The original Lexus IS debuted back in 1998 as a rebadged version of the Japanese-market Toyota Altezza to rival luxury sports sedans like the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Today, the IS is still in its third-generation; we say 'still' because it first arrived back in 2013; an eternity in car years. In the time since the current IS hit showrooms, BMW has launched a new 3 Series, Mercedes introduced a new C-Class, and new entrants like the Alfa Romeo Giulia, Cadillac CT5, and Genesis G70 have joined the fray, making life tougher for Lexus.
While the competition has heated up, sedan sales have been dwindling and the above-average IS sank below its rivals due to its age. For the 2021 model year, Lexus gave the IS its most significant facelift yet; though it's still not an all-new car. The engines, a turbocharged four-cylinder and two V6s, remain the same as last year, and most of the interior layout carries over as well. There are some new, much-needed technology additions inside though, and it's priced to undercut the Europeans. Spending a few days with the 2021 IS 350 F Sport with the new F Sport Dynamic Handling Package should prove whether the update is effective.
The Lexus IS had begun falling behind the pack and to remedy this, the brand has introduced the comprehensively updated 2021 Lexus IS sedan. Although not an all-new model, it's a more thorough facelift than we're used to seeing. Outside, the latest IS looks smarter thanks to restyled headlights, an L-shaped blade-style light bar at the rear, and a revised spindle grille. The Lexus Driving Signature philosophy has been employed for the new IS, with changes made to improve driving engagement. To that end, the unsprung weight has been reduced, there are new coil springs, and body rigidity has been improved. The three engines used before are retained, topped by a 311 horsepower V6 with no turbos or superchargers. In the cabin, there are new materials along with an available 10.3-inch touchscreen, while the updated Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 is smarter than before and can detect a preceding cyclist or pedestrian. Finally, the IS 300 F Sport trim falls away, with the F Sport now only offered on the IS 350 with no more non-F Sport IS 350 model.
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The latest Lexus IS could never be described as a conservative car, and the latest facelift adds even more character to this compact luxury sedan. In front, there are new slim bi-LED headlights with daytime running lamps that flank an even larger spindle grille with a three-dimensional, polyhedral pattern. All versions have rain-sensing windshield wipers and LED taillamps, with a blade-style rear light bar that spans the width of the body. On the base vehicle, there are 18-inch alloy wheels, while the F Sport derivatives have 19-inch alloys with a dark metallic finish. An optional F Sport Dynamic Handling Package swaps the standard 19-inchers for forged matte black BBS staggered wheels. Premium triple-beam LED headlights are available, as is a carbon fiber rear spoiler on the F Sports.
The latest Lexus IS has grown by over an inch in length compared with the model it replaces, and it's wider as well. Dimensions include a length of 185.4 inches, a width of 72.4 inches, a height of 56.5 inches (56.7 inches on the AWD versions), and a 110.2-inch wheelbase. The base variant has a curb weight of 3,715 pounds, while the 350 F Sport in AWD guise is the heaviest at 3,880 lbs.
The base model Lexus IS is offered in a choice of seven colors. Those that won't add anything to the final bill are Atomic Silver, Caviar, Matador Red Mica, and Grecian Water. For $425 extra, Eminent White Pearl, Iridium, and Cloudburst Gray are availed. The F Sport versions deviate by dropping Eminent White Pearl and Matador Red Mica, but this trim does add Ultra White, Infrared ($595), and Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 ($595). The Infrared hue is perhaps the most striking exterior shade available of all, as it is shared with the flagship LC coupe.
The 2021 Lexus IS can't compete with its German rivals in terms of pure acceleration, no matter how much you resort to driving with a firmly planted right foot. For example, the base IS 300's turbocharged four-cylinder manages 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, directing power to the rear wheels, but it takes 6.9 seconds to complete the 0 to 60 mph run. By comparison, the base BMW 330i needs only 5.3 seconds to do the same. Even the quickest model in the Lexus lineup, the IS 350 F Sport in RWD guise - which is what we had on our test drive - takes a sluggish 5.6 seconds to hit 60 mph and has the same 143-mph top speed as other models in the range. Curiously, with AWD, this model takes 5.7 seconds to reach 60. Based on our Lexus IS review, it's evident that the absence of forced induction on the top end means that the IS simply can't match the performance of its rivals in the US market. The BMW M340i xDrive with a 382 hp turbocharged inline-six can reach 60 mph in a far more impressive 4.1 seconds.
