2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport First Test: The IS Finally Gets Its Game Back
This is the Lexus IS for people who don’t like the Lexus IS.
LOS ANGELES—We lost enthusiasm for the Lexus IS back around 2006, the year Lexus replaced the awesome first-gen BMW 3-Series-beater with a waterbed. With the notable and necessary exception of the IS-F, I personally haven't thought much about (or of) the IS for the better part of 15 years. But when editor-in-chief Morrison asked if I wanted to drive the updated 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport, something piqued my interest, and it wasn't just the cool full-width taillight.
Changes to the 2021 Lexus IS technically constitute a mid-cycle refresh—a surprise, as we hoped Lexus would upgrade the car to Toyota's New Global Architecture platform—but Toyota, Lexus' parent company, still says it is serious about getting the IS back on its game. It went so far as to build a new test track in Shimoyama, Japan, sort of a Tokyo Disney version of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and the new IS was one of the first cars honed there.
So, has Lexus finally given us an IS worthy once again of enthusiast drivers' attention?
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: Feels Like a Proper Lexus
I'd love to tell you I made a beeline for SoCal's curvy canyon roads, but that'd be a lie. The afternoon the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport arrived in my hands, I had a prior engagement: Dinner at a ridiculously expensive Beverly Hills restaurant to celebrate my wife's birthday. Cruising through Coldwater Canyon, where BMWs play the part reserved for Chevrolets in the rest of the country, the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport just felt right. It looked right, too, thanks in no small part to its Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint job. The new IS projects the same image as the first-gen car, and I could envision myself expounding to my fellow phoneys over a chai latte: "Well, Biff, I looked at the 3-Series variants, but everyone's got one, chortle-chortle. So I got the Lexus instead. It really is … (dramatically slow coffee sip) ... the Japanese BMW." Welcome to Los Angeles, where image is 9/10ths of the law.
I spent the next morning in the curvy-curves, where I was pleased to find the promise of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport's racy styling fulfilled. I had my doubts: On the freeway ride west, the IS 350 was unfailingly Lexus-like, quiet as a cabin in the mountains and surprisingly comfortable. I can't call the ride firm, nor can I call it soft; truth be told it's a bit of both. The IS jitters just enough over imperfections to let you know it's alive, but it magics the big bumps into a gentle float.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: It Also Feels Like a Proper Sports Sedan
Turning off the highway and into the canyons, I switched the drive-mode selector to Sport and then to Sport Plus. This extra-double-secret mode is reserved for F Sport models with the Dynamic Handling Package, which comprises Lexus' Active Variable Suspension, lightweight wheels, and a carbon-fiber trunk spoiler. The ride and the steering instantly became noticeably firmer, but there was still some wallow and float over the big bumps. I thought this would be a problem, but I was wrong: Push the car hard into corners, get a little weight transferred to the outside, and the IS firms up, hunkers down, and hangs on, clinging tightly to the pavement and resisting centrifugal force. Straighten up and it softens up. That's AVS at work, and it's a rather nifty bit of chassis engineering.
If I was writing this as a movie script, I'd have myself nodding knowingly as I threw the IS into the curves. In reality, I just had a stupid grin. Sure, there's room for improvement: I'd like it if the dampers were a little firmer on the straightaways when you activate Sport Plus mode—that float seems to do no significant harm to handling, but it can impart a little sea-sickness to the weak-of-tummy. I'd like the transmission to be more aggressive about downshifting in Sport mode—I had to use the shift paddles to keep the revs up, something I almost never have to do in, say, an Audi. The 311-horsepower V-6, a carryover from last year, is more than powerful enough but won't blow your socks off. All of the car's edges could be sharper—perhaps Lexus is leaving something on the table for a more powerful and athletic model in the future? I hope so—I still miss the IS-F.
But those are nits I'm picking, and the broad strokes are there. The most important thing is, here in the canyons just as in Beverly Hills, the new 2021 Lexus IS felt right. It's happy in the curves. It belongs there. It wants to be there. And that's something we haven't said about the IS in many, many years.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: Lots to Like
If you're in a particular rush to go do something else, you're free to leave, as the rest of my review is pretty much a recitation of the things I liked here. There are a lot.
I like the new styling, especially in F Sport guise, and it drew compliments from friends and neighbors as well. The IS has always been prone to a little visual excess, and on the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport it (finally) works well. I like the steering wheel, which is covered in leather and black wood that blend together to make something that is lovely both to hold and behold. (Bummer, though, that my tester didn't have the sharp red-and-black interior. ) I love the Mark Levinson stereo—I'm no audiophile, but it sounded great to me.
I love the gauge panel, a big, round tachometer with a digital speedometer in the center. Press a steering-wheel button and it motors over to the right to make room for a larger trip-computer display. It's a totally useless and majestically nifty trick, and I wish more luxury manufacturers would pour engineering and manufacturing dollars into such frivolities, if only just for the fun of it. "See that, Biff? This is what I paid for. Can your BMW do that?"
I love the size of the IS: Small and tidy, but not cramped, and with plenty of backseat and trunk space. I like the touch-screen display, a 10.3-inch widescreen piece on cars with navigation or the Mark Levinson stereo, because it means you needn't use that awful touch-pad controller on the center console. I found this ongoing Lexus interface debacle much less irritating than the one on our Four Seasons LS500. (Though I will admit to being baffled that a car redesigned for the 2021 model year still has a CD player. What, no tape deck?) And I know it's the 21st century and we expect these things, but having recently written several articles about awful 1970s and '80s cars, I really do appreciate the IS' hewn-from-marble build quality.
So, good news all around: I can stop ignoring the Lexus IS, and if you've been holding onto the same disdain for it as I did, you can stop ignoring it as well. If you're one of those people who like the IS already, well, you too are in luck, because it's obvious from the way this car goes down the road that if you strip away all the go-faster F Sport stuff, we're left with lots of other likable traits: Comfort, dignity, and impeccable build quality. (Also an optional four-cylinder powertrain and all-wheel-drive.) Congratulations, Lexus: It's great to see the IS back again.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Highlights
- Updated styling on a reinforced body shell
- New display screen positioned closer to the driver
- Models: 4-cylinder IS 300 RWD; V-6 IS 300 AWD; V-6 IS 350 RWD/AWD
- F-Sport model now limited to IS350
- Powertrains continue from last year
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Pros
- Great blend of comfortable ride and aggressive handling
- New styling looks aggressive without being silly
- Trim in size with plenty of interior space
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Cons
- Transmission still a little slow to respond in Sport mode
- Shocks could be a tad tighter
|2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Specifications|
|ON SALE||Late fall 2020|
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/311 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||20/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||185.4 x 72.4 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.6 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||143 mph|