|✓ Sharper styling||☓ Tight quarters for larger people|
|✓ Great handling||☓ So-so interior|
|✓ A+ on safety features||☓ Archaic engine/transmission combo on AWD models|
2021 Lexus IS: Overview
While a growing number of U.S. buyers are going cuckoo for crossovers, there’s still a vibrant competition going on in the world of luxury sports sedans. The 2021 Lexus IS faces off against perennial rivals like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 and the BMW 3 Series. What’s more, even we Americans are jumping into the fray with an overhauled Cadillac CT4. Lexus’ aging offering needed to change to have any hope of competing, and fortunately changes we are getting for this new model year. However, if you were expecting a ground-up reimagining of the brand’s entry-level model, this isn’t it. Are the changes enough to make it worth your time, though?
In a word — yes. I’ve learned over the past few years not to count Lexus out even if their models fall a bit behind the European competition in terms of modernity. The Japanese automaker takes another approach to refinement and truly honing a platform, and that shows in many of the latest models. Even when their cars don’t bombard you with the bleeding edge in automotive tech, I usually prefer a Lexus at the end of the day because everything just works.
In fact, the 2021 Lexus IS is a more cohesive package thanks to some notable styling and handling tweaks. At $39,000 to start (before destination), it’s not bad value either.
Refined, but not radical styling
Unless you’re actively shopping this segment, I wouldn’t blame you for missing the styling changes with the 2021 Lexus IS. Fundamental elements of the old car’s design remain: the large spindle grille and checkmark LED running lights, for example. This time around, though, Lexus integrated the daytime running lights into the headlights, rather than running them underneath the headlight and into the front bumper. The immediately noticeable change comes when you head around to the back, where the LED taillights have seen a more dramatic overhaul. The changes make the IS look more distinctive, but not in-your-face. Sticking with the headlights, Lexus’ premium triple-beam LED units are an $1,250 option.
If you are looking for a more aggressive approach, you can still get an F Sport model. That brings more aggressive bumpers and new 19-inch wheels, while the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package takes things another step further. The $4,200 package ($3,800 for RWD models) adds BBS wheels to the standard F Sport, specially-tuned adaptive suspension, a carbon fiber rear spoiler, Torsen limited-slip differential and more drive modes.
Inside, the 2021 Lexus IS brings quality of life improvements, if not a complete overhaul. The dashboard has been redesigned with circular HVAC vents and the 10.3-inch infotainment screen perched atop the dashboard. It’s also a touchscreen now, so you don’t have to use the admittedly frustrating touchpad for absolutely everything. Again, some old-school touches remain like the traditional analog clock and the gear shifter for either the 6-speed (yes, it’s still there) or 8-speed automatic transmission. Heated and ventilated front seats are available throughout the entire range, but it is part of the $1,950 optional Comfort Package on IS 300 model.
The best (and worst) of the interior
One of the biggest strengths the 2021 Lexus IS range brings to the table is the sheer amount of safety tech on offer. Lexus Safety System 2.5+ comes standard. That includes automatic pre-collision braking and steering assist with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, lane tracing assist, automatic high-beams, road sign assist and dynamic all-speed cruise control. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert also come as standard fare. On the infotainment front, you also get Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa support.
With a Glazed Caramel color scheme matching the “Grecian Water” blue exterior (other options are available), the interior is a nice-looking place to be. If you’re a larger driver, though, it’s not necessarily the most comfortable place to sit — particularly in the V6-equipped all-wheel drive models. The powertrain layout in AWD IS models leaves a large hump directly behind the accelerator pedal, meaning you have to work your right foot around it when you get into the car. It’s something you could get used to, but this generally isn’t a large car. The quarters are already a bit cramped, and taking away some more real estate from the driver made me question whether I could be comfortable with an all-wheel drive IS as a daily driver.
The base 2021 Lexus IS 300 gets by with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. That unit puts out a decent, but not mind-blowing 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It pairs up to an 8-speed automatic transmission, making it the most fuel efficient option in the lineup. While it does manage 25 mpg combined, it is also the slowest among the IS lineup, with a 6.9 second 0-60 time.
The 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD — the car Lexus provided us — packs a more potent 3.5-liter V6 under the hood. Power goes up to 260 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. The 8-speed also makes way for an older 6-speed unit, a decision Lexus says brings the best balance between performance and economy for this specific model. That said, the 0-60 time is still half a second slower (at 6.1 seconds) than the rear-wheel drive IS 350. You do get paddle shifters to work through the gears, but the dated combination means the car doesn’t feel especially peppy, even with the sportier drive modes. Fortunately, the IS 350 turns up the dial again, eking out 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque from that 3.5-liter V6.
Handling is where the 2021 Lexus IS truly shines, though. While the powertrain feels outdated, the all-wheel drive system offered superb grip in every condition I threw at it. The chassis is more rigid this year, while suspension tweaks engineers made to this updated model are right on the money. It’s definitely more agile, but the IS manages the one-two punch of also being comfortable when you just want to drive normally. Thanks to a lower unsprung weight, this car also feels way less ungainly pushing through the corners than some of its tech-laden and inert-feeling competition.
Verdict: Should you buy a 2021 Lexus IS?
Even with the changes, I’ll admit the 2021 Lexus IS still falls behind the competition in some areas. The car’s styling and handling ability are spot-on. It’s not devastatingly expensive (though it’s not massively cheaper than its rivals), and it does bring that solid feeling that comes with owning any other Lexus.
However, the IS still has a hill to climb, because technology is the new battlefield for these sports sedans. While it’s a great handler, it’s not as if its European competition is terrible. It needs more to stand out, and Germans are bringing the rain when it comes to standout infotainment systems, next-level driver aids and awesome, if gimmicky, selling points that make the IS feel just a bit quaint by comparison. If that’s your thing, though — again, you just want a car that works — the 2021 Lexus IS definitely fits that bill.
My only real apprehension is driver comfort. All-wheel drive is nice to have here and Colorado, but that downside it brings in that driver’s side hump on top of the already tight quarters is a turn-off. I’d still strongly recommend trying one out, and if you don’t have that issue then see how the car’s handling feels against the competition before pulling the trigger.