Starting off the range is the IS 300 which is RWD and uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine with 241 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, allied to an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Confusingly, the similarly named IS 300 with AWD trades the four-pot for a 3.5-liter V6 with 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, along with a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Both F Sport versions use a more powerful 3.5-liter V6 with 311 hp and 280 lb-ft; once again, the RWD version uses an eight-speeder with paddle shifters and the AWD variant reverts to a six-speed auto.
Even though the four-cylinder engine now features adaptive transmission control for improved responsiveness, it doesn't produce more power than last year's model, so it remains an average performer. To its credit, the more powerful V6 endows the IS with a decent turn of speed and it feels much more enjoyable than the base four-pot, but it still lacks the grunt of its rivals, especially in the low RPM range. We've never sampled the IS with the six-speed transmission and AWD, but the eight-speed fairs decently when you treat it like an automatic and leave it to its own devices. When you try to coax it to shift faster using the paddles, it can often resist your commands, only shifting when it feels ready and letting the engine soar into the rev limiter.
Lexus loves to drone on about all of the subtle improvements it made to the 2021 IS, adjusting little details to make it more enjoyable to drive. The body is more rigid, there's less unsprung weight, and the coil springs are 20% lighter. But, if we're being honest, you likely won't notice any of these changes unless you are a skilled driver who just drove the new IS back-to-back with the old one. We tested the IS 350 F Sport with the Dynamic Handling Package, and it reminded us a bit too much of the last IS 350 that we reviewed. That isn't to say that there aren't elements to enjoy about the IS's driving experience.
For starters, if you just finished test driving a BMW or Mercedes and thought that both were too stiff, the compliant suspension (even on the F Sport) could be the antidote to heal your broken back. Lexus seems to understand that its F Sport customers spend far more time on the road than on a race track, so it tuned the suspension accordingly. The steering still feels quite natural and, at a brisk (but not racing) pace, the chassis still feels well-balanced. We particularly enjoyed the changes Lexus made to the Active Sound Control to make the wail of the V6 sound even more rampant. The turbocharged rivals may outspeed the IS, but Lexus still offers a sonorous V6. If you are the type of person who likes to drive in a hurry on bendy roads, we do recommend the Dynamic Handling Package. For $4,200 (or $3,800 on an AWD model), the package adds a variable suspension, Torsen limited-slip differential, and Sport + driving mode.
The most efficient Lexus IS is, unsurprisingly, the IS 300 RWD with its four-cylinder engine. This model returns 21/31/25 mpg across the city/highway/combined cycles. However, both the BMW 330i (26/26/30 mpg) and the base Audi A4 (25/34/28 mpg) are markedly thriftier. The IS 350 RWD manages 20/28/23 mpg, while the least fuel-efficient models are the IS 300 AWD and the IS 350 AWD, both of which return an identical 19/26/22 mpg. Every Lexus IS has a 17.4-gallon gas tank, which means that a maximum mixed driving range of 435 miles will be possible.
Although quite sportily styled and trimmed in suitably luxurious materials, there are still signs that Lexus has tried to dress up an outdated interior. The buttons littering the center stack come across as cluttered, while the touchpad controller for the infotainment system still isn't as user-friendly as it should be. Some improvements have been made this year, such as a touchscreen that's now mounted a few inches closer to the driver, while a clearer 10.3-inch screen is available. On the F Sport, a graphic interior trim pattern adds to the sporty cabin's aesthetic appeal. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, power-adjustable front seats, a Wi-Fi hotspot, lane tracing assist, and dynamic radar cruise control.
In the spectrum of compact luxury sports sedans, the IS has always ranked on the smaller side. It offers seating for five people, though the person sitting in the middle rear seat won't be thankful for the privilege. The rear seats offer only 32.2 inches of rear legroom, which trails rivals like the 3 Series and C-Class, each with 35.2 inches. Headroom is at least generous and, up front, the bolstered seats in the F Sport do a great job hugging you in place without being uncomfortable; though you may want to try for yourself before taking our word for it.
All versions of the IS come with NuLuxe synthetic leather interior trim. The lower two trims have black metallic trim while the top F Sport versions introduce black geometric trim and embossed trim inside the doors, along with aluminum sport pedals. On the base model, upholstery colors include Black, Rioja Red, and Glazed Caramel. Moving up to the F Sport avails colors like White and Circuit Red, while a package upgrade introduces ash trim.
Unfortunately, the Lexus IS doesn't come close to many rivals in this area. As discovered in prior reviews, the trunk measures a mere 10.8 cubic feet, making it far smaller than the BMW 3 Series' trunk that measures 17 cubes. With the 60/40 rear seats folded, there is obviously more space available, but in this configuration, the 3 Series can hold the equivalent of about four additional carry-ons.
