Lexus smallest sedan, the IS, is refreshed for 2021 with updated exterior and interior styling, improved driving dynamics and additional safety and technology features. The IS seats 5 passengers and is available with rear- or all-wheel drive. Competitors include the Acura ILX, Audi A3, BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CT4, Genesis G70, Infiniti Q50 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Two models are offered, the IS 300 and IS 350. IS 300 comes with one of two engines. Rear-drive models get a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 241 horsepower and mates to an 8-speed automatic. All-wheel-drive models get a 3.5-liter V6 that is rated at 260 horsepower and a 6-speed automatic. The IS 350 comes standard a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 311 horsepower. Like in the IS 300, rear-drive models get an 8-speed automatic while all-wheel-drive offerings get a 6-speed auto shifter.
Standard on the IS 350 is the F Sport trim package. It adds heated and ventilated sport seats, black headliner, aluminum pedals, leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, LFA-inspired instrumentation, dark gray interior trim and unique F SPORT exterior styling enhancements. IF 350 models also get 18-inch wheels and tires and an optional Adaptive Variable Suspension. A limited-slip rear differential is offered on rear-wheel drive IS 350 models.
Inside, the new 8-inch multimedia system features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and Amazon Alexa integration. Also standard is Lexus Safety System +, which includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, collision mitigation and emergency steering assist, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control, land-departure warning with lane-tracing assist, intelligent hi-beam headlights, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert. Prices start at $39,000 for the IS 300 RWD model and climb to $44,900 on the IS 350 F Sport.
On paper, the IS 350 engine compares favorably to competitors. The engine is buttery smooth and provides solid acceleration -- 0 - 60 MPH in about 6 seconds. While some competitors might be a tick or two quicker, the engine in the IS provides smooth and refined acceleration, you will quickly come to love and respect its linear and prompt power delivery.
Lexus offers four selectable drivetrain modes. The energy conservative Eco mode dulls throttle response and overall power demand leading to a somewhat sluggish driving experience but better fuel economy. The system defaults to Comfort. Sport mode is positioned for enthusiastic driving and the even more extreme Sport+ mode commands the transmission to hold the lowest gear possible.
The 8-speed automatic can be a mixed bag. Upshifts are smooth and unnoticed and downshifts are prompt, but the transmission is often caught in the wrong gear when accelerating out of a corner. This problem is easily remedied by selecting Sport or Sport+ mode or utilizing the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The IS can be a handful to drive in rain or snow thanks to its performance-minded tires. Even models with all-wheel-drive can search and scramble for traction on wet or snow-covered roads. It's best to swap out the performance tread for dedicated snow tires in the winter.
EPA ratings for the rear-drive IS 350 are 20 MPG city and 28 MPG highway and routine suburban commuting bares out the EPA numbers. Expect to average close to 25 MPG overall if you can keep a light throttle foot. Regardless of engine, all IS models require premium-grade fuel. Thankfully, all models have a largish 17.4-gallon fuel tank.
Though the 2021 Lexus IS would be considered a mid-cycle refresh rather than a redesign. Engineers focused heavily on improving vehicle handling dynamics by stiffening the overall structure, improving suspension geometry and removing unsprung weight. Those efforts paid dividends.
Regardless of model or trim, the IS provides a firm but comfortable ride. Obviously the 350 F Sport models have sharper reflexes. On twisting roads, there is little difference in road-holding abilities between the IS and a BMW 3-Series. Both vehicles stick to the road with tenacity in fast corners. The BMW might be a touch more refined on the race track, while the IS F feels slightly nimbler in urban driving situations. Body lean in quick transitions is near zero and the suspension does an excellent job of filtering mid-turn bumps, thereby eliminating wheel hop.
The electric steering feels as natural as any hydraulic system. It's quick and accurate and tracks straight and true on the highway. Braking power is top notch, at least on dry pavement, and the pedal is easy to modulate.
Traditional Lexus owners might fret over the IS's interior noise levels. There's noticeable tire roar on coarse surfaces and a fair amount of wind noise around the front pillars. The engine burbles at idle but cruises quietly.
With a complete refresh for 2021, the interior of the IS feels more modern and is still more business-like than your traditional Lexus. Door panels and dash top are nicely padded and there's a padded center armrest as well. In all, materials and assembly are appropriate for the $40,000-plus price tag.
Drivers face a large instrument panel that features digital speedometer and analog tachometer. Traditional audio and climate controls are blended nicely into a center-console display. Window, mirror, and lock switches are conveniently positioned on the driver-door armrest. The upgraded infotainment, with Android Auto and Apple Car Play support and larger display, is now fully up to modern standards. While you can still control the system with a touchpad, it is no longer necessary as touch is supported on the screen itself.
Front seats are firm and highly bolstered, so much so that larger drivers might find them constrictive. Leg room is generous, but head room is barely adequate for larger adults. The standard tilt-telescope steering wheel and height adjustable seat make it easy for most drivers to find a comfortable driving position. Visibility is restricted to the rear thanks to large rear-roof pillars.
As is common in compact-luxury sedans, rear-seat room is limited. Two adults have adequate head and marginal leg room if the front seats aren't pushed more than halfway back. Otherwise, the rear seats are best left to children. Seating adults three across would be a challenge.
Trunk space is limited to just 10.8 cubic feet. Believe it or not, that's average for this class and enough to accommodate a couple of large suitcases and a few overnight bags. Interior storage is limited to a small glove box and shallow center console bin.
Bottom Line - With a sporty and fun-to-drive nature, the Lexus IS remains true to its original mission. Given the significant improvements for 2021 the IS should be on every compact luxury sedan shopper's list. That said, the sweet spot in the lineup is the IS 350 F Sport. At just $45,000, it's a bargain compared to many competitors and provides plenty of excitement with enough of that traditional Lexus luxury and refinement to make it a tolerable daily driver. One note, the cramped rear seat and limited front-seat head room might be a deal breaker, but both are par for the course in this class.