Small changes sometimes bring big improvements. Just ask Lexus. The 2021 Lexus IS didn’t start from a blank piece of paper; instead, it continues on the same platform it’s been on since 2013 but receives small styling and mechanical upgrades to make the sedan better. The IS is the Japanese luxury brand’s most important sedan, and in an era where sedans are on a slow decline (and the GS is retiring), this revised sport sedan carries even more weight in the Lexus lineup.
Standing out in a crowded segment (especially between sport sedans) is key for the 2021 Lexus IS. And for the last few years, the IS hasn’t really distinguished itself. Newcomers such as the Genesis G70 and Alfa Romeo Giulia gained attention thanks to their handling, overall performance, and great engineering that shame the BMW 3 Series, the segment’s pioneer. Lexus is reportedly working on a brand-new IS that will be hotter than the current model, but in the meantime, it’s staying relevant in the segment by bringing small updates to the IS for 2021. We spent a few days driving a rear-wheel-drive 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport and put its updates to the test at the track and on California’s twisting mountain roads.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: Is It F-ing Fast?
Like all 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sports, our model was powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that delivers 311 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Our example came with the eight-speed automatic transmission that sent the engine’s power to the rear wheels. An all-wheel-drive system is also available, though you’ll get a six-speed automatic gearbox instead. Those are relatively healthy horsepower and torque figures for a naturally aspirated V-6, and it showed at the track. But compared to the competition, the IS fell a bit short.
Our IS 350 F Sport sprinted to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and completed the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds at 100.1 mph. Compared to the last rear-drive Lexus IS 350 F Sport we tested (a 2014 model), the 2021 model was 0.1 second slower to 60 mph but 0.3 mph faster through the quarter mile. (The 2014 IS 350 F Sport recorded a trap speed of 99.8 mph through the quarter.)
One of the last BMW 3 Series we tested was a 2019 330i xDrive. That’s not comparing apples to apples because of the BMW’s four-cylinder engine and optional all-wheel-drive system, but the 3 Series was just on par with the Lexus, crossing the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 98.1 mph and getting from 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. Our 2019 Genesis G70 long-term car, which came equipped with rear-wheel drive and the upgraded twin-turbocharged 3.3-liter V-6 engine, was notably faster than the IS, reaching 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and completing the quarter mile in 13 seconds flat at 108.5 mph. Even our long-term 2018 Alfa Romeo Giulia with the base turbocharged I-4 engine was faster than the IS, reaching 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and getting to the quarter mile in 13.8 seconds at 100.6 mph.
Road test editor Chris Walton enjoyed the IS 350 F Sport at the track. “This car is closer to what a 3 Series once felt like than a 3 Series does now,” he said. On the figure-eight course, which Walton went around in 25.4 seconds at 0.93 g, the IS turned in crisply, and the limited-slip differential helped put down the power so Walton could slide the car with confidence. “Overall, this is a very nice sports sedan, and the first F Sport I feel made a difference,” Walton said. “It feels light and lively without feeling on edge. More of this, please, Lexus.”
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: How the F Does It Drive?
Although its test numbers proved middling for the segment, the updates made to the IS helped it deliver a better feel on the road. On an outing to Angeles Crest Highway, north of Los Angeles, the IS was quite fun to drive. With Sport S+ mode engaged, the car’s steering feel was superb, delivering great feedback of what was happening at the wheels. And although the transmission held gears slightly longer in Sport S+ mode, it still upshifted too soon for our liking. The V-6 felt and sounded alive in Sport S+, but the transmission could have amplified that sensation by holding gears longer. The gearbox downshifted quickly when it sensed inputs at the accelerator pedal, though, which improved the driving experience somewhat.
Something that the IS did really well was blending comfort and luxury with the sporty performance that’s the hallmark of sedans in this segment. The IS felt more comfortable than dynamic, but as we saw on Angeles Crest, it can amplify the experience to deliver an enthusiastic ride. The suspension did a good job controlling body roll on tight turns, though it’s not to the levels of the Giulia or the G70. Still, the IS managed to feel confident on mountain roads.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: The Inside Story
Lexus updated the interior of the IS a bit to make things more comfortable. The improvement we liked the most was the new trackpad and 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Touchscreen functionality was previously missing from the Lexus sedan’s infotainment system. Although its position on top of the dash might be a bit out of reach for the driver, the screen was easy to operate. I avoided using the trackpad and spent most of my time using Apple CarPlay. Android Auto is also available. Although the infotainment system itself proved far from the best in the industry, it’s easy to use. Unlike some systems that only display a fraction of the screen when CarPlay is connected, the display in the IS thoughtfully showed a full screen.
Our IS test car’s Circuit Red seats and ash wood-trimmed steering wheel imparted a sense of elegance to the sports sedan’s insides. Although the cabin’s design hasn’t changed much, it’s small updates were welcomed. The center stack was redesigned to allow for a bit more space, while the old square air vents were replaced with more stylish circular units. The 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system sounded crisp and clear and had me turning up the volume when my favorite songs came on.
The IS has less rear-passenger space than some of its competitors, and that was noticeable to this 6-foot-1 scribe. The car’s fastback-like profile limited headroom, while its legroom was just adequate enough for me to squeeze into the rear seat with the driver’s seat set to my driving position.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: C.R.E.A.M.
The rear-drive 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport starts at $43,925, but our example added a bunch of options that raised its price to $55,050. That’s a bit too high for what you get, especially when you compare it to the Alfa Romeo Giulia or the Genesis G70. Sure, you may not get a cabin this nice in either of those two sedans, but both offer a better driving experience and still manage to deliver a well-appointed interior.
The reality is that the small changes Lexus made to the IS 350 F Sport are the equivalent of taking a half step forward—it’s better than before but not up to the standards set by the segment’s best. Sedans may be declining, but the competition is still stiff.
|2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$55,050|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||3.5L/311-hp/280-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,787 lb (53/47%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||185.4 x 72.4 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.7 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||14.2 sec @ 100.1 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||110 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.93 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.4 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||20/28/23 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/120 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.85 lb/mile|