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The New 2021 Lexus IS Promises Thrilling Driving Dynamics

Lexus’s new sport sedan arrives in dealerships this fall.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Ever since the first Lexus cars graced our shores, critics complained that the driving dynamics weren't up to par with the world's best. The first-generation Lexus IS—a rebadged version of that drifter's dream, the Toyota Altezza—was a good effort at a BMW clone, but ever since the second-generation car appeared, the IS has been more about relaxing than racing. The company says it aims to change that with the new 2021 Lexus IS.

In order to make that happen, parent company Toyota went so far as to open its own miniature 3.3-mile version of the Nürburgring Nordschleife at the new Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama. Lexus's stated goal is to use the new track to deliver a uniform Lexus Driving Signature (their capitalization) for all of its cars. The 2021 Lexus IS is the first car developed at Shimoyama, and it arrives in dealerships later this fall.

The new 2021 Lexus IS should look familiar, because it's an extensive reworking of the current car, which surprises us a bit—we were hoping for a shrunken version of the TNGA-L (Toyota New Global Architecture-Luxury) platform that underpins the LC and LS. Compare old to new and you'll see small changes to the front fascia, and bigger changes to the greenhouse opening and rear fascia. The beltline is reshaped, and the shape of the trunk lid over the taillights is, um, different. But we do like the way the rocker panel kicks up half-way through the rear doors.

Under the updated sheet metal is a reinforced body shell that improves rigidity. Lexus placed strong emphasis on reducing unsprung weight, with mass shed from the springs, anti-roll bar, and even the hub bolts. Wheel sizes grow by an inch, from 18 to 19 inches, and the shocks now use swing valves that Lexus says will improve effectiveness even at low-stroke speeds.

Under the hood, it's pretty much business as usual. Carryover powertrains include a 241-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder for the rear-wheel-drive IS300, and a 260-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 for the all-wheel-drive IS300. The IS350 once again gets a 311-hp version of the 3.5-liter V-6, paired with either rear- or all-wheel drive. Rear-drive models use an eight-speed automatic transmission, which gets improved adaptive logic for 2021, while AWD employs a six-speed automatic.

The interior layout for the 2021 Lexus IS appears similar to the outgoing car's, though there's a new (optional) 10.3-inch display screen positioned closer to the driver. The biggest change is the switch to Lexus's touch-pad like multimedia interface, which is far from our favorite. Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and Alexa integration are all present and accounted for, as is the package of active-safety and driver-assistance technologies we've come to expect from luxury brands. The sensors that feed information to the IS's collision-avoidance systems are enhanced, Lexus says, and the dynamic cruise control will now respond to a tap on the turn signal by accelerating, under the assumption that you're looking to pass the slower car ahead.

One notable twist in the 2021 Lexus IS lineup is that the F Sport trim will be exclusive to the high-horsepower IS350 model, though it will still be available with rear- or all-wheel drive. Alterations to the F Sport include unique front and rear fascias, 19-inch wheels, a cold-air intake with sound generator, unique exhaust, enhanced Active Sound Control system, and sporty interior upgrades. A Dynamic Handling Package will be optional on the F Sport model; it adds an adaptive variable suspension, "Sport S+" driving mode, and matte-black BBS wheels that shave four pounds from each corner. Rear-drive F Sport models get a Torsen limited-slip differential.

The manufacturer bills the 2021 Lexis IS as "The most thrilling Lexus IS ever." Aside from the first-generation IS and the IS-F, that's not exactly a notably high bar. But we're optimistic: The LC500 knocked our proverbial socks off, and while the 2021 IS doesn't benefit from the latest-and-greatest platform architecture, we know darn well that Toyota can engineer a good sports car (even if its most recent good sports car was engineered by BMW). We're eager to give the new IS a try.

2021 Lexus IS Highlights:

  • Available this fall
  • Updated styling
  • Updated interior
  • Powertrains carryover from previous Lexus IS models
  • Available in rear- and all-wheel-drive configurations
  • F Sport trim available only for IS350 model