2021 Lexus IS Review

2021 Lexus IS - A sweet spot for luxury, performance, and style.


The IS has been competing in the compact luxury sedan segment since 1999. It's currently in its third generation that debuted for 2014, but received a significant makeover for 2021 with significant styling changes, updated technology, and improved driving dynamics.  For 2022, the IS returns with new packages and options as well as an all-new high-performance version. Lexus Safety System +2.5 comes standard with features such as forward collision warning, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection and more.

The IS comes as either a rear or all-wheel drive model in three variations known as the IS 300, IS 350, or the new IS 500. IS 300 models have two engine options; rear drive models get a turbocharged 2 Liter 4 cylinder that makes 241 horsepower mated to an 8-speed automatic. All Wheel Drive models get a 3.5L V6 that gets 260 horsepower and a 6-speed automatic. The IS 350 comes standard with a 3.5L V6 that makes 311 horsepower. The IS 500 comes with a naturally aspirated 5.0L V8 that delivers 472 horsepower, 395 lb.-ft. of torque and goes 0-60 in 4.4 seconds.

This Lexus starts at $38,625 for an IS 300 RWD and can climb as high as $61,000+ for the IS 500 F Sport Performance Premium model. The IS sits in a highly competitive class of vehicles that include the Acura ILX, Audi A3, BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CT4, Genesis G70, Infiniti Q50, Mercedes Benz C-Class, and Volvo S60. After spending a week in the IS 350 F Sport along with some recent track time in the IS 500 at Road America, here's what stands out...

V8 Power (+)

For 2022, Lexus has given the enthusiasts a vehicle to get very excited about and I had the chance to take the new IS 500 around the track at Road America. The IS 500 dials up the performance factor with a V8 that cranks out 472 horsepower and 395 lb.-ft. of torque. To no surprise, this compact luxury sedan is fast and gets up there instantly.  The naturally aspirated V8 pairs with a quad exhaust system with a nice growl. In a world where we're seeing new silent electric vehicles, this one is pure fun. The car handled like a dream around the track with crisp steering and a balanced ride.

The IS 500 uses the same 8-speed automatic transmission with lockup torque converter found in the RC F.  It also features drive mode select with Sport S and Sport S+ which enhance the performance. The focus of this model is on performance and it has exclusive 19" lighter weight split spoke Enkei alloy wheels wrapped in 265/35/R19 Bridgestone Potenza tires. Production will be limited, but this is a great addition to the IS lineup.

Powertrain (+)

My extended time spent in the IS 350 F Sport with the 3.5L V6 was an enjoyable drive. The V6 is extremely smooth and grounded to the pavement. Acceleration was quick going from 0-60 in less than 6 seconds thanks to the 311 horsepower. It seamlessly shifted through the 6-speed automatic but also included a manual mode via the gear shifter or steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. The manual mode allows the driver to push the RPMs higher to the redline and really get the car cruising.

The suspension is well-tuned to absorb road imperfections and provide a comfortable ride. Steering is responsive and it's more than capable for zipping around tight corners without gliding off track. Lexus found a sweet spot with the IS that blends a sporty feeling drive with sophisticated comfort.  The car exudes confidence in its ability to maneuver with a well-balanced mix of power, steering, and brakes.

Exterior Style (+)

Last year the IS received updated styling  that has a sporty lower stance with restyled lights, a larger spindle grille, and new wheels. The change is more of an evolution from the previous model rather than an all-new design... which is a good thing. All trims of the IS have an athletic, but sophisticated look to them which starts up front. Physically, the IS gets slightly wider with muscular fenders that extend to accommodate larger wheels and tires. The signature Lexus spindle grille gets even bigger with the Lexus badge at the center. F Sport models get a sportier design with an all-black grille.  The headlights are sleek and accentuate the character lines from the grille, up the hood, and around the fenders.  They feature a sharp L-shape LED lighting signature that pairs with available triple-beam LED headlights.

