It’s not often you get behind the wheel of a vehicle that really does change things. And I believe I just spent the week in a vehicle that does just that. I’m talking about the redesigned 2021 Lexus IS sedan, a compact luxury sports sedan that is not the same IS I drove a few years ago. While built on the same platform, the slightly wider IS has notable new driving dynamics and sharpened performance thanks to the introduction of the new Lexus Driving Signature.
What exactly is the new Lexus Driving Signature? It’s a more engaged, sportier driving experience designed to connect the driver more to the car as well as the road. It’s the result of a combination of rigidity, chassis and suspension enhancements made under the sheet metal. Lexus tested and developed it at its new technical center in Shimoyama, Japan. The IS is the first Lexus model to showcase it and after having to keep my thoughts to myself for a few weeks due to a media embargo, following last week’s official media launch (thank you Lexus for the wine, cheese and brownie care package), I can now officially tell you that it lives up to the improved driving experience as promised.
There are two models in the lineup - the 300 and 350. One of the biggest changes this year is that the F Sport is only available on the 350 and all 350’s will be F Sport models, like the Prototype I’m reviewing. It’s available in either rear or all-wheel drive and mine is equipped with the latter. AWD models are equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddle shifters. Rear-wheel drive models come with an 8-speed. My test model also arrived with the Dynamic Handling Package which means a slew of goodies from a carbon fiber spoiler, unique 19-inch lightweight forged staggered alloy BBS wheels and adaptive variable suspension, also improved for 2021.
We’ll get to the IS’s sizzling looks in a moment, but let’s start with the powertrain and my driving impressions. Under the hood there are three engine options, and the F Sport has a carryover 3.5-liter V6 that delivers 311-horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The power felt great off the line and beyond. The 6-speed shifts smoothly (and if you’re wondering why Lexus opted to keep a 6-speed in the lineup, it was a pricing thing. ) The AWD drive version makes 0-to-60 in 5.7 seconds, the rear-wheel drive version in 5.6.
The new Lexus Driving Signature incorporates a reinforced body structure with more support to enhance handling and braking. Changes to the suspension include 20% lighter coil springs and other weight reductions for crisper handling. Add the Dynamic Handling Package’s adaptive variable suspension - with its added Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom drive modes - and you’re in for a fun ride. It felt more engaged than my previous experience in an IS, with more driver feedback and responsive steering and particularly so in Sport+ mode. While not a vehicle designed for tight cornering, it sure-footedly handled curves and round-abouts.
What also impresses is the incredibly smooth ride. Lexus made this vehicle sportier without sacrificing the hallmark Lexus ride we’ve come to expect. It’s also very quiet -- except when you want to hear the exhaust note, or turn up the absolutely incredible optional 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.
My 2021 IS F Sport arrived in a look-at-me Infrared premium paint color. I love the contoured profile and especially the lines that sleekly flow down the low-profile hood to meet the front end. F Sport accents include a black grille with a glossy black finish and new black rocker panels. Premium triple-beam LED headlights are optional. Brake and side air ducts are larger than on the 300 to allow for greater airflow for high performance driving.
An L-shaped LED blade-style light bar stretches across the rear where you also find an F Sport dual exhaust and rear diffuser. The Dynamic Handling Package’s lightweight carbon fiber spoiler and unique 19-inch lightweight forged staggered alloy matte black BBS wheels add the finishing touches to its sporty flair. (This is also the first Lexus IS to offer 19-inch wheels. )
The Lexus IS F Sport driver-centric interior compliments the sporty character of the vehicle. It’s full of soft touch materials, and the F Sport features exclusive Ash Wood trim along with silver accents. Geometric-patterned trim adorns the door panels. I like the sporty circular air vents and the touch sensitive dual-zone A/C controls.
The NuLuxe seats are soft and comfortable - thanks to an injected foam molding technique for improved support - and perhaps the cushiest I’ve experienced in an F Sport model. The driver’s seat is 10-way power. The front seats are heated and ventilated seats as well. It’s a roomy cabin with plenty of head and leg room. The AWD model does have an area in the driver’s footwell that bows out a bit from the console, but I didn’t have an issue with it.
It’s equipped with a leather-wrapped and ash wood trim steering wheel along with a leather-wrapped gear shift knob. The center console also houses your drive modes.
The 60/40 split rear seat is roomy with comfortable seats and plenty of head room. Keep in mind there is a large hump in the middle floorboard. A cool feature is the rear window sun shade.
A great new feature in the 2021 IS is the 10.3-inch multi-media high-resolution touchscreen. Lexus recently introduced a touchscreen to the lineup. The display has been moved 5.9 inches closer to the driver than the previous screen for easier access. You can also control the system using a touchpad on the center console. Lexus’ great multimedia, graphics and navigation systems don’t disappoint. Lexus’ optional Dynamic Voice Command is also one of the best out there. The system is compatible with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Alexa. The 8-inch LFA-inspired TFT instrument panel is a familiar face and retracts to reveal driver information. You’ll find two USB ports in the centre console.
The IS comes with Lexus’ latest 2.5+ safety system which includes some enhanced features thanks to enhanced radar and camera technology. Additionally, Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert are standard on the lineup.
My 350 F Sport’s Dynamic Handling Package ($3,800) includes AVS, the 19-inch alloy matte black BBS wheels, and carbon fiber rear spoiler.
Other options include the power moonroof ($1,100), Triple Beam LED headlights ($1,250), Navigation w/ Mark Levinson sound system ($2,750), Intuitive Parking Assist with Auto Braking and Rear Pedestrian Detection and Panoramic View Monitor ($1,400), and the premium paint color ($595).
An important point to make is about pricing. Lexus priced this vehicle to make it attainable for the compact luxury sport buyer, and also to keep it competitive. The 2021 Lexus 350 F Sport AWD is priced from $44,900, which is only around $1,000 more than the 2020 300 F Sport AWD. Paperwork provided with my prototype gives it a MSRP as equipped of $56,820.
The new IS is an exciting moment for the brand and the new Lexus Driving Signature is successful in creating a dynamic handling, fun to drive compact luxury sports sedan.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport AWD
- What I liked most: Engaging driving dynamics, 17-speaker Mark Levinson Sound, sizzling exterior.
- What I would change: A wireless charging option would be great.
- MSRP: F Sport AWD model base price $44,900; As equipped $56,820.
- Fuel Economy: Rated at 19 in town/26 highway/22 combined.
- Official Color: Infrared (Premium color).
- Odometer reading when tested: 9,500 miles.
- Weight: 3,880 pounds.
- Spare Tire: Temporary.
- Length-Width-Height: 185.43” long/72.4”wide/56.69” tall.
- Fuel Tank Capacity: 17.4 gallons with the filler on the XXX side. (Premium fuel.)
- Towing Capacity: N/A.
- 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport in a few words: The best-handling, most fun to drive Lexus IS ever.
- Final Assembly Location: Aichi, Japan.
- Manufacturers website: Lexus
- Warranty: 40-month/50,000-mile Basic Warranty/ 72-month/70,000-mile Powertrain Warranty/ 72-month unlimited-mileage Corrosion Perforation Warranty.