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2021 Lexus IS Test Drive Review

Lexus amps up its compact sports sedan for a new generation.

7.3 /10
Overall Score

The Lexus IS enters its fourth generation of production, embodying lessons learned from the LC and RC. The 2021 IS targets enthusiast drivers and luxury buyers who might be thinking German first, and it seeks to recalibrate expectations of what a compact luxury sports sedan can be.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

Whether we like to admit it or not, our cars reflect ourselves. A boring car tells people something about you; so does a flashy exotic. The IS makes several statements about its driver. It is athletically proportioned and has a great stance. Designers often speak of the challenge of capturing motion in their car designs, and the IS is one of those sedans that look like it is traveling forward even while standing still. Elegance is another elusive quality, often quantified by measuring the distance between the front axle and dashboard. A greater distance (up to a point) conveys elegance, and the IS nails it. The fast roofline splits the difference between the currently fashionable coupe-like dome and a fastback. An interesting kick-up of the window base at the back of the passenger door shortens the greenhouse visually, making the cabin look more compact and sportier. A new version of the Lexus signature “spindle” grille is filled with an attractive diamond mesh, and narrow headlights give the IS an assertive squint. Paint, chrome, and panel gaps are flawless, as expected on a Lexus.

Inside, the dash is tastefully simple. The center stack looks like a collection of components plugged into an attractive rack, a little retro hi-fi feel that’s cool and different. The interior, in general, matches the exterior with bold, assertive choices, authentic lines and build quality, and a modern aesthetic.

In the context of this modernity, the vestigial analog clock is starting to feel like an obstructive anachronism, rather than the signifier of luxury it once was. It’s time for a brave design team to abandon the clock—unless there’s an opportunity for co-branding with a high-end watchmaker.

Performance

7/ 10

If you’re going to compete in the luxury sports sedan category, you’ve got to bring the sport. Lexus invested time, energy, and engineering resources testing and developing the IS at the new Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama, which is near Lexus’ global headquarters in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. The IS debuts the “Lexus Driving Signature,” a philosophy that “pursues linear operation that is faithful to driver’s intentions, such as in the seamless transition from deceleration to steering and acceleration during cornering, in all types of driving situations,” according to the company.

Everybody’s curious about what’s under the hood. The IS 300 with rear-wheel drive (RWD) gets a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine with a turbocharger that puts out 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The IS 300 with all-wheel drive (AWD) gets a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine tuned to produce 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, while the IS 350 models, both AWD and RWD, get the same V6, but various tweaks crank it up to 311 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. RWD models come with an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, while AWD models get a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Lexus reports a 143 mph top speed for all models of IS. Acceleration from 0 – 60 mph ranges from 6.9 seconds for the IS 300 RWD to 5.6 seconds for IS 350 RWD.

Our test drives took place on public roads in a rear-wheel drive IS 350, which the spec sheets tell us has a 54/46 front/rear balance, and weighs in at 3,748 pounds. With double-wishbone front and multi-link rear independent suspension and electrically powered rack-and-pinion steering, the IS does feel crisp, precise, and balanced.

The 2021 Lexus IS's fuel efficiency varies based on the powertrain. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined for the IS 300 RWD, 19/26/22 for the IS 300 AWD. The IS 350 RWD is rated at 20/28/23, and the IS 350 AWD is rated at 19/26/22.

Form and Function

7/ 10

For a car to be considered a competent sports sedan, a driver-centered focus on form and function is essential. The IS accomplishes a lot with a great driver position, which is easily adjustable and pairs with a comfortable, supportive seat. The F Sport trim's bolstered seat is standard in IS 350 models, and it includes heating and ventilation. The IS comes with perforated NuLuxe fabric but no leather option is available. NuLuxe is synthetic upholstery that Lexus says has “the look and feel of leather without the added cost and care.” It is also said to be eco-friendly, lightweight, and easier to clean than premium leather.

The IS has ample storage space, from an open cubby at the bottom of the center stack to twin cupholders in the center console, to big door pockets with room for water bottles, and a decent glovebox to an under-armrest compartment.

The second row, as expected in a compact sedan, is comfortable for two, cramped for three, and legroom must be negotiated with front-seat occupants.

Trunk space is adequate at 10.8 cubic feet, and it's surprisingly deep in configuration. The IS comes with a temporary spare stored beneath the trunk’s load floor.

