
At first glance, the 2021 Lexus IS certainly looks brand new. The styling is cleaner, the proportions are better, and when you start perusing the options list, there’s way more on offer than there was previously. But a lot of carmakers like to pull this trick of promising an "all-new" vehicle when said vehicle, well, isn't new at all. That's the case with the latest Lexus IS.
The stuff that actually matters (at least, to us) — chassis, engine, transmission, drivetrain, etc. — much of it carries over unchanged from the outgoing IS. The 2021 IS is what we'd call a “comprehensive facelift,” even though the company tries to convince us otherwise. That means Lexus took the same seven-year-old car, which was just okay, and gave it a new look, a different touchscreen, and a minor suspension tweak and called it a day. And that simply won't cut it in this class for a few reasons.
Needs More Juice
Even with the optional 3.5-liter engine (versus the base turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 241 horses), the Lexus IS is underpowered – borderline slow for a V6 option in the class. Lexus touts some throttle improvements and better low-end torque for the new year (plus overall fuel economy improves to 22 miles per gallon combined), but the carryover engine on our IS 350 tester gets the same 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet as before. And although those numbers sound decent on paper and comparable to what you get elsewhere in the class, the application feels less than stellar in the real world.
The IS is super sluggish around town and has little oomph below 4,500 rpm (torque peaks at 4,800 RPM). And it takes driving around in Sport S+ mode with your foot buried in the pedal to even keep the revs that high. Some four-cylinder alternatives we've driven feel as quick, if not quicker – the base four-cylinder BMW 330i xDrive gets to 60 in a quoted 5.3 seconds, versus Lexus's claimed 5.6-second time.
Rear-wheel drive comes standard on both the base IS 300 and the IS 350, but our car carries the optional all-wheel-drive system. While power to all four wheels adds more grip, it also adds more weight; the IS 350 F Sport with AWD tips the scales at 3,880 pounds before options. No wonder it feels so damn slow.
The Lexus IS is a competent cruiser that should be comfortable over long stretches.
New for 2021, at least, is the F Sport Dynamic Handling package, a $3,800 option. Supposedly, it makes the IS more agile by adding adaptive dampers and a limited-slip differential. And having the latter feature is nice. But even with the new handling option, the IS still feels about as dynamic as the “old” one, which is to say – not very. Maybe the limited-slip diff on a rear-drive version will feel different. Otherwise, this car is still as decently flat and smooth in the corners as it’s always been, and it delivers solid, weighty steering. But there's still nothing inspiring about how this car moves.
That said, if you're not in the market for pure excitement, the Lexus IS still does a lot of things exceptionally well on the road. For one, it has one of the best rides you'll find in the entire class. The suspension is buttery smooth and soaks up even the most imperfect pavement. The sound deadening is sublime even at highway speeds. The eight-speed automatic is quick and inoffensive, and when you're not hammering it, the Eco and Normal drive modes deliver a comfortable steering feel and a smooth throttle. Relaxed acceleration aside, the Lexus IS is a competent cruiser that should be comfortable over long stretches.
The new IS also looks great – not just good, great. The evolutionary Lexus styling includes a distinctive new front fascia, headlined by a slimmer triple-beam headlight fixture with embedded LEDs (replacing last gen's “swoosh” accents), a larger grille with diamond-shaped mesh, thinner side vents, and on our tester, F Sport–specific front bumper treatments.
The side profile looks even fresher, with more definition on the door panels – most noticeably a hard crease that extends up and over the rear fender, which we really like – and a slightly larger greenhouse. The taillights are new as well, slimmer and more upright than they were prior. Plus our F Sport tester’s 19-inch matte black wheels, Infrared paint, and a carbon fiber spoiler make for a perfect spec. We wouldn't get it any other way.
Updated exterior aside, it's hard to tell what's new in the cabin. The 10.3-inch touchscreen now sits atop the dash for easier access, rather than embedded within it, which gives off a slightly more modern feel inside, while the Ash wood trim pieces on the door panel and steering wheel (the latter specific to F Sport models) add a touch of class. Otherwise, most everything looks and feels the same – not that that's a bad thing, the inside of the Lexus IS has always been a great place to sit. The materials are still superb, the layout is pretty flawless, and the cabin is angled around the driver, which makes for a great seating position.
The updated F Sport seats are our favorite part of the interior. Like other Lexus buckets, these are arguably the best you'll find in the entire class – and they're not even real leather. The pair wears a very high-quality “Nuluxe” material, which offers a surprising amount of cushion, great bolstering, and a very form-fitting feel overall. They're like perfectly sized (fake) leather gloves for your whole body.
It's hard to tell what's new in the cabin.
The biggest technological improvement inside of the 2021 Lexus IS is that updated 10.3-inch touchscreen, which now comes with standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility, and offers navigation as a $2,750 option. The screen is crisp and the graphics are crystal clear, but CarPlay and Android Auto are still wired connections – no wireless option yet – and the dreaded touchpad controller carries over.
This is still one of the more frustrating systems to use. At least the LFA-inspired moving instrument cluster also carries over from the previous model, joined by an 8.0-inch digital screen. The neat feature offers simple readouts for things like entertainment, fuel economy, navigation, and more, all accessible at the touch of a steering-wheel-mounted button.
Safer Than Ever
Standard on the 2021 Lexus IS is the brand's latest Safety System Plus 2.5, which includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, high-beam assist, road-sign assist, and an advanced adaptive cruise control system, a first for the IS. And the adaptive cruise system control works very well.
The lane-centering tech is a touch aggressive but keeps the IS centered with little ping-ponging, even navigating its way around more aggressive curves in the road, while distance indicator offers smooth throttle inputs and braking all the way down to zero. It's still not as good as, say, in the BMW 3 Series – it struggles to read the lane on occasion – but finally the IS offers similar tech to what you get in the competition.
If Looks Could Sell
At the end of the day, looks alone will probably sell plenty of people on the 2021 Lexus IS. That's understandable, as this is one of the most stylish options in the entire class. But apart from an improved exterior and more active safety equipment, the new Lexus IS just isn't better than the alternatives elsewhere. It needs more power and better handling – even with the Dynamic Handling option – and the technology (specifically the dreaded touchpad) still leaves something to be desired.
At least for 2021, Lexus prices the IS at an affordable $39,900 to start. But a near-fully loaded IS 350 F Sport with all-wheel drive like the one we tested will set you back pretty significantly; our car costs $55,220 after tossing in options like premium paint ($595), a power moonroof ($1,100), triple-beam headlights ($1,250), navigation ($2,750), and a few others. That's still a pricey proposition for a luxury sedan that feels like too much of the same.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD