2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: Needed Updates Put the IS Back in the Game

The "new" Lexus IS isn't all that new. But the improvements it brings are more than welcome. 

Patrick George

Do you remember sedans? Do you? Once the staple of the American automotive landscape, the venerable three-box, four-door configuration has all but faded into irrelevance in recent years. Trucks, SUVs and crossovers are so dominant that when automakers—already strapped for cash as they dump billions of dollars into electrification and autonomy—aren't canceling their sedans outright, they're just keeping them afloat with modest updates instead of all-new versions. Case in point: the "new" 2021 Lexus IS.

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The last time we got a new IS, Lexus's ostensible competitor to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, it was 2013. Seven years on, we still can't say we're getting a completely new one. The IS has instead been heavily upgraded for the 2021 model year, bringing changes to its exterior, technology package, suspension and more. To diehard fans of Toyota's homegrown performance cars hoping for an upstart sport sedan that can really take it to the Germans, that is a disappointment.

But the good news is that these upgrades were not only badly needed, but they were also worth it. They fix some of Lexus's biggest issues in recent years, and they do enough to keep the IS feeling fresh enough.

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The 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport, By the Numbers

  • Price: $44,900 base, $52,850 as tested
  • Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6, AWD, Six-Speed Paddle-Shift Automatic
  • Horsepower: 311 hp 
  • Torque: 280 lb-ft
  • Fuel Economy: 19 City / 26 Highway / 22 Combined
  • Cargo Capacity: 10.8 cubic ft.
  • Curb Weight: 3,880 lbs

What's Important

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The 2021 Lexus IS comes in three powertrain flavors: the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 with 241 horsepower from a 2.0-liter turbo-four; the all-wheel-drive IS 300, with a 260-HP, 3.5-liter V6; and the IS 350 F Sport, which comes in AWD or RWD with a 311-HP version of the same V6. The car you see here is an AWD IS 350 F Sport, effectively the range-topping model until Lexus drops in a V8 so the IS F can make a comeback. (Spoiler alert: it won't.) Also, I should add that the RWD variants get an eight-speed automatic; the AWD ones come with a somewhat dated six-speed automatic, a few gears behind most competitors now.

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Much of the car carries over from before, including those engines and the bulk of the interior. But important changes have been made. First and foremost, the infotainment system finally incorporates touch controls and is now compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This is a big deal. If you've driven a Lexus in recent years, you've been subjected to its clunky, infuriating trackpad controls to dial in addresses, operate the car audio, scroll through menus and more. 

Ostensibly, this was done to help keep your eyes on the road, but as I found when I tested the LC 500 Convertible earlier this summer, it just meant I used my phone for everything. Finally, Lexus has decided it can't outdo Apple and every other smartphone and tablet maker on the planet, and so the touch-operated screen is a welcome change. The trackpad remains as a redundant control interface if you're a loyal Lexus buyer who got used to that. I didn't use it at all in my four-day test.

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On the outside, tweaks include a revised front and rear end, a wider grille, and all-new headlamps and taillights. It strikes a handsome, athletic figure, even if it doesn't go out of its way to stand out. More important changes happened under the skin; the suspension has been heavily revised with lighter coil springs, aluminum A-arms, and anti-roll bars. (For a full rundown of the changes, read this.) 

An RWD IS 300 starts at $39,000; the AWD IS 350 F Sport starts at $44,900. My pre-production tester, which included options like the power moonroof, panoramic rear-view mirror, 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, auto-braking parking assistant, triple-beam LED headlamps and premium paint (yes, premium paint) came in at $52,850. All in all, not a bad value, and probably a few grand cheaper than similarly equipped German competitors.

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Critic's Notebook

  • Comfort is the name of the game here. The seats (which I loved on the similar Lexus RC F a year ago) are plush, soft and well-bolstered without hurting your back, and the ride quality from the adaptive suspension is stellar. The whole package has a substantive feeling on the road—it's more of a cruiser than a graceful dancer. 
  • The 311 HP from the V6 isn't much by modern standards, but the car is plenty quick. It's got more than adequate mid- and top-range power for highway passes; I never found it wanting in the power department. It sounds great, too, like a V8 with two cylinders lopped off. Definitely a welcome change from the vacuum cleaner sounds of most turbo fours these days. (It's also worth noting the car is remarkably quiet.)
  • The six-speed auto, however, is feeling its age here. In manual shift mode, it simply lacks the urgency of newer units like the ZF eight-speed that's in nearly every luxury car. It's not bad, but it does cut into this sport sedan's athleticism. 
  • The IS stays flat and neutral when you throw it into a hard corner, and I found the steering to be accurate and direct enough. Its primary mandate isn't handling like some sport sedans, but it can definitely take care of itself when the roads get twisty. 
  • The new touch screen is a wonderful change. It's great to not have to mess with the trackpad anymore. Having said that, the OS itself is just fine; not bad, but also not the fastest or most intuitive system on the market. It doesn't feel as world-class as BMW's latest iDrive, for example. Searching for addresses doesn't always nail it the way your phone might. 
  • Most of the time, I used Apple CarPlay, but it's a huge bummer that it's not wireless here. That's on a bunch of BMW and Audi models, and soon ones from Hyundai and Honda too; Lexus feels behind the curve once more. 
  • The LFA-inspired gauge cluster is fun, albeit a little gimmicky. It's not necessary, but it's neat to move it back and forth at the touch of a steering wheel button. 
  • All in all, it's fun to drive when you want it to be, and comfortable, quiet and well-equipped when you aren't hooning. Exactly what you want from a sport sedan, right?

It's For You, If:

You want a sport sedan that's more of a cruiser than a track day star; you insist on having a sedan instead of a crossover or an SUV like everyone else these days; you were holding off on buying a Lexus because you hated that trackpad; you plan on keeping it a long time, and you want the brand's legendary reliability; you don't mind if your new luxury car isn't completely "new." 

It's Not For You, If:

You're holding out for a Lexus IS F, which will almost certainly not happen; you need more corner-carving fun on your daily commute; you can't live without wireless Apple CarPlay; you think a sport sedan has to have a proper manual gearbox. (And good luck with that in 2020 and beyond.) 

Early Verdict

A powerful, comfortable, fun-to-drive highway star that finally gets with the times. At least, more than it was. But it's finally back to being a solid buy in this category if you're determined not to give in and go crossover.

Patrick George