2021 Lexus IS First Drive | A model remodel

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The Lexus IS has been with us for more than two decades now. It was first presented in 1999 and celebrated its 21st birthday this year. To mark the occasion, Lexus made a major overhaul of the compact sedan, including a revamped powertrain range, updated interior, and a much-needed technical update to keep the sporty four-door car updated in a market that calls for crossovers and SUVs.
First things first, the 2021 Lexus IS isn't actually new. In fact, Lexus is still referring to it internally as a third generation car, despite the "redesign" and repositioning for 2021 that ultimately is more about the products elsewhere in the Lexus range than the IS itself. We shall come back to that.
The 2021 IS model series presented in June was reduced to just two models, the IS 300 and the IS 350 F-Sport. The highlight of the standard equipment is an 8-inch touchscreen, which is almost 5.5 inches closer to the driver than the outgoing model. A 10.3-inch touchscreen is available as an upgrade, and perhaps most notably, the IS is finally available with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Integration Suites.
Despite the common name and number, the IS 300 is actually offered with two very different engines, depending on how many wheels are driven. Power for the rear-wheel drive IS 300 comes from a 2.0-liter, in-line, turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It is bolted to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The IS 300 AWD (see image below) combines all-wheel drive with a 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 delivering 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, as well as a six-speed automatic transmission. There's nothing confusing about that, is it?

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Fortunately, things look a little more normal with the IS 350 F Sport. Its powerful V6 is alive and well, with a displacement of 3.5 liters and a power of 311 horses and 280 pound-feet of twist. It's the same engine regardless of the drivetrain, though rear-wheel drive is still tied to the eight-speed automatic while all-wheel drive gets six-speed. The fastest variant is the RWD model, which cancels a run to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds. The AWD variant is supposed to be an all-weather option, not a performance improver.
The careful reader will find that we are still referring to the IS 350 F Sport and not just the IS 350. This is because the F Sport package is no longer available on the IS 300 and is instead available in everyone for the US -Market built IS 350 is branded. It includes a cold air intake, a sportier exhaust, a sound generator for the cabin, 19-inch wheels (18's are standard), a dash of F-Sport badges, and a body kit that adds parts like a rear spoiler and diffuser into the rear bumper integrated. Heated and ventilated front seats are also included. A handling package available offers adaptive suspension for those who want access to an even sharper ride. However, if you stick to the basic F Sport, you will benefit from a static suspension that is as sporty as the sharpest adaptive mode of the outgoing model.
So why the strange mix-match of powertrains and the transferred six-speed gearbox? The same reason the chassis itself remains virtually unchanged: cost. It's no secret that sedans suffer, and to complicate matters, Lexus has two of them for practically the same price.
The Avalon-based (and therefore front-wheel drive) ES sedan may no longer be the entry-level model in the Lexus range thanks to the introduction of the UX and NX crossovers, but it remains one of the brand's most accessible and affordable offerings. For just $ 900 more than the IS, you get a lot more interior space and a less enthusiastically oriented ride (though it's barely the old rollaway couch), which makes it a distinctive proposition at this luxury price.
It also means that Lexus effectively has both compact and midsize sedans available for the exact same price, but that's not as nonsensical as it may seem. The ES appeals to buyers who place more value on comfort, practicality and, in the case of the ES Hybrid, on fuel consumption. In contrast, the IS can exist to please the younger buyer who wants something sportier, noisier, and more stylish. And that's not just hypothetical. The IS attracts some of the youngest buyers in Lexus showrooms, and some of the youngest buyers of sports sedans across the segment, Lexus says.
"When developing the new IS, we had primarily thought of making it a car that offers excellent communication with the driver regardless of the road or driving situation," said Lexus chief engineer Naoki Kobayashi when the 2021 model was originally designed was announced. "We wanted to make the new IS into a compact sports sedan from Lexus that offers a high level of driving comfort and a high level of vehicle control."
In short, Lexus hopes that its sedan commitment will keep the door open to young, avid buyers despite this money-saving approach. But will enthusiasts accept what is essentially a second refresh of an aging sports sedan platform as a viable option?
If ISIS has an advantage, if they have old bones, they're pretty good. Dynamically, the third generation IS has always been pretty solid, although there wasn't a real performance variant. We've occasionally criticized the F Sport package for being a little too tough on broken roads, but by and large the outbound IS was handled well and drove well enough.
While the base chassis may not have changed for 2021, the suspension has nonetheless been completely redesigned. We tested a 2021 IS 350 F Sport AWD with the Active Variable Suspension add-on and, to be honest, impressed it. If it stays normal, it's very comfortable on Detroit's crater-like concrete surfaces, and even when cranked up to the sportiest setting, the ride quality won't be affected too much.
The V6 does a good job and sounds pretty good with the help of some electronic assistants. However, age has its drawbacks, and unfortunately the naturally aspirated 3.5 liter doesn't feel like a modern one. Compared to the reinforced six-cylinders offered by competitors like the BMW M340i and the Mercedes-AMG C43, the Lexus grinder feels a bit flat. We haven't had a chance to test the downgraded V6 in the AWD IS 300 and, frankly, we're fine with that. We can't imagine it being particularly inspiring. The turbo-four in the rear-wheel drive model is far more appealing.
And while many sports sedans are designed to use their all-wheel drive systems to increase performance, the implementation here only adds weight and complexity, not to mention a noticeable lead in the footwell on the driver's side to free up space in the center tunnel for the necessary drive train components . Sure, it's padded, but it's tight in there. And while the associated six-speed gearbox still works flawlessly, it looks a little dated on a data sheet next to the eight-speed used on RWD models.
Fortunately, Lexus was making significant strides where ISIS needed it most: inside. The updated infotainment system is better day and night than what was previously offered. The integration of smartphones (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay) is in and of itself a massive upgrade. As with the 2020 RX, adding touchscreen functionality makes life with the Remote Touch surface a lot easier. The available 10.3-inch screen is clear and responsive, its closer location is a great help and the clearly labeled menus are easy to navigate with the touch of a button. The old mouse-like touchpad is kept, but you never have to use it if you don't want to. Trust us. You do not want that.
And this is another opportunity for us to curse the goofy blinker stems Lexus insists on using these days. Returning to the center only leads to confusion and unintended signals, and in our lives we cannot find a single justification for its existence. Nothing about them is intuitive or useful, and their greatest contribution to society is that Lexus drivers look clueless when they drive for miles with the indicator on.
We found the seats both comfortable and supportive, although they lack some of the adjustment options available from competitors, such as: B. Thigh Extensions. With the F Sport package, they are both heated and ventilated, which is a nice touch. The synthetic leather upholstery is also soft and supple - far more than the synthetic "skins" of many competitors.
Prices for the rear-wheel drive IS 300 start at $ 40,025, including a mandatory target fee of $ 1,025, an increase of just $ 440 over the outgoing 2020 model. The IS 300 AWD increases that number to $ 42,025. Buyers upgrading to the IS 350 F-Sport will have to pay $ 43,925 if they want power to be transferred to the rear axle, or $ 45,925 if they want it to be transferred to the four wheels. Our AWD IS 350 F Sport checked in at $ 56,650 with pretty much every option button ticked.
Overall, the Lexus IS 2021 represents a healthy further development of the compact sports sedan formula. It might not be a breakout star, but it's a solid foundation on which Lexus can develop potentially more enthusiastic options. Some more inspiring engines would be a good next step.
Similar video:
2020 Lexus RX Infotainment Review
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