The verdict: A few mild updates keep Lexus’ sporty IS sedan alive and kicking, aimed squarely to capture the few remaining sports sedan buyers left on the market.
Versus the competition: The updates don’t go deep enough to make the IS 350 fully competitive against newer, fresher, faster rivals like the BMW M340i, Genesis G70 or Acura’s new TLX.
The beautiful thing about so many people starting to abandon entry-level luxury sedans for entry-level luxury SUVs and crossovers is that for the few remaining players in this class, a change is taking place. This is becoming especially obvious at the Japanese luxury brands, where instead of abandoning compact sports sedans, they’re changing their focus. No longer are they just entry-level models; the latest ones are being realigned specifically to be appealing sports sedans. The thinking goes that anyone still looking at a sedan over an SUV is really in it for the style and fun-to-drive factors, so why not make them the main focus of the car?
Acura did it with the new 2021 TLX, and now Lexus has done it with the 2021 IS 300 and IS 350. But has the redo and realignment of the IS gone far enough to keep it competitive against newer, fresher, faster rivals?
Related: 2021 Lexus IS: ‘I’ Is for Improved, ‘S’ Is for Sort Of
Looks a Bit Fresher
There are two models to choose from in the new IS lineup: the entry-level IS 300 with a 241-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, or the IS 350 you see here with its naturally aspirated 311-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. Either model can be had with rear- or all-wheel drive, but if you go for an IS 300 AWD, it actually comes with a less powerful, 260-hp version of the V-6 that also has less torque than the turbo four-cylinder. All RWD cars come with a standard eight-speed automatic transmission, while AWD cars come with a six-speed automatic.
Here’s where we start to see the new focus on making the IS a sporty sedan: The IS 300 F Sport is no longer a thing. You can’t get the F Sport handling and appearance package on that version — but all IS 350 models automatically come with the F Sport trim, meaning you can get an IS 350 only in F Sport guise. If you opt for the IS 350 (which you probably should given its significant power advantage over the IS 300), you’ll be getting this — a compact sports sedan with a 311-hp nonturbo V-6 carried over from the past model year with standard rear-wheel drive, an eight-speed automatic, a sport suspension, standard 19-inch wheels and more aggressive styling.
Lexus has updated the look of the IS for 2021, and I have to say that it’s a subtle but definite improvement. Those weird Nike swoosh signature LED lights up front have now been well integrated into the larger headlight assembly and look much, much better. The Lexus signature spindle grille is still here, but it’s either simply grown on us or just doesn’t look as offensive as it used to; either way, I think we’re finally used to it. The fenders are a tad wider to accommodate the bigger wheels and tires on the IS 350 F Sport, and a new trunk and rear bumper with a full-width LED taillight makes for more muscular-looking haunches. The Dynamic Handling Package available on the F Sport brings a couple of styling changes, too, including the addition of lovely matte-black 19-inch BBS wheels and a rather unnecessary carbon-fiber trunk spoiler. The overall changes have cleaned up the IS 350 considerably, giving it a lower, wider, more menacing appearance that’s less funky but more attractive.
Doesn’t Drive Any Differently
Out on the street, the new IS 350 really doesn’t feel that different from the last one. More than 300 horsepower might sound like a lot on paper, but 280 pounds-feet of torque isn’t all that impressive anymore, and it shows up in the IS 350’s rather underwhelming straight-line acceleration. Many of its competitors, such as the Acura TLX, Alfa Romeo Giulia, Genesis G70 and BMW 330, all employ turbocharged engines with torque that’s available low in the rev range, making for punchier acceleration than the IS 350 delivers. The IS certainly isn’t slow, but neither does it have the immediacy you’d expect when you floor the accelerator as you enter a highway on-ramp or pull out in front of traffic. Lexus’ given 0-60-mph time of 5.6 seconds isn’t exactly class-leading anymore. The eight-speed automatic transmission is well executed and does a decent job of providing smooth shifts, but it doesn’t seem quick or eager to kick down when you plant your foot, only adding to the more relaxed, slightly underpowered feeling the IS 350 delivers. Simply put, the IS 350 feels like it could use a more up-to-date engine and transmission combo, something that would boost its acceleration to match the more powerful and similarly priced offerings like the BMW M340i or Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400.
