Lexus and Acura bring out the big guns in their battle for mid-range supremacy.
Let's be honest: The Germans still dominate the compact luxury segment. Those companies have been building sporty sedans for decades and doing it very well. But there's enough room in that class for brands like Lexus and Acura to emerge as very enticing alternatives, and the pair has proven that over the years with their two most-notable offerings, the IS and the TLX.
Both companies have brand new (well, sort of brand new – more on that later) versions of their best-selling sedans for next year. The 2021 Lexus IS gets a refreshed look and some updated underpinnings, as well as extra options and packages, while the 2021 Acura TLX sports a totally new platform with a new turbocharged engine and a more modern interior. So with these alternatives looking to sway shoppers possibly uninterested in the Germans, we put these two cars side-by-side to see which one is best.
Lexus: Unless you put the 2021 Lexus IS side-by-side with the previous model, it's hard to tell exactly what's different. Lexus often relies heavily on the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” approach, and that applies here, too. But you can't really blame designers for keeping it simple, since the IS has always been a bit of a looker. The subtle details are what make this new one feel more modern and generally more appealing.
Lexus says pretty much all of the sheetmetal is new, but the IS does keep its controversial spindle grille with some slight tweaks to the mesh and size, adds slimmer triple-beam headlights to the front fascia, thinner side vents and sculpted details on the body, and new taillights out back. Our F Sport tester also gets trim-specific 19-inch wheels, unique front and rear bumper treatments, and an optional carbon fiber wing. And the new Infrared Red paint job atop the matte black wheels is a great combo.
Overall we love the way the latest IS looks, much like we loved the way the previous model looked. The compact, aggressive design has always been a unique alternative visually in a class that consists of a lot of the same general styling – and that carries over to the 2021 model, only it's all done much better.
Acura: Once upon a time, the Acura TLX was a “compact” premium luxury sedan. But the 2021 TLX has grown – by about 5.0 inches over its predecessor, actually – and now measures in at a near-mid-size 194.6 inches. By comparison, the 2021 Lexus IS is 185.4 inches long, even after a growth spurt. Technically the Acura is a tweener. But we mention all this because the proportions of the new TLX look odd by comparison.
The hood of the 2021 TLX is atypically long (even for a mid-sizer), and hard to see over while driving. Even though the wheelbase of the TLX isn't much larger than that of the Lexus (113.0 inches versus 110.2 inches), there's a lot of metal between the axles. And while Acura did push the cabin further back onto the platform to improve the dash-to-axle ratio, which does help, but there’s still too much overhang.
At least the new design cues are great. Last year's diamond pentagon grille carries over, but with noticeable improvements to the shape and styling. The headlights are slimmer and much sharper, while the body sides are more sculpted, and the rear end has a nice tapered look. With the A-Spec package, as tested, the TLX also gets unique 19-inch wheels as well as chrome and black accents on the body. But while the new TLX does look much improved, Lexus gets the nod here for a more aggressive and unique look.
Lexus: Lexus barely touched the inside of the new IS. This cabin is pretty much a direct carryover from the previous model, with only minor improvements like a new 10.3-inch screen and some ash wood trim pieces. But the Lexus IS has always had a comfortable and clean interior, so we're not offended at all by the familiar space.
The overall layout makes the Lexus IS one of our favorite places to sit. The cabin envelops the driver like few other sedans can, making for a genuine cockpit-like feel, while high-quality materials like leather and aluminum cover virtually everything within reach. The F Sport seats in the 2021 IS are updated, and they are phenomenally bolstered and perfectly form-fitting. We can't think of any seats in this segment that feel better – and they're not even real leather. These buckets wear a soft and high-quality “NuLuxe” material that feels surprisingly close to real cowhide.
Our only gripe is that Lexus packages some of its nicer F Sport seating options, like the Circuit Red faux leather and metallic black trim, into a $3,800 Dynamic Handling package, and it requires you to select from a few very specific exterior colors. Why?
Acura: Unlike the IS, the inside of the Acura TLX is a night-and-day improvement over the previous model. The A-Spec–specific red Milano leather seats are super comfy and offer great bolstering. The flat-bottomed steering wheel also wears nice red stitching, and there are high-quality aluminum buttons and fixtures, and real leather throughout.
But we have two big problems with the inside of the TLX, the first being the shifter. This isn't a TLX-specific issue, but all modern Honda and Acura products use the same slightly confusing button shifter. Until you spend some time with it, it's difficult to locate the reverse, drive, and park functions without looking. Not to mention it takes up too much real estate on the center console.
Our second issue with the inside of the TLX is how unfocused it feels. The seats are solid, but the seating position relative to the positioning of the steering wheel, center console, and door panels are all out of whack. Your six-foot-tall author had to sit higher than usual to see over the massive hood we talked about, but it felt like we were towering over the center console. And even then, the door panels were still just below neck level. For those reasons, we have to give the IS the advantage here as well.
Lexus: The base Lexus IS gets the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder as last year, while our IS 350 tester sports the optional 3.5-liter V6… also the same as last year. Lexus didn't bother updating either of its engines, the V6 still producing a sluggish 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet. As we said in our first drive review, the IS is easily one of the most underpowered V6 options in the class, producing little power unless you drive around everywhere in Sport S+ mode – it’s dead below 4,500 rpm.
The Lexus IS is still solid dynamically, at least. Cornering is flat and smooth, with little body roll and great steering feel. And for 2021, the arrival of the optional Dynamic Handling package adds things like adaptive dampers and a limited-slip differential, which helps, even if the improvements feel marginal on our rear-wheel-drive tester.
