It's facelifted, but it's still missing something.
The 2021 Lexus IS recently received a major facelift. We held out hope for a complete redesign, but the facelift addresses some of the biggest flaws with Lexus' smallest sedan. The new IS arrives with a simplified lineup with either a four-cylinder turbo or one of two V6 engines. The F Sport variant is now available only on the 350 model, and the 350 model is only available as an F Sport.
But are the changes for 2021 enough to keep the IS relevant in a shrinking compact sedan market that now includes new competitors from Acura, Alfa Romeo, Cadillac Genesis, and Volvo? We tested the 2021 Lexus IS in the top 350 F Sport guise to find out how the new changes help it stay relevant. Here's what we liked, and what we would change.
The IS was always a pretty cool looking car, but the facelifted 2021 model is smoother and more refined. The styling still looks pretty aggressive for this segment, especially in the F Sport trim, but the front end is softer than before and should be less polarizing as a result. Lexus slightly altered the signature spindle grille and headlights to give the IS a wider stance. At the back, a connected taillight bar further accentuates the car's wide proportions.
We particularly love how the F Sport looks in this lovely shade of Infrared. An optional F Sport Handling package adds black forged BBS wheels, which enhances its curb appeal. It may not be an all-new car, but the facelift is effective.
Even compared to other compact sedans, the IS isn't considered particularly large. The back seats only offer 32.2 inches of legroom, and the trunk is pretty tight as well, with just 10.8 cubic feet of space. Upfront, long-legged drivers will feel cramped thanks to the car's wide center tunnel. Lexus has also failed to rearrange the center console in any significant way, meaning the IS still lacks any convenient or accessible storage spaces for a phone or other items.
Seeing as last year's IS didn't even have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the new model's infotainment is a massive step up. While not the best system on the market, the new 10.3-inch infotainment system at least looks like it belongs on the market in 2020. In addition to CarPlay and Android Auto, Lexus included a touchscreen, so drivers no longer have to use the frustrating Remote Touch controller. As an option, the infotainment can be paired with a superb-sounding 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system.
Most of the sheet metal may be new on the 2021 IS, but all of the engine options are carryovers. The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the IS 300 produces 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is average but not class-leading in this segment. Oddly, adding AWD to the IS 300 swaps the four-banger for a 3.5-liter V6 producing 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Adding AWD to any IS also swaps the eight-speed transmission for a six-speed box.
We tested the IS 350 F Sport, which uses a more potent V6 producing 311 hp and 280 lb-ft torque. These numbers still aren't very impressive next to turbocharged rivals, and they yield below-average acceleration times of 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds (5.7 with AWD). Lexus is considering dropping its 5.0-liter V8 into the IS, though this variant has yet to be confirmed.
The 2021 Lexus IS is far from the best performer in its class, but at least it won't break the bank (compared to its rivals). The IS 300 starts at $39,999, making it one of the more affordable options in the segment. With just a small price increase to $42,900, the IS 350 F Sport seems like the best deal in the lineup. Even our fully-loaded IS 350 tester with the Handling Package rang in at just over $55,000, which is around the starting price of a BMW M340i. Yes, the BMW is much faster for the money would cost over $70,000 when similarly equipped.