There’s not much to fault with the IS 350’s handling, however. The suspension provides an excellent balance of comfort and responsiveness that really does impress with its sophisticated feel. For a bit more money, you can specify the Dynamic Handling Package for your IS 350 F Sport that includes an electronic adaptive suspension, adjusting the ride firmness and response via a mode selector on the center console. I honestly didn’t find that it affected the ride quality or steering effort noticeably if I switched from Normal mode to Sport S or Sport S Plus modes, but it did seem to wake up the powertrain with a more responsive throttle and allow more revs to build before shifting. Keeping it in Sport modes isn’t really conducive to serene driving, however, so you’re likely going to just keep it in Normal where the IS 350 proves to be a pleasantly quiet touring car that allows for faster cruising speeds than you might otherwise expect.
Time to Rethink the Interior
Inside, there have been a few changes to the IS 350 for 2021, but again the car is showing how much it could use a rethink to its whole platform. The interior mixes decent fake leather and nice ash wood accents on the F Sport with unremarkable plastic surfaces. One notable option is the Circuit Red interior, which truly looks stunning — sadly, my test car came outfitted with a more somber, less interesting black interior. You have a highly welcome new touchscreen front and center, which finally allows you to skip using Lexus’ remote control for the multimedia system. An 8-inch screen (measured diagonally) is standard, and the 10.3-inch screen in my test car is optional on vehicles equipped with navigation. It’s almost 6 inches closer to the driver than the previous screen, so it’s easier to see and reach. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as is Amazon Alexa integration.
Lexus’ maddening remote joystick control has been replaced by a new touchpad, which is a bit better, but there’s no substitute for being able to touch the screen directly to do what you want to do. Thankfully, Lexus has finally realized that.
There isn’t much continuity to button design, with some buttons feeling large and well labeled, while others are tiny and hard to find, and still others are almost completely obscured from the driver’s view and difficult to use at all. The digital gauge cluster features an unusual sliding round master gauge that first appeared in F Sport versions of the IS and other Lexuses many years ago, inspired by the LFA supercar, but it honestly just seems needlessly gimmicky. And the fact that a bright green “Eco” light illuminates in the gauge cluster whenever the engine enters its fuel-saving mode is really annoying. In short, the IS 350’s interior layout and control strategy needs a modern redo.
But that’s not really the biggest issue with the interior. The IS 350 is cramped inside, with a narrow cabin and fairly tight seats. It features an unusually high driving position that feels as if the seat could stand to be an inch or two lower; more adjustability to the bottom cushion’s angle would be nice, too. The rear seats are also tight, with adequate room for two on short trips and decidedly more legroom than, say, an Alfa Romeo Giulia, but overall room in back feels about average for this category of sedan. There’s plenty of room in the trunk, and the rear seats do fold to allow for larger items. Yes, this is a compact sports sedan, and nobody’s expecting it to be a limousine. But its overall design aesthetic, packaging and control layout all seem to be in need of a more comprehensive update.
A Better Value Only on Base Models
The basic Lexus IS 300 RWD starts at $40,025 (all prices include destination), and my IS 350 F Sport RWD test car starts at a still reasonable $43,925, which rings in several thousand dollars less than the 2020 IS 350 F Sport thanks to Lexus’ new trim strategy. Add the moonroof, Dynamic Handling Package, navigation with premium Mark Levinson audio and a few other odds and ends, and you come to my car’s as-tested price of $55,220. That’s a little harder to swallow, frankly, given the other competitors you have at this price like a BMW M340i or Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400, both of which outgun the IS 350 in the powertrain department. Or even opt for the new 2021 Cadillac CT5-V or Genesis G70 3.3T, both of which also feature more powerful engines for less money, accompanied by more modern interiors.
Lexus’ entry-level sports sedan is meant to be a good starting point for fans looking to get into the brand, and its refocused energy on capturing the few remaining sports sedan buyers with a more value-oriented F Sport model is commendable. But its updates for 2021 didn’t quite go far enough to make it a more competitive offering versus the considerably newer, fresher and more powerful competitors. Still, it has its looks and refinement going for it, along with Lexus’ reputation for reliability. If those factors weigh more heavily for you, then the new 2021 Lexus IS might be worth putting on your shopping list.
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