In the cabin, the door pockets are rather small, but the center console storage compartment and dual cupholders for the driver and front-seat passenger are more useful. At the back, F Sport versions offer a fold-down center armrest housing two pop-out cupholders.
Even at its base price, the Lexus IS is equipped with dual-zone automatic climate control, push-button ignition, an illuminated entry system, and eight-way power-adjustable front seats. More impressive is the array of safety gear that includes a backup camera with dynamic gridlines, rain-sensing windshield wipers, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, dynamic radar cruise control, road sign assist, intelligent high beams, and lane departure warning. Moving up to the F Sport derivatives adds a ten-way power-adjustable driver's seat, heated/cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and a rather gimmicky G-force display. These versions also have sportily styled instrumentation. On the options list are items like a power moonroof, intuitive parking assistance, and a surround-view monitor. Another reminder of the fact that this is fundamentally an older sedan is the absence of wireless device charging.
Infotainment is a bad word with Lexus. The company has struggled in this area ever since it released the first Remote Touch interface. Granted, the IS still includes the cumbersome touchpad but it now offers a touchscreen interface, so you almost never have to use the fiddly controller. The standard eight-inch screen sits closer to the driver to make it easier to touch, and the available 10.3-inch screen sits a bit closer still.
Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa integration finally join the features list in the IS, while models equipped with the larger screen also get access to an available Mark Levinson premium audio system with 17 speakers and 1,800 watts.
So far, both the 2020 and 2021 versions of the Lexus IS are recall-free. However, the 2019 Lexus IS 300 was recalled for a fuel pump that could potentially fail. Over at J.D. Power, the 2020 Lexus IS holds an overall rating of 82 out of 100 (with a specific reliability rating of 81/100), which ranks it as one of the best and above the competition like the Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Furthermore, the IS has a great track record with very few blemishes and problems to its name.
If anything does go wrong, the IS is covered by a four-year/50,000-mile limited warranty and a competitive six-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty. Also included is a corrosion perforation warranty for a period of six years, regardless of mileage covered. Finally, complimentary scheduled maintenance is covered for the first year or 10,000 miles.
The new Lexus IS has yet to be fully evaluated by the NHTSA, but the 2020 version impressively scored a full five-star overall safety rating, while the 2021 has attained four stars for frontal crash and five for rollover protection. The IIHS awarded the 2020 Lexus IS with a spread of Good ratings for all crashworthiness tests, although the headlights were rated as merely Acceptable, which could improve with 2021's redesigned headlamp clusters.
Lexus hasn't skimped when it comes to safety, with every IS fully loaded with the latest safety technologies. There are no less than ten airbags dotted around the cabin including knee airbags and rear-seat side airbags, plus the sedan comes with a rearview camera (including dynamic gridlines), traction control, tire-pressure monitoring, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. Under the umbrella of the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5, the IS is crammed with gear like a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert linked to steering assistance, lane tracing assist, road sign assist, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control, and intelligent high beams. Options include intuitive parking assistance with automatic braking, and rear pedestrian detection. A panoramic-view monitor displaying images of the area surrounding the vehicle is another option.
The 2021 Lexus IS looks fresher than before and, on the inside, it finally brings features that it's been sorely lacking for years. All in all, we'd say the IS is a successful facelift, but it would have felt more relevant two or three years ago. The competition in the compact luxury sedan segment is simply too good right now. Lexus seems to be making a value play with the IS, pricing it at $39,000 and lowering the price of the 350 F Sport model to a reasonable $42,900. There's still a problem though.
Several competitors cost less and can compete with the performance of the F Sport model even with two fewer cylinders. Options like the Genesis G70 and Volvo S60 undercut the Lexus on price, and offer more performance at the higher end. Lexus will still capture buyers who value the company's famed reliability and low running costs over the dice roll of the European brands, though customers who lease might want to take a chance elsewhere. There may be better overall options on the market, but following this update, the IS no longer feels like a car you have to settle for simply as a reliability play. It's handsome, comfortable, quick enough, and finally has technology that feels relevant in 2020. With an improved engine lineup, we could see the updated IS shining brightly.
The 2021 Lexus IS price has gone up by nearly $500 at entry-level, with the IS 300 beginning at an MSRP of $39,000 in the USA. With AWD, the IS 300 will cost $41,000. Following this is the IS 350 F Sport at $42,900 and the IS 350 F Sport AWD at $44,900. These prices exclude a delivery and handling charge of $1,025, along with tax, licensing, and registration costs. The base Lexus IS will cost less than the BMW 3 Series, which begins at $41,250, but the Genesis G70 is more affordable with a starting price of $36,000.
