Time and attention can revive a car that perhaps never really rose above the level of underwhelming. The Lexus IS always felt like an also-ran that never received the attention it may have deserved. Now, there’s a new (OK, facelifted) IS for 2021, and after some time behind the wheel, I think this compact luxury sedan is ready for reconsideration.
A more cohesive look
The outgoing Lexus IS has largely the same design as when it debuted in early 2013, and boy, was that look getting old. Other Lexus models came, adopted similar pieces of the design language and made them better while the IS just kinda… hung out. A major freshening for the 2021 model year gives the IS a more cohesive and contemporary look. Pre-’21 elements are still there, like the checkmark-style running lights, but now they’re integrated into a single-piece headlight that looks pretty slick — and yes, you can still see the DRLs from a mile down the road.
The rear end went through a pretty dramatic shift, too. Gone are the melting taillights of yore that practically stretched to the asphalt. The new taillights better integrate with the all-new bodywork, blending into character lines more seamlessly. F Sport models like my tester get more aggressive bumpers and larger 19-inch alloy wheels, and an optional Dynamic Handling Package ramps that up even further with BBS wheels and a carbon fiber rear spoiler. Both F Sport getups look pretty swell, so you won’t miss out on too much if you don’t want to spring for the performance pack ($4,200 with rear-wheel drive, $3,800 with AWD).
Only the eagle-eyed among you will pick up on the changes inside. There are some new circular vents and a redesigned center console, as well as a new screen slapped atop the dashboard. I have to dig a little deeper to find other changes, but as with the previous generations, I like the IS’ unique design. There’s some clever markings in the leather on the door panels, which in my tester are painted in an obscenely sporty shade of red. It’s not for me, but I do appreciate Lexus’ use of bold interior colors.
From a livability perspective, the IS’ innards are a little tight, but they’re good overall. The front seats are supportive and offer sufficient room and visibility, while the back seats are spacious enough for 6-foot passengers, but only barely. The door panel cubbies offer up a good amount of storage, but the large center tunnel means there isn’t much space on offer under the armrest.
A more cohesive driving experience
Since this is more of a comprehensive refresh than anything, it’s not necessarily a surprise that Lexus carried the powertrains over unchanged. Base rear-wheel-drive models make do with a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 with 241 horsepower, and adding all-wheel drive also adds a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with 260 hp. I’m packing the most potent powertrain in my IS 350 AWD tester, which turns the V6’s wick up to 311 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque.
A naturally aspirated V6 sounds a bit anachronistic in 2020, and it is. The sound is nice, and power delivery is linear, but a torque peak of 4,800 rpm means there’s a lot of time spent waiting for forward motion to accumulate, and it never really feels peppy despite all that power. Further dragging out the experience is an antiquated six-speed automatic transmission (eight-speeds are standard on RWD models). The ol’ slushbox does a superb job holding gears in sportier drive modes, but the fact that it’s one tenth slower to 60 mph than the RWD IS 350 leads me to believe that Lexus treats AWD IS variants more like cars born of a need for bad-weather peace of mind rather than additional performance.
While older IS models left me feeling tepid after a brisk drive, I think Lexus is finally hitting its stride with the 2021 model. Engineers increased body rigidity, reduced unsprung weight and replaced suspension components in order to enhance the car’s agility, and they nailed it. The steering is more responsive and the body feels much closer to that of Lexus’ European counterparts when the going gets twisty. Yet, the IS still plays very nicely on the highway, with my tester’s adaptive suspension soaking up nearly every bad bit of road and returning next to no noise. Sport is my preferred drive mode, as it retains just a smidge of body roll to keep things more interesting at lower speeds, but swapping to Sport S Plus flattens everything out in the name of hugging the concrete. No matter what the suspension’s doing, I am having more fun (and experiencing a better ride) than I have in any IS that came before.
It’s worth noting that my experience won’t be 100% the same as yours, dear consumer. My tester is a prototype, so it’s a bit of a Frankenstein. Sport S Plus mode and the adjustable suspension are only available with the Dynamic Handling Package, but this silver sedan lacks the interior trim, lighter BBS wheels and carbon fiber exterior add-ons that are also mandated. This should mean that a properly kitted IS will handle even better than mine here, given a decrease in unsprung mass, but who’s to say for sure.
Just in case you thought it was all good news, don’t fret, because the 2021 Lexus IS sticks with the same awful infotainment system it’s had for years. The screen is positioned closer to the driver and picks up honest-to-goodness touch capabilities, thank god, but there’s still a trackpad-style manipulator on the center console, and it remains as janky and unintuitive to use as it’s always been.and are both on offer, which is another pinprick of light shining through the darkness, but I wish Lexus would spend the money to take a look at iDrive and MBUX and see what the Germans are doing so much better.
When it comes time to charge, there are two USB-A ports under the center armrest, and… that’s it. If you want ports for the rear seats, either bring an obscenely long cable or pick a different car.
Safety systems are everywhere in the 2021 Lexus IS. All variants come with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, radar-based adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning. The adaptive cruise is nice and smooth, and I like that it now accelerates when I signal for a lane change, but the lane-keeping aid is weird. It seems to think the driver’s position should be in the middle of the lane, so the passenger side tends to hang too close to the dashed white line for my taste, and convincing the car to deviate from that position takes a surprising amount of conscious steering effort. It’s one of those rare systems that is worth turning off and keeping off.
Down to brass tacks
The 2021 Lexus IS has some work to do. Its German competitors — the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class — offer up compelling driving dynamics and some of the latest and greatest tech. Heck, even the Americans are stepping their game up as Cadillac reinvents its portfolio. It’ll be an uphill battle for this compact Japanese luxury sedan, but with newfound handling prowess and aesthetics, the fight is closer than it’s been in years.