2021 Lexus IS

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2021 Lexus IS Test Drive Review: Familiar But Better

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.

Read in this review:

7.9
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2021 Lexus IS Changes: 🚙What’s the difference vs 2020 IS?

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.

Pros and Cons

  • Much improved styling
  • Simplified driving experience
  • Composed ride
  • Many driver-assist safety technologies
  • Typical Lexus build quality
  • Improved infotainment system
  • German competitors are faster
  • Tight rear-seat space and small trunk
  • Automatic gearboxes feel dated
  • Touchpad controller still frustrates
  • Updates can't completely hide that this is an aging sports sedan

Best Deals on 2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS Trims

See trim levels and configurations:

Trim Engine Transmission Drivetrain Price (MSRP)
IS 300
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
8-Speed Automatic
Rear-Wheel Drive
$39,050
IS 300 AWD
3.5L V6 Gas
6-Speed Automatic
All-Wheel Drive
$41,050
IS 350 F SPORT
3.5L V6 Gas
8-Speed Automatic
Rear-Wheel Drive
$42,950
IS 350 F SPORT AWD
3.5L V6 Gas
6-Speed Automatic
All-Wheel Drive
$44,950
See All 2021 Lexus IS Trims and Specs

2021 IS Exterior

2021 Lexus IS Front View CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Rear View CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Driving Front Angle CarBuzz
See All 2021 Lexus IS Exterior Photos

Dimensions

  • Length 185.4 in
  • Wheelbase 110.2 in
  • Height 56.5 in
  • Max Width 72.4 in
  • Front Width 62.2 in
  • Rear Width 62.0 in
  • Curb Weight 3,715.0 lbs

Exterior Colors

  • Atomic Silver
  • Caviar
  • Ultra White
  • Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0
  • Infrared
  • Grecian Water
  • Cloudburst Gray
  • Iridium
  • Matador Red Mica
  • Eminent White Pearl

2021 IS Performance

2021 Lexus IS Rear Angle View CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Gear Shifter CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Engine CarBuzz

Engine and Transmission

  • Engines
    2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas, 3.5L V6 Gas
  • Transmissions
    6-Speed Automatic, 8-Speed Automatic
  • Drivetrains
    AWD, RWD

Handling and Driving Impressions

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.

2021 IS Interior

2021 Lexus IS Dashboard CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Steering Wheel Controls CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Steering Wheel Details CarBuzz
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Seating and Interior Space

  • Seating capacity
    5-seater
  • Front Leg Room 44.8 in
  • Front Head Room 38.2 in
  • Rear Leg Room 32.2 in
  • Rear Head Room 36.9 in

2021 IS Trunk and Cargo Space

2021 Lexus IS Rear Passenger Seats CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Seat Belt CarBuzz
2021 Lexus IS Trunk Space CarBuzz
  • Trunk Volume
    10.8 ft³

2021 IS Safety and Reliability

Warranty

  • Basic:
    4 Years \ 50,000 Miles
  • Drivetrain:
    6 Years \ 70,000 Miles
  • Corrosion:
    6 Years \ Unlimited Miles
  • Roadside Assistance:
    4 Years \ Unlimited Miles
  • Maintenance:
    1 Years \ 10,000 Miles

US NHTSA Crash Test Result

  • Frontal Barrier Crash Rating
  • Rollover Rating

Verdict: 🏁Is the 2021 Lexus IS a good car?

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.

Check out other Lexus IS Styles

2021 Lexus IS Comparisons

Lexus ES Lexus
Lexus GS Lexus
CompetitorHorsepowerMPGPrice (MSRP)
Lexus IS241 hp21/31 mpg$39,125
Lexus ES 302 hp22/32 mpg$40,000
Lexus GS 311 hp20/28 mpg$51,065

2021 Lexus IS vs Lexus ES

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.

See Lexus ES Review

2021 Lexus IS vs Lexus GS

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.

See Lexus GS Review

2021 Lexus IS Popular Comparisons

The most popular competitors of 2021 Lexus IS:

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2021 Lexus IS Video Review

Check out some informative Lexus IS video reviews below.

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