The side profile is sleek with a design that emphasizes the front hood. A low character line stems from the front wheel and kicks up to the rear to further emphasize the muscular fenders. I've always liked the rear designs of the IS and the new look may be the best iteration. Most notable is the inverted L-shaped blade-style lightbar that spans across the decklid. It ties the overall design together like a nice bow that has a very distinct illuminating light signature at night. The lower portion of the rear fascia is dressed in black giving it an aggressive look with room to accommodate the quad-exhaust on the IS 500. Lexus nailed the proportions with minimal overhangs, appropriate roof height and an overall width that make this car very photogenic.

F Sport (+)

The F Sport brand dates back to 2007 when Lexus first launched performance parts for the IS at SEMA. It has since signified sporty, performance-oriented versions of Lexus vehicles. In regards to the IS, F Sport is only available on the IS 350 and IS 500 (as of 2021) and features a variety of visual and performance modifications that set it apart from other models. Outside design cues include a unique front and rear bumpers, grille surround, rear lip spoiler, rocker molding and special badging.  The IS 350 F Sport is fitted with unique wheels, a cool air intake with sound generator, and an F Sport exhaust and diffuser.  

Available on F Sport models is a Dynamic Handling Package that includes an adaptive variable suspension, lighter 19" forged-alloy BBS wheels in matte black, a torsen limited slip differential, and a unique carbon-fiber rear spoiler. Inside accents include stainless-steel scuff plates on the door sills, a leather wrapped shifter, pedals, and unique F Sport seats available in Circuit Red. The entire package creates an exciting IS that both looks and drives the part.

Front Seats (+)

Hopping inside, the front passengers will be swallowed by comfortable and sporty seats. Standard on all models is synthetic leather with power-adjustable seats. There's decent head and leg room to accommodate both the driver and front passenger. Visibility is good up front but rearward visibility is somewhat hampered by the c-pillars. Available heated and ventilated front seats work well and controls are well-placed.

Rear Seats (-)

If you've forgotten that the IS is a compact sedan, the rear seats will remind you. Head and legroom are tight, especially with three passengers. This was one of the first vehicles my three kids complained about space when seated 3 across, and I've had seemingly smaller vehicles in the past such as the Hyundai Elantra.  Nonetheless, this is a compact sedan so expectations for a lot of rear passenger room was low to begin with and is pretty standard in the segment. The back of the rear seats fold down for access to the trunk which provides 10.8 cu. ft. of cargo space.  I'd personally sacrifice the space for the overall aesthetics and size of the car.

Interior layout (+)

The IS is filled with Lexus quality materials that are premium and luxurious.  The set-up is modern and functional with well-padded materials and everything within reach. Small details such as the traditional analog clock serve as a nice statement piece. The center console features a traditional gear shifter and available steering wheel mounted paddle shifters allow for manual gear selection.  Adjacent to the gear selector are drive mode controls that can be adjusted via the dial or buttons.  And below the shifter is the Lexus touchpad that operates the multimedia touchscreen much like a laptop mousepad.

Digital Cluster (+)

The digital cluster in the IS 350 F Sport has nearly the same gauges found in the Lexus LFA supercar. The cluster features a singular digital circular display that moves with a sliding bezel as you scroll through various information options. The screen is simple, clear and easy to read.

Technology (+/-)

One of the updates last year was the technology which brought the IS much more current with a touchscreen multimedia display that's six inches closer to the driver. The standard screen is 8-inches, but also available is a 10.3-inch screen on vehicles equipped with navigation or the Mark Levinson Premium Audio package. The system integrates with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa  via a cord connection and during my time with it I had no connection issues. It can be controlled via steering wheel controls, touchscreen, a center console touchpad, and voice controls. Below the touchscreen are standard buttons to operate the climate system as well as dials for both volume and tuning.  The system was user-friendly and easy to operate.