Tech Level

7/ 10

The 2021 Lexus IS finally offers a touchscreen infotainment system that runs both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The touchpad remains, but it will no longer be the default option for most drivers. The IS makes good use of Lexus’ various connected services and generously includes free trial periods for owners to decide if they’ll benefit from spending money. Lexus Enform Safety Connect (discussed in more detail below) is an important suite of features and comes with a three-year trial subscription. Lexus Enform Service Connect comes with a 10-year complimentary subscription and activates alerts for service and maintenance, with the option of including your chosen Lexus dealer. Lexus Enform WiFi comes with a 4GB/three-month trial, and Lexus Enform Remote (free for three years) is compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Additionally, the Lexus mobile apps (Lexus Enform Remote, Lexus Drivers, and more) are also available for connection with the IS.

The subscription model for technology has pitfalls to watch for in some cases. If you add the Navigation Package to your IS, Dynamic Navigation and Destination Assist are included—but only for the first three years of ownership. Considering this package starts at $1,670, the subscription is an annoying unknown for the future.

One tech option we recommend is the Mark Levinson 17-speaker, 1,800-watt premium surround-sound audio system with Quantum Logic surround, starting at $1,080. Mark Levinson is a respected name in high-end home audio and has been engineering car audio for decades now. The IS’s system is superb, and still includes—gasp—a CD player! If you have any audiophile bones in your body, you’ll want to hear some of your favorite music through this system. Crank some tunes, it’s good for the soul.

Safety

7/ 10

The 2021 Lexus IS hasn’t yet been rated for crashworthiness by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), nor has it received an overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since the fourth-generation IS rides on the same platform as the previous generation vehicle, albeit revised and updated, we expect similarly good ratings from each organization.

Lexus loads the IS up with its standard Lexus Safety System+ 2.5, which brings a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, including low-light pedestrian detection, daytime bicyclist detection, and left-turn intersection support, along with lane-departure warning with steering assist, road-sign recognition, enhanced lane-tracing assist, full-speed dynamic adaptive cruise control, and intelligent high beams. There’s also vehicle dynamic integrated management, location-specific tire pressure monitoring system, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a backup camera with dynamic gridlines, LED headlamps, taillamps, and running lights, and Lexus Enform Safety Connect. With a three-year trial included, Lexus Enform Safety Connect activates an SOS emergency assistance button, roadside assistance, automatic collision notification, and stolen vehicle notification.

The IS comes with four-channel/four-sensor anti-lock braking, which integrates with the vehicle dynamic management system and has power-assisted disc brakes (13.2-inch ventilated front and 11.7-inch ventilated rear).

Cost-Effectiveness

8/ 10

The 2021 Lexus IS comes in four flavors. The IS 300 RWD starts at $39,000; the IS 300 AWD starts at $41,000; the IS 350 RWD F Sport starts at $42,900; and the IS 350 AWD F Sport starts at $44,900. Several packages are available, including Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package ($2,750); Navigation Package ($1,670); F Sport Dynamic Handling Package ($3,800 - $4,200); Comfort Package ($1,950); along with a few stand-alone options.

The king of the compact luxury sport sedan for most of the past decade has been the BMW 3 Series, which starts at $41,250 for a RWD 330i. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class offers sharp competition (starting at $41,600 for a RWD C300 sedan), as does the Audi A4 (starting at $39,100). Don’t overlook the Infiniti Q50 (starting at $36,600), Acura TLX (starting at $37,500), Cadillac CT4 (starting at $32,995), Volvo S60 (starting at $38,395), Alfa Romeo Giulia (starting at $39,400), Genesis G70 (starting at $36,000), or Jaguar XE (starting at $39,900). Each offers a unique take on the compact luxury sedan formula. The Lexus IS has the brand’s reputation for quality and reliability behind it (which some of its competitors only dream of matching). The IS also comes nicely equipped, with a reasonable list of packages and options available, so pricing never gets stratospheric. Some competitors, like those from the German automakers, offer high-performance variants that come with steep bottom-line prices but will appeal to ambitious enthusiasts who may want to experience a track day or two in their daily driver. The IS has no answer to this option right now without aftermarket support.

As the first example of the Lexus Driving Signature, the 2021 Lexus IS impresses. Lexus is definitely moving forward, dropping the floaty, cushioned interpretation of luxury for one that is athletic, agile, and youthful. Now it’s up to Lexus’ customers to show whether this new definition of luxury has the right appeal.

Updated by Jason Fogelson

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I leased a new is 300 2021. I put 3500 down plus a college education of lease cash 1000 than i got 429 total plus I needed the maintence which come to 455 did I get a good deal? 12k miles wear and...