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2021 Lexus IS Review: Going the (Half) Distance

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Auto123 gets in a first test drive of the 2021 Lexus IS.

The majority of vehicle models usually get at least a medium-level revision – if not a major redesign – every five years or so. So say the ironclad rules governing the automotive industry; stand still longer than that and you’re asking for trouble. This brings us to the Lexus IS, which dates to 2014. Which means we’ve been fed the same recipe for six years. But then, the Lexus IS is like black forest cake: we like the original recipe. That said, the model must evolve or die, and Lexus is offering us something newish if not quite new for 2021.

Making new out of old
The folks at Lexus are the first to admit that this new generation of IS is not exactly new. The company is using the existing platform, but has enhanced and strengthened it. For example, it has added 55 welds in the front end to stiffen the structure and installed heavier anti-roll bars for better handling. There are no engine changes. Lexus simply optimizes the existing mechanics and the dress is based on the same design.

That said, the model’s lines have been changed to make the overall styling sportier. All versions now have lower air intakes in the grille to deliver more air to the engine. A line running along the entire profile of the car gives a sportier look to the new IS, while the trunk lid sits raised and keeps watch over a single taillight that extends from side to side. The new light signature allows for distinct marking at night, both in front and rear. A new black diffuser and double exhaust pipe complete the restyling efforts. This IS 300 is, by the way, longer, wider (by 30 mm) and higher (by 5 mm) than its predecessor.

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2021 Lexus IS 300, profile
Photo: B.Charette
2021 Lexus IS 300, profile

More-inspired drive
It’s sometimes said of certain models that they too much engine for the chassis; we could say of the 2021 IS that there’s too much chassis for the engines. Immediately noticeable on driving the thing is the car's improved on-road poise, which far exceeds the ambitions and reach of the mechanics. The handling is very precise and the steering is responsive – in fact Lexus is very proud to point out that the car's handling was developed on the Shimoyama circuit in Japan, a track inspired by the Nurburgring that Toyota had built a few years ago.

For those who want a little more, the F-Sport version offers 19-inch BBS wheels with adaptive variable suspension and a spoiler on the trunk in the F Sport 3 variants.

2021 Lexus IS 300, three-quarters front
Photo: B.Charette
2021 Lexus IS 300, three-quarters front

Three engine choices
The basic powertrain is found in the 300 version with rear-wheel drive and includes a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 241 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Our tester was the IS 300 AWD variant. This version comes with a 3.5L V6 engine delivering 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque.

The most powerful model since the departure of the IS-F is the 350 AWD version. It too offers all-wheel drive and a 3.5L V6 engine, though here it generates 311 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. The 350 versions have ben conceived to deliver better aerodynamics.

While the 6-speed automatic transmission in our tester is reliable, it would probably perform better with two more gears. The 4WD system is fast and can send up to 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels for more control in corners. The overall balance is impressive, and the precision of the steering keeps you on course at all times without fear for your safety. Eco, Comfort and Sport modes offer variability in throttle response, and for everyday driving, the IS 300 provides a good balance of power, comfort and handling.

2021 Lexus IS 300, interior
Photo: Lexus
2021 Lexus IS 300, interior

A little cramped
While comfort is good, this Lexus loses a few points when it comes to available space. The IS just feels a little cramped. The 8-way power-adjustable synthetic leather seats of our IS 300 AWD model comfortably accommodate front-seat passengers, but the tight back-row seats are not as generous. If your regular routine involves driving around as a duo or solo, this lack of rear-seat space won’t be of much concern to you, but let’s say it's not really a sedan for even a small family.

An enhanced infotainment system comes standard with an 8.0-inch screen and a touchscreen that's placed closer to the driver. Unfortunately, the touchpad is still in place, and even though Lexus says it's easier to use, it's still nigh-on impossible to perform an operation while driving. Fortunately, the driver can access most relevant information through the steering-wheel controls, on the touchscreen or using voice commands. If it drives you crazy, you can simply bypass the touchpad. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa software also help the cause.

The optional 10.3-inch touchscreen will also improve satisfaction levels, but doesn’t change the fact that the menu icons and layout aren't as intuitive as those of other brands. Lexus still has some work to do in this area.

2021 Lexus IS 300, multimedia screen
Photo: Lexus
2021 Lexus IS 300, multimedia screen
2021 Lexus IS 300, touchpad
Photo: Lexus
2021 Lexus IS 300, touchpad

Conclusion
With a price range that starts at $43,800 for a 4-cylinder model and goes up to $58,000 for a well-equipped F Sport 3 version, the 2021 Lexus IS is not more affordable than its German competitors. The overall good quality of the car, the generous offering of standard equipment and the solid warranty allow the IS to gain points against the competition, especially the German contingent.

We feel the basic 300 AWD version with all-wheel drive is the best choice for our Canadian climate and for what it delivers performance-wise for the price. This model features 18-inch alloy wheels, 8-way power-adjustable heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, Smart Key entry system with push-button start, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert and rain-activated wipers. As well, it can be upgraded by adding some option packages, but for $43,800 it's a model that already delivers a lot for the price demanded.

2021 Lexus IS 300, three-quarters rear
Photo: B.Charette
2021 Lexus IS 300, three-quarters rear

We like

Improvement of the infotainment system
More-responsive steering and handling
Comprehensive list of standard equipment
Reliability beyond question

We like less

Driveshaft bump (in 4WD versions)
Recycled powertrains
Narrow rear seats

The competition

Acura TLX
Audi A4
BMW 3 Series
Cadillac CT5-V
Genesis G70
Infiniti Q50
Kia Stinger
Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Volvo S60

2021 Lexus IS 300, rear
Photo: B.Charette
2021 Lexus IS 300, rear
2021 Lexus IS 300, badging
Photo: B.Charette
2021 Lexus IS 300, badging