Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: July 14, 2021
A part of me knows that Lexus won’t sell many of these rear-wheel driven IS sedans, let alone one without an F Sport package, but their product planning team must be quite confident to still offer one in Canada.
There are a few key differences between the RWD and AWD variants of the IS 300. Aside from the obvious difference in driven wheels, the RWD utilizes a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, whereas the AWD uses a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 instead. The 2.0L produces 241 hp with a more efficient 8-speed automatic gearbox, whereas the V6 makes 260 hp with a more antiquated 6-speed. The RWD should be more efficient then, with less driven wheels, a smaller engine, and the fact that it’s 60 kg lighter.
It should be better to drive as well without a front axle muddying the steering feedback. But out on the open road, the IS 300 RWD is slightly disappointing. If they matched the more powerful V6 with a sportier-tuned gearbox, then it would cater to enthusiasts who actually care about driving dynamics, how well a vehicle feels and steers at higher speeds, and how it manages corners and undulations. But it provides neither, nor does it inspire confidence. Even with the minor 2021 revisions such as an increase in body rigidity and a revised suspension, the IS lacks driver engagement and a sense of athleticism.
The IS chassis has always been a solid foundation but a touch on the heavy side, and in the IS 300 RWD it’s further let down by a lethargic engine and an unwilling transmission that just can’t keep up with manual shifting. The delay between hitting the gas pedal and actual forward movement is staggeringly slow, disengaging the driver from any sort of thrill or involvement. The steering is light and somewhat faithful to rotation, nicely guiding the front axle without interference from the engine, but it’s not a significant improvement over the AWD, and we doubt its core audience would ever notice.
There were only a few instances where we felt that the RWD’s traction was hampered, once when negotiating a left turn through an intersection in heavy rain conditions, but grip was quickly sorted as the traction control kicked in and worked its wonders. No harm no foul. But where the IS clearly excels, RWD or not, is in ride comfort. Dynamic acuity aside, the IS rides and glides with a clear focus on proving its worth via road mannerisms and a calm demeanor when negotiating pockmarked roads.
And it’s clearly more fuel efficient as well, averaging an impressive 9.5 L/100km over a mix of both city and highway driving, above par for a four-cylinder luxury compact sedan. The AWD model we drove yielded 12.6 L/100km by comparison. Both trims still require 91-octane premium fuel at the pump, though.
The biggest revision to the 2021 Lexus IS is with the exterior, and it has become one of the most homogenized and balanced designs in the compact sport sedan market. The 3 Series looks quite tame now, and the C-Class is too rounded and soft. Though the massive Lexus spindle grill remains the same shape, there’s an Audi-esque appeal to its thin headlights and lower and wider stance. The rear has also been slimmed down with contoured hips and a full-width light bar that produces a unique signature in the dark. It’s got a decent-sized rear spoiler too.
However, the interior hasn't quite kept up with the times, with the same basic layout as the 2014 IS Sedan from seven years ago. That’s a lifetime in the automotive world. While it’s not as cramped as the Lexus NX, it seems Lexus couldn’t ergonomically find a way to fit the clock, trackpad, driving mode dial, and army of HVAC and media buttons together, and also offer some semblance of organization - a major contrast to the wonderfully arranged LC 500 cabin. At least the seats are cozy and supportive but rear accommodations remain similarly tight and tough for my six-foot figure to sit behind myself without ramming my knees into the seatback.
The IS retains a standard 8-inch touchscreen but it’s upsized to a brand new 10.3-inch variant on more expensive trims. Lexus has also shifted the screen 80 mm closer to the driver - perhaps they realized that touch input is much easier than their messy trackpad.
So why would someone choose RWD over AWD aside from price? Well, there are a few advantages. The RWD IS 300 is more efficient with its smaller engine and superior 8-speed gearbox, has a tighter turning circle, and better steering. But they are largely overshadowed by a lethargic turbo engine and a slight dip in traction when the weather gets rough, a constant worry in the Canadian climate. The AWD is still our pick of the litter. We love the linearity and responsiveness of the free breathing V6 engine, and we can put up with the thirstier mileage and old 6-speed gearbox. The added guardian angel of traction helps too.
Model: 2021 Lexus IS 300 RWD F Sport Series 1
Paint Type: Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0
Base Price: $42,950
Price as Tested: $43,600
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,710 / 1,840 / 1,435
Curb weight (kg): 1,685
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 241 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, RWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 11.0 / 7.6 / 9.5
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.6