But above all, the latest Lexus IS is a highway cruiser – don't let the word “Sport” in the title fool you. The hyper-absorbent suspension just soaks up miles and pavement without shrugging, and sound deadening is sublime, even at high speeds. While it may not be the most dynamic in the class, the Lexus IS certainly is one of the most comfortable.
Acura: The TLX is easily the sportier car of the two. Although it doesn't have a V6 like the Lexus (that's reserved for the upcoming Type S), the A-Spec's turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four feels punchier than the IS's lethargic six-cylinder. This engine only produces 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet, but it offers better low-end torque and more mid-range power. You don't have to hammer the throttle like you do in the Lexus to get the TLX up to speed.
The TLX isn't perfect in the corners – it has too much body roll, noticeable understeer (thanks, front-wheel-drive platform), and tires that just don't offer enough grip. But at least the Acura still feels more dynamic and more fun to fling around than the Lexus. The steering is super sharp and not too heavy in the most aggressive Sport mode, plus the firmer suspension yields great feedback without being backbreaking.
Leave the TLX in Comfort mode, and it's almost as good of a highway cruiser as the Lexus IS. The suspension soaks up everything, the steering is light and easy to maneuver, and those leather seats we talked about earlier deliver great comfort. While neither the Acura nor the Lexus meet our mark of “sports sedan,” at least the TLX A-Spec feels sportier.
Lexus: Stop trying to make the trackpad happen Lexus, it's not going to happen. The 2021 IS gets the same hated infotainment controller as before, only now it's paired to a newer (though, not larger) 10.3-inch touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections. The adoption of CarPlay and Android Auto for the first time in the IS is a huge plus, even if the systems are frustratingly difficult to use with the trackpad – it's just so challenging to scroll.
The LFA-inspired moving instrument cluster also carries over, which is a neat feature, and it's joined by an 8.0-inch digital screen with more customizable options. But there aren't a ton of really advanced features like you'll find elsewhere in the class, and it costs an extra $2,750 just for navigation.
Acura: Like the Lexus, the TLX also gets a touchpad controller for its infotainment system, dubbed the “True Touchpad Interface.” It's the same setup as on the RDX where, instead of scrolling, you simply place your finger on the square controller where you want to click on the screen, and it highlights the desired item. The difference is, this setup works way better than that of the IS.
Spend a few minutes fiddling with the Acura touchpad and it's very easy to use, even while driving. The 10.2-inch screen is crystal clear, the home screen is clean and easy to navigate, and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections come standard. That said, as in the IS, CarPlay and Android Auto don't mesh well with the Acura touchpad, and it does force you to scroll. Also, the TLX does not have a touchscreen, and even if it was a touchscreen, this one sits further back in even deeper the dash than on the IS. But this still feels like the more competent of the two setups.
Lexus: Like many newer Toyota and Lexus products, the IS gets the company's latest Safety System Plus 2.5. That setup includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, high-beam assist, road-sign assist, and an advanced adaptive cruise control system. Believe it or not, this is the first Lexus IS ever with adaptive cruise control, and it does brake all the way down to zero.
In our brief on-road test, the Toyota/Lexus safety systems work as they typically do – very well. The IS remains centered in the lane with limited ping-ponging, offers smooth braking with adaptive cruise engaged, and even navigates its way around more aggressive curves using solely the lane-centering tech. Finally the IS gets the proper safety it needs to compete in this segment.
Acura: The TLX also receives an impressive selection of standard safety equipment equal to that of the IS. AcuraWatch comes standard, and that includes automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, lane centering, adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, and traffic sign recognition.
AcuraWatch works just as well as the Lexus Safety System 2.5 Plus on the road. With the adaptive cruise button ticked, the TLX maintains a steady pace with the vehicle in front of it, and with lane centering active, the car stays squarely in the middle of the lane with little ping-ponging. It’s hard to determine a winner – both of these safety systems are equally good.
Lexus: The 2021 Lexus IS starts at a relatively affordable $39,000. But the version pictured here – a loaded 350 F Sport RWD – costs costs $55,220 after adding options like premium paint ($595), a power moonroof ($1,100), triple-beam LED headlights ($1,250), navigation ($2,750), and a few others. That ain’t cheap for a car that is essentially just a heavy facelift.
Acura: The 2021 Acura TLX is more affordable than the Lexus to start, costing just $37,500. And even with options like the $4,000 Technology Package, the $2,750 A-Spec package, and the $2,000 Super-Handling all-wheel-drive system, our tester comes in at just $47,775 – that’s nearly $7,500 more affordable than the IS with nearly the same equipment. Big point to Acura here.
In the luxury space, Lexus and Acura have always played second fiddle to the more established German brands. And these two cars, the 2021 IS and 2021 TLX, aren't changing that. But that's okay, because both sedans have their proper place in the segment as more-affordable yet still feature-rich alternatives. Though, if we had to choose, one of them definitely stands out over the other.
The 2021 Acura TLX feels like a fully fleshed out, sporty luxury sedan while the "new" IS feels like much of the same. Fresh styling, modern tech, better pricing, and improvements in performance and handling make the TLX the clear winner of this comparison in our mind, even if neither of these cars is perfect.
|2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport||2021 Acura TLX A-Spec SH-AWD|
|Engine:||3.5-liter V6||Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4|
|Output:||311 Horsepower / 280 Pound-Feet||272 Horsepower / 280 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Eight-Speed Automatic||10-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Rear-Wheel Drive||All-Wheel Drive|
|Weight:||3,880 Pounds||4,028 Pounds|
|Efficiency:||19 City / 26 Highway / 22 Combined||21 City / 29 Highway / 24 Combined|
|Cargo Volume:||10.8 Cubic Feet||13.5 Cubic Feet|