A solid luxury sedan that still can’t get over the hump.
In the land of compact luxury sedans, the Lexus IS has always been a solid option, but never a standout. Even when the absurdly good IS F was still around (RIP), better alternatives like the BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 overshadowed it. And unfortunately for Lexus, even with the arrival of the “new” IS this year, that sentiment still rings true.
The 2021 Lexus IS is the same middle-of-the-pack luxury option that it's always been. This certainly is not a bad car by any stretch; the IS is extremely comfortable, more stylish now for 2021, and offers a comprehensive suite of standard safety equipment that many of its competitors lack. But only the exterior and some interior bits change for 2021. Otherwise, the carryover powertrain options and outdated infotainment interface leave something to be desired (plus this vehicle does get pricey with options).
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Initially, you might not be able to tell the difference between the 2021 IS and last year's model. But look closer; the front fascia is now noticeably sharper than it was on its predecessor. Slim triple-beam headlight fixtures with embedded LEDs decorate each corner, there's a larger grille with diamond-shaped mesh, and the side vents are more angular. For the F Sport package specifically, there are even special front bumper treatments, a carbon fiber rear spoiler, and 19-inch matte black wheels.
From there, the side body lines are more aggressive. There's a hard crease that extends from the side sill to the rear fender that we really like, joined by a more noticeable beltline that runs like a quick brush stroke front to back. And the rear end now wears a full-width light bar with angular LED light fixtures on either side. Last year's Lexus IS didn't look bad, but this one looks way better.
The inside of the new IS isn't all that different, but it's not that last year's version needed much work anyway. The 10.3-inch touchscreen now sits atop the dash, rather than embedded within it – which we could take or leave. The ash wood trim pieces adorning the door panel and steering wheel (specific to the $4,200 Dynamic Handling package) are a nice touch, and the updated F Sport seats look good in Circuit Red faux leather. But the cabin does still look a bit dated comparatively.
save over $3,400 on average off MSRP* on a new Lexus IS
Even with the F Sport package and the 19-inch wheels, the Lexus IS still rides well. The suspension setup is mostly a carryover from last year, but the new-for-2021 adaptive suspension (only available as part of the $4,200 Dynamic Handling package) feels silky smooth Eco and Normal modes and only stiffens up a bit in Sport S and Sport S Plus. Even in those sportier drive modes, the ride is taut but not backbreaking, meaning you can drive it around town in the most aggressive settings.
The seats in the IS are some of the best in both the segment and in general. The red “Nuluxe” faux leather F Sport buckets, in this case, fit like a perfectly sized driving glove – and they're both heated and ventilated with the $1,900 Comfort package equipped. The cushioning is superb and the bolstering is excellent, plus the seating position itself makes you feel like you're in a literal cockpit. The location of the steering wheel and the way the dash envelops the driver connects you to the car.
The only ding against the IS in the comfort department is the rear passenger space. The 38.2 inches of front headroom is solid for the class and the 44.8 inches of front legroom bests most alternatives, like the BMW 3 Series, the Audi A4, the Acura TLX, and most others. But it's the back seat where the Lexus IS struggles. The rear entryway is tight, headroom is a middling 36.9 inches – Audi, BMW, Volvo, and a few others are better – and rear legroom is among the worst in its class. The backseat of the IS simply isn't a comfortable place to sit over long distances.
Even with modest updates on the exterior for 2021, Lexus didn't address one of the car's most pressing issues: the dreaded infotainment touchpad controller. The same wonky, difficult to use, frustrating setup from last year carries over, only now it controls a new 10.3-inch touchscreen with standard Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility. The new screen is crystal clear, but it's still not any easier to navigate.
There are two technology options on the IS: navigation or a premium 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. You can either bundle them together – as our tester has – at a cost of $2,750, or select them individually. Navigation alone is a $1,670 option that you should skip (given the baked-in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), but the upgraded audio system feels worth the $1,080 asking price – it's really good.