For 2021, the Lexus is offered in various configurations divided between three main trims: IS 300, IS 300 AWD, and IS 350 F Sport, the latter available in both RWD and AWD as sub-configurations. The base IS 300 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 241 hp and 258 lb-ft. All other variants employ 3.5-liter V6 engines, with the IS 300 AWD generating 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, and both F Sports managing outputs of 311 hp and 280 lb-ft. Both RWD models use an eight-speed automatic gearbox, while the AWD versions use six-speed automatics. Paddle shifters are standard across the lineup.
The IS 300 comes with bi-LED headlamps, LED taillamps, 18-inch alloy wheels, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Inside, NuLuxe faux leather upholstery covers the seats, while the front chairs are power-adjustable. Further standard items include an eight-inch touchscreen display, a Wi-Fi hotspot, dual-zone climate control, and the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 suite with technologies like pedestrian detection and road sign assist.
The IS 300 AWD gets a V6 engine and all-wheel drive so it is faster to 60 mph. Other than trading the eight-speed automatic for a six-speeder, this version shares its spec sheet with the IS 300.
On the IS 350 F Sport, a bolder appearance is achieved by way of unique styling elements such as bespoke bumpers, a lip spoiler, and 19-inch alloy wheels with a dark metallic finish. Inside, the cabin gains unique trim along with specs that comprise a ten-way power driver's seat, heated/ventilated front seats, and a heated steering wheel. The IS 350 F Sport AWD shares its list of features with the preceding trim, but the addition of a heavier all-wheel-drive system marginally increases the 0-60 mph time to 5.7 seconds.
On the base IS 300, the $1,950 Comfort Package adds a heated leather-trimmed steering wheel, a power moonroof, heated/cooled front seats, and geometric interior trim. The $1,670 Navigation Package adds navigation, a remote touchpad, and a larger 10.3-inch touchscreen. One of the pricier upgrades is the Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package at $2,750, adding a 17-speaker sound system, the larger touchscreen, machined-aluminum control knobs, and more. For $1,400, intuitive parking assist with a panoramic-view monitor and rear pedestrian detection can be added, but this requires the Comfort Package as well.
The IS 350 F Sport is available with the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package, with pricing for this upgrade indicated at $4,200. It includes an F Sport-tuned adaptive variable suspension, 19-inch forged alloy matte black BBS wheels, a carbon fiber rear spoiler, and a Torsen limited-slip rear differential. One of the more appealing individual upgrades is the power tilt-and-slide moonroof at $1,100 on the F Sports; on lesser trims, this feature is only available via a full package upgrade.
For $3,900 more than the base model, we think the IS 350 F Sport is easily worth the upgrade at $42,900. We'd stick with rear-wheel-drive so as to not drop down to a six-speed automatic and we'd check the box on the Dynamic Handling Package for $4,200. The forged BBS wheels look phenomenal, especially when paired with the Infrared paint color. We'd then add the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system separately for $1,080 since Android Auto and Apple CarPlay can handle navigation duties. As described, an IS 350 Sport rings in just below $50,000. Any more than this price and the German options feel like a better buy, though it's worth noting that the six-cylinder 3 Series and C-Class cost significantly more.
Starting at just $900 more than the IS, the bigger ES is a less sporty but more practical Lexus sedan. Although the IS actually offers a bit more leg- and headroom for the driver and front-seat passengers, the ES is a far better alternative for carrying passengers in the back, where it provides a massive seven inches of additional legroom and 2.3 inches more legroom. In the trunk, you'll find less space for luggage in the more compact IS. The greater sporty intent of the IS is evident when it comes to the base engine, where the ES is saddled with a rather lethargic 2.5-liter four-pot, but an available 302-hp V6 gets the ES closer in performance to the IS, despite being FWD. The ES rides beautifully, but nothing about it is especially sporty. If you prefer your luxury sedan with a bit more spark, the IS is for you, but the ES is far better for accommodating people and luggage.
Starting at over $50,000, the Lexus GS is an altogether more luxurious and practical luxury sedan than the IS. Sadly, Lexus discontinued the GS in August 2020 as sales of the large executive steadily declined. So, what does a used Lexus GS offer you over and above a brand new IS? Unlike the IS, the GS was only offered with a 311-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine. At 192.1 inches in length, the GS is a full 7.7 inches longer than the IS, but that means it has a much bigger trunk (18.2 cubic feet to just 10.8 cubes) and more rear-seat legroom. The GS is also more lavishly equipped than the IS, with standard features like a power moonroof, a power rear sunshade, and navigation with a 12.3-inch color screen. However, you can't buy a new one anymore and the fresh-faced IS is more enjoyable to drive, but if you need the extra space, an almost-new GS isn't a bad choice.
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