An available panoramic view monitor system fills the multimedia screen with multiple high-resolution views of the car's surroundings.  Outside cameras are mounted to the front, sides and rear of the vehicle to provide a full bird's-eye view around the car. Moving and see-through view options create images of the vehicle's surroundings as an on-screen guide for parking and tight maneuvers. Missing from the IS option list are features such as wireless mobile device charging and a head-up display which are common in competitors and more main stream vehicles.

CD Player (-)

If you're feeling a little nostalgic and want to play that old burned CD of music from college, then you're in luck. Lexus continues to offer a CD player in the IS. I can't recall the last time I even pulled a CD out so I'm not sure why Lexus bothers taking up space and the extra electronics to even offer this anymore!? The "menu" buttons for radio, media, and seek are all in the same section as the CD Player rather than around the multimedia touchscreen.

Fuel Economy (-)

When the IS arrived with a full 17.4 gallon tank it offered around 370 miles of range. Fuel economy is estimated at 19/26/22 MPG city/highway/combined. After a week of suburban driving, I averaged 19 MPG. The IS 300 gets slightly better fuel economy while the IS 500 is the least efficient. Overall fuel economy is lower than average for the class and it does recommend premium fuel.

Safety (+)

Standard on all models is Lexus Safety System + 2.5 which includes the following driver assist features:

* Pre-collision system with pedestrian detection
* All-Speed dynamic radar cruise control
* Lane tracing assist
* Lane departure alert with steering assist
* Intelligent high beams
* Road sign assist
* Blind spot monitor w/rear cross traffic alert

Final Statement (+)

The IS has evolved since its inception while staying true to its core. This compact luxury sedan has some attitude with aggressive looks that have already... and will continue to age well. Lexus has refined the powertrains to make it sportier and the addition of the V8 powered IS 500 is proof. It's a comfortable car to drive with an interior that caters to the driver built from quality materials. I have always liked the IS and after a week in the 350 F Sport, my love for this one is further justified. There are a lot of great cars in this segment though that all have their own unique twist so be sure to get behind the wheel of a few.

Final Statement (+)

The IS has evolved since its inception while staying true to its core. This compact luxury sedan has some attitude with aggressive looks that have already... and will continue to age well. Lexus has refined the powertrains to make it sportier and the addition of the V8 powered IS 500 is proof. It's a comfortable car to drive with an interior that caters to the driver built from quality materials. I have always liked the IS and after a week in the 350 F Sport, my love for this one is further justified. There are a lot of great cars in this segment though that all have their own unique twist so be sure to get behind the wheel of a few.

First Impression Summary:

Test Vehicle:
2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
Exterior Color: Iridium
Interior Color: Circuit Red Leather
Notable Options:
Intuitive Parking Assist ($1,400), F Sport Dynamic Handling Package
($3,800), Triple Beam LED Headlights ($1,250), Navigation/Mark Levinson
Sound ($2,750), Power tilt moonroof ($1,100), and more.
Price as tested: $58,040 (with destination charge)

Jim OBrill

Jim is Director of Marketing for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and Chicago Auto Show and a co-host of Drive Chicago Radio on WLS 890 AM Chicago. His passion for cars started young and he’s often referred to as the ‘car-guy’ among family and friends. As a former auto detailer, he has an eye for identifying solid used cars and tags along on many car buying adventures. Early in his career he worked at several car dealerships in various areas of the business. As a co-host on Drive Chicago and member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Jim has had opportunities to attend track school and drive vehicles on multiple circuits such as Road America and Gingerman Raceway. With a background in photography, taking pictures of vehicles has always been a hobby.

Jim also enjoys the trails and taking trucks like his 4Runner off road. He has a special appreciation for older cars and can often be found spending free time at cruise nights or home washing one his four vehicles. Jim resides in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three kids. Follow Jim on Instagram at @jpcars22 for new vehicle content or @forgotten_survivors.312 for shots of older cars still on the streets of Chicagoland.