The same LFA-inspired shifting instrument cluster also carries over from the previous model, now joined by a more comprehensive 8.0-inch digital screen. The new screen allows easy access to things like audio, fuel economy, and navigation readouts, all accessible via a cleanly laid out suite of steering wheel buttons.
For a car that looks so sporty on the outside with the optional F Sport package, the Lexus IS is at the bottom of the pack for performance. The gutless engine is our biggest gripe with this car – more so than the cursed touchpad. The 3.5-liter V6 produces a measly 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet – same as last year – and feels absolutely sluggish below 4,500 rpm (torque peaks at 4,800 RPM). Looking at numbers alone, the V6 in the IS has less torque than the four-cylinder BMW 330i (295 lb-ft) and just barely as much as the four-cylinder in the Acura TLX (280 lb-ft). All told, the Lexus IS will hit 60 miles per hour in a slow 5.6 seconds.
The standard eight-speed automatic transmission is inoffensive at best. It shifts anonymously in low-speed driving situations, but does tend to feel a bit slushy at higher speeds. Buyers can, though, at least choose from either rear- or all-wheel drive. Our car sports the former RWD setup with a limited-slip differential and the optional $3,800 Dynamic Handling package.
In our first drive, we felt that the Dynamic Handling package didn't add much to the IS's overall handling, and a few months on, it still feels too pricey of an ask. But after more time in the IS with the optional handling pack and the limited-slip diff, there is a noticeable difference in overall competence.
The Lexus IS takes corners with more precision and smoothness than any of its predecessors. The body is flat, the steering is accurate and weighted well, and overall, it's a pretty enjoyable thing to fling into corners. There are still more dynamic and more fun options out there – like the BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70, and Alfa Romeo Giulia – but the IS does have some redeeming qualities with all the optional bits and pieces equipped.
Standard on all versions of the 2021 Lexus IS is what the company calls its “Safety System+ 2.5.” That baked-in suite includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, as well as a pre-collision warning system. More advanced equipment – like adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, road-sign assist, and lane-departure alert with lane-centering technology are extras on lower trim levels, but standard here on the F Sport.
Lexus – and Toyota as a whole – offer some of the best standard active-safety equipment in the business. The adaptive cruise control works flawlessly on the highway and the lane-centering technology too, keeping the IS perfectly centered in the lane at all times. The only option on our tester is the parking assist with automatic braking, rear pedestrian detection, and a helpful panoramic view monitor – all a $1,400 option.
The IS 300 with the optional V6 achieves a modest 20 miles per gallon city, 28 highway, and 23 combined. Those numbers are just okay for the class, falling below our 30-mpg-combined target. But the IS is one of the few remaining options with an available V6 in the competitive set.
Of the four-cylinder alternatives, the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 both get up to 30 mpg combined, while the Acura TLX gets up to 25 combined. Compared to the Lexus IS’s more-powerful and sportier six-cylinder alternatives, the BMW M340i gets 25 combined, while the Mercedes-AMG C43 sedan achieves 22 mpg and the Genesis G70 3.3T gets just 20 combined.
The cheapest way to get into the IS F Sport is $42,900 for the rear-wheel-drive model tested here. All-wheel drive adds an extra $2,000 on top of that. There are three standalone packages available on the F Sport model: navigation ($1,670), navigation with the Mark Levinson premium audio ($2,750), and the priciest of the bunch, the F Sport Dynamic Handling ($4,200).
Our car has the navigation with Mark Levinson audio and the F Sporty Dynamic Handling, plus standalone options like parking assist with panoramic view ($1,400), triple-beam headlights ($1,250), a power moonroof ($1,100), and parking assist with automatic braking ($600). All told, our car costs $55,050, after destination and handling fees.
But all things considered, the Lexus IS is actually well priced comparatively; the Genesis G70 3.3T costs $46,200 to start – and although they’re both better equipped and considerably quicker – the M340i starts at $54,700 and the C43 sedan costs $56,500 out of the box. So even with expensive options, the IS is still one of the more affordable six-cylinder options in the class.
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