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2021 Lexus IS: A Mild Design Update and Apple CarPlay Aim to Keep You From Buying SUVs

An A for effort—not.

After a brief delay, the 2021 Lexus IS is here and in the interest of ripping the band-aid off early: No, Lexus has not announced a V8 version nor has it replaced (or even enhanced) the compact sedan’s aging powertrain options. And despite its revised appearance, it still sits on the same platform it’s used since 2013. So, while this 2021 IS will seem familiar on paper, Lexus hopes buyers will be enticed by the changes this car’s received in the flesh and, Lexus says, in the handling department. If that fails, then they can just keep buying crossovers, as they have been all along.

The 2021 IS may not be “all-new” but its exterior changes might just be enough to trick casual observers still interested in sedans. It ditches its predecessor’s two-piece headlights for a single-piece design that’s simpler and sharper, flanking the ever-massive spindle grille. Reworked rocker panels flow into a pair of beefed-up hips and that new taillight bar that spans the width of the rear end. Despite sitting on the same platform and boasting the same wheelbase, the new IS features sheet metal that’s 1.18 inches wider and 1.18 inches longer overall while only measuring 0.19 inches taller than the 2020 version, contributing to a more athletic, less upright look.


Interior design, disappointingly, looks mostly unchanged save for some new trim in the door cards, new circular air vents, an HVAC panel that’s now finished in a dust-and-fingerprint magnet gloss black, and some new stitching that runs across the dash in front of the passenger. The location of some items has also been reshuffled, such as the touchpad, cupholders, etc.

Most notably, however, Lexus has upped the IS’s infotainment game significantly with an optional 10.3-inch touchscreen (an 8-inch slab comes standard) that now sits almost three inches closer to the driver. No more infuriating fiddling with touchpads or repurposed computer mice, even though the system does still come with an example of the former. And, thank the heavens, it also supports Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa. 

As mentioned, Lexus’s BMW 3 Series-rival comes with the same engine options as before: a 241-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-four in the rear-drive IS 300, a 260-hp, 3.5-liter V6 in the all-wheel-drive IS 300, or a 3.5-liter V6 tuned to 311 hp in the IS 350 that continues to propel that car from zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds. While the IS’s strategy for forward momentum goes unchanged, Lexus says it’s greatly improved things once the car is met with corners. 


Developed at Toyota’s recently-opened “Japanese Nürburgring” in Shimoyama, the revised IS is apparently the first car to exhibit the brand’s uniform “Lexus Driving Signature” that promises a more linear, direct, and balanced driving experience and be consistently present on all future Lexus cars. In the case of the 2021 IS, this means a more rigid body and revised suspension as well as coil springs, aluminum A-arms, and stabilizer bars that are 20, 18, and 17 percent lighter than before, respectively. New “swing-valve shock absorbers equipped with ultralow-velocity valves” apparently make for a more consistently even ride while new 19-inch wheels on the F Sport model increase this Lex’s pneumatic footprint.

Speaking of F Sport, whereas the package could’ve been equipped to any grade of 2020 IS, the F Sport package you see here will be an IS 350 exclusive for 2021. Ticking F Sport in the options sheet throws in different bumpers, a lip spoiler, rear diffuser, the aforementioned 19-inch wheels (18-inch wheels are standard), a cool air intake with sound generator, and an F Sport exhaust. The F-branded package also includes creature comforts such as heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and the nifty, LFA-inspired digital instrument cluster that slides over to the side at a touch of a button to reveal more info and menus.

2021 IS 350 F Sport buyers also now have the option to tack on a Dynamic Handling Package which equips the car with Adaptive Variable Suspension, a carbon spoiler and side mirrors, matte black BBS wheels that cut four pounds of unsprung weight apiece, Sport S+ and Custom driving modes, a contrast-stitched center console knee pad, and a Lexus Card Key. When paired with rear-wheel drive, the Dynamic Handling Pack also adds a Torsen limited-slip differential.

Seven years into its life cycle, most of which the IS has spent trying to survive against insurgent SUVs, we’re still fans of the existing IS. With Acura recently coming out with its gorgeous, clean-sheet TLX however, Lexus’s decision to forgo an all-new IS in favor of a heavy refresh with no new engines this late in the game is a hard one to defend. The styling and tech updates in the 2021 Lexus IS are welcome and we’re looking forward to seeing how all of the handling tweaks fare but let’s hope a genuine, next-gen, TNGA-based version is coming sooner rather than later.


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