2021 Lexus IS Review: Sharp New Looks, Same Old Underpinnings

2021 Lexus IS Review

Vehicle Pictured: 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (w/ Luxury Package)

MSRP as tested: $47,700 CAD

Specs: Naturally Aspirated 3.5L V6 (260hp + 236 lb-ft), paired with a 6-Speed Automatic

0-100kmh as tested: 6.1 seconds

Lexus has heavily refreshed its aging IS sports sedan for 2021, giving it an extensive exterior makeover, updating some of its tech, as well as tweaking the suspension and chassis for a sportier drive. Handling and ride quality are as excellent as ever, but the aging interior design and lacklustre powertrain options continue to hold it back from being a truly great sports sedan.

Special thanks to Eugene at Don Valley North Lexus for the opportunity!

Driving Impressions: The Highlight of the Experience

Lexus has always been good at building refined and comfortable cars and the IS is no different; this is arguably the smoothest-riding and quietest cars in the segment (when specced without the stiffer-riding F-Sport package at least). Credit has to be given to the revised suspension which glides over road imperfections even better than before, while still managing to remain flat and well-sorted in corners. The car's well isolated cabin also makes it noticeably quieter than even more luxury-oriented rivals at highway speeds, including the Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4.

Similarly excellent is the crisp handling and well-weighted steering; even in our AWD non F-Sport tester, we had a blast throwing this thing into corners. An Active Variable Suspension is also available in the F-Sport models for even sharper handling at the turn of a knob. For such a dynamic car, it's a shame that Lexus STILL doesn't a more performance-oriented powertrain to go with it.

Behind the wheel of the 2021 Lexus IS

3 Engine Choices: 241hp to 311hp

Lexus IS 300 AWD Badge
The IS300 RWD has a 2.0L turbo, but AWD version features a more powerful 3.5L V6

Powertrains options remain unchanged, with the 3.5L V6 in our IS300 AWD tester producing 260hp, 236 lb-ft torque, and abysmal fuel economy. There's no beating around the fact that competitors offer far punchier and more efficient turbocharged engines, but although this engine is ancient by modern standards, there's some old school charm to this naturally aspirated power plant that makes it a refreshing experience. Benefits include a pretty great exhaust note (far better than any turbo-4 at any rate), a satisfyingly linear power-band with a high redline, and buttery smooth acceleration. Those looking for a bit more 'performance' can jump up to the IS350's up-tuned 311hp engine, cutting down 0-100 times to about 5.7 seconds. It's still not exactly a rocket ship, and we really wish Lexus would offer a more potent powertrain to match the car's handling chops. For reference, a BMW 330i's turbo-4 does the 0-100 run in the same amount of time.

Interestingly, it's the newest engine that disappoints the most; a 241hp turbo-4 in the IS300 RWD also carried over from last year. With this you get gutless acceleration (0-100 in 6.5 seconds) and a far less satisfying exhaust, in exchange for superior fuel economy and a mere $450 CAD in savings. If you're buying the IS, we'd recommend going for the AWD model's larger engine.

Exterior: Much more than a facelift

Perhaps the biggest change with the 2021 Lexus IS is the exterior styling. Much of the panels have been reworked to be more angular and emphasize the body lines and creases, and with its sleeker and wider shape, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is an all new model. Up front, the IS gets a pair of new headlights and slightly tweaked bumper that gives it a more elegant but arguably less aggressive look. Side profile remains similar, with the rear half getting sculpted body lines to emphasize the flared rear hips and wider stance. To complete the wider look, a new rear light bar spans the width of the car around back.

Interior: Better Tech, but Still Outdated

2021 Lexus IS Interior
The newly updated cabin of the Lexus IS (pictured w/ Luxury Package)

A couple years ago the IS’s interior would have been top notch, but next to the high-tech interiors of many modern competitors, it looks and feels outdated. Don't get us wrong; the materials and fit + finish are still among the best, but it's just not quite as visually appealing as other sporty rivals such as the Acura TLX or BMW 330i; or even Lexus's own entry-level UX for that matter. The most noticeable changes include a lower and wider dash, the circular air vents, and gloss black on the centre stack buttons.

Despite updates, tech and features continues to be sore spot for the IS. The addition of a touchscreen for the infotainment system is a welcome change, but the slow and dated UI still feels archaic compared to the sleek systems found in the Germans (though this isn't a huge issue, as Apple CarPlay largely eliminates the need to interact with it in the first place). Other low points include the lack of a panoramic roof and ambient lighting, a very low-resolution backup camera, old-fashioned analogue instrument gauges (though F-Sport models get an attractive digital gauge that incorporates a unique moving physical bezel), and no 360 camera in all but the highest trim levels.

It's not all bad though; most of Lexus's safety + driving assistance features now come standard including adaptive cruise and rear emergency braking (which you often have to pay extra for in other premium brands). Many creature comforts such as heated and cooled seats, driver seat + mirror memory, and an adaptive lighting system are also available for a relatively modest price; no price gouging here.

One last note, the cabin feels a more claustrophobic than rivals thanks to the narrow design in the front, limited headroom, and cramped leg room in the back seats. While I happen to personally appreciate the sporty snug-feeling of the cabin, taller drivers and adults in the back might not so much.

2021 Lexus IS Trunk Space
At 10.8 cubic feet, the Lexus's trunk also offers less room than comparable sport sedans

Final Thoughts:

To be honest, I was kind of worried when revealed the ‘new’ IS would to be a refresh rather than an all new model, especially given how dated the outgoing model was beginning to feel. Frankly we're still looking forward to an all-new model, but the 2021 IS acts as a good holdover, impressing with its sporty yet ultra-smooth drive, sharp looks, overall high quality feel, and excellent value. If you're looking for an alternative to the Germans with excellent bang-for-your-buck and don't mind a slightly outdated and cramped interior, the IS is a solid choice. If you're looking for something similarly sporty but a little larger, consider the equally excellent 2021 Acura TLX.