First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD in “Grecian Water” blue

Consumer Guide Automotive

The 2021 Lexus IS is a case study in how the new-vehicle market’s shift to SUVs has affected the way automakers allocate their product-development dollars. Now that the average shopper in both the mainstream-brand and luxury-brand segments is more likely to choose a crossover SUV instead of a traditional passenger car, it’s not surprising that automakers are focusing the bulk of their resources on SUVs. Though many traditional-car offerings still sell in respectable numbers, they are no longer at the forefront of their respective product lineups.

Such is the case with the Lexus IS, which receives a substantial refresh—but not a full redesign—for 2021. Though it’s received a number of powertrain updates and other revisions over the last few years, the IS’s last redesign was for the 2014 model year. Thankfully, the basic IS platform gives Lexus pretty good bones to work with, and the 2021 IS sees a number of improvements that help keep it relavant.

First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
The Lexus IS lineup gets a substantial refresh for 2021 that includes crisp new bodywork. Highlights of the revised look include a reshaped “spindle” grille, slimmer taillights, and a sleek full-width taillight.

For starters, the basic body/chassis architecture is fortified for extra rigidity via measures such as reinforced support structures and 55 more spot welds than before. Suspension components were also updated to take advantage of the optimized body structure and reduce unsprung weight for improved handling. Forged-aluminum A-arms take the place of steel units, lightweight hub bolts are used instead of lug nuts, and the coil springs are 20 percent lighter. Wheels are upsized by an inch, to 19s on F Sport models and 18s on non F Sports.

First Look: 2021 Lexus IS

First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
All 2021 ISes get a new touchscreen infotainment system with an available 10.3-inch screen (shown here). F Sport models can be equipped with flashy Circuit Red upholstery and interior trim.

The exterior styling is subtly but thoroughly revamped, with sharper body lines and a more finely honed look. Highlights include a dramatic full-width taillight, slimmer headlights with integrated daytime running lamps, and sideview mirrors borrowed from the high-end LC grand-touring coupe.

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2021 Lexus IS
The F Sport trim–which includes unique bodywork elements, 19-inch wheels, and F Sport exhaust–is now restricted to IS 350 models, where it’s mandatory.

Lexus’s touchpad-based infotainment interface and the lack of available Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity were drawbacks of the previous IS, and they’ve been rectified for 2021. The IS’s new infotainment system includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa functionality, and it comes with a standard 8-inch touchscreen or an available 10.3-inch touchscreen, both of which are positioned more than 5 inches closer to the driver and include smartphone-style pinch and zoom capability. The touchpad interface is still available as well, as a supplement to the touchscreen functionality.

The active-safety features have been upgraded to the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5, which adds Low-light Pedestrian Detection, Daytime Bicyclist Detection, Intersection Turning Assist, and Emergency Steering Assist to the existing Pre-Collision System. Lane Tracing Assist and Road Sign Assist are also added, and the adaptive cruise control system is upgraded with all-speed functionality and a Curve Speed Reduction feature.

The IS’s powertrains and model-naming structure carry over from 2020. The rear-drive IS 300 (base MSRP: $39,000) is powered by a 241-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission, while the all-wheel-drive IS 300 ($41,000) gets a 260-hp 3.5-liter V6 paired with a 6-speed automatic. The IS 350 F Sport is powered by a 311-hp version of the same 3.5-liter V6, paired with an 8-speed automatic in rear-drive form ($42,900) and a 6-speed automatic with AWD ($44,900).

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First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
The IS’s cabin boasts upscale materials and excellent assembly quality; our test vehicle wore “Glazed Caramel” faux-leather upholstery. Rear-seat space is cramped for adults, and the front seats are also cozy for big and tall occupants.

Note that F Sport suffix; the F Sport trim level will now be offered only on IS 350 models, and all IS 350s are now F Sports. F Sports get unique bodywork elements such as a front bumper with functional aerodynamic enhancements, distinctive grille, rear bumper, rear lip spoiler and rocker-panel moldings. Other F Sport exclusives include 19-inch wheels, cool-air intake with sound generator, sport pedals, and F Sport exhaust and diffuser. A Dynamic Handling Package for F Sport models adds a Torsen limited-slip differential, Adaptive Variable Suspension, unique carbon-fiber rear spoiler and rearview mirror caps, and unique BBS-brand 19-inch lightweight wheels.

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First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
The IS’s trunk space is 10.8 cubic feet–not great, but on par with most premium compact car class rivals.

Our first taste of the 2021 Lexus IS came in the form of an all-wheel-drive IS finished in striking Grecian Water paint with a “Glazed Caramel” NuLuxe synthetic leather interior. Our test vehicle was equipped with the Comfort Package ($1950), Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package ($2750), and Triple-Beam LED headlamps ($1250), as well as Intuitive Parking Assist with Auto Braking, Rear Pedestrian Detection, and Panoramic View Monitor ($1400).

As before, the IS’s cabin boasts high-grade materials and excellent fit and finish. The interior ambiance is a fine mix of sport and luxury, but the IS’s cabin didn’t get any bigger—it’s still a bit cozy for big and tall folks. Rear-seat space is especially tight—even for the premium compact car class, which isn’t big on rear-seat space—and the door apertures are also stingy, especially if you’re large and/or long of limb. Small-items storage is also rather stingy; there’s no bin at the leading edge of the center console, no phone-storage slot or bin, and the cupholders and center-console bin are on the shallow side.

We appreciated the larger “tablet-style” screen, updated software, and touchscreen functionality of the infotainment system—together, they rectify our main complaints about the previous IS. However, other than the new “tablet-style” infotainment touchscreen and round outboard HVAC vents in place of the previous rectangular vents, the dashboard layout looks and feels pretty much the same as before… right down to the old-school classy analog clock face and CD player, which seems almost quaint these days.

Though the IS has long been a respectably nimble car, the driving character of our IS 300 AWD tester did feel a bit more dialed in than previous ISes we’ve tested. The body structure feels solid, and the steering is smooth and responsive. The finely tuned handling made us wish that Lexus could have shaken some development dollars loose to freshen the IS’s powertrains as well. Acceleration AWD 300’s V6 is decent, but it’s a tad less thrilling than the 260-hp rating would suggest… it takes a beat or two for the 6-speed automatic transmission to kick down and good passing power to arrive.

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First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
All-wheel-drive IS 300s are powered by a 260-hp 3.5-liter V6 that’s paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Eighteen-inch wheels are now standard on IS 300s, in place of last year’s 17s.

But updated or new powertrains cost money, and Lexus would have to pass those costs on to the buyer… which would negate the pricing advantages the IS enjoys over newer-design rivals such as the Cadillac CT4 and Genesis G70. So instead, the IS gets a pretty effective nip and a tuck, a “shave and a haircut,” for 2021. The updates take an aging—but still good—basic design and inject it with some new life.

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First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS
The Lexus IS’s updates for 2021 don’t fundamentally transform its character, but they help keep this entry-level luxury sport sedan a worthwhile alternative to newer-design premium compact car class rivals.

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First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS Gallery

First Spin: 2021 Lexus IS

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