Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: February 15, 2021
SUVs may command an overwhelming portion of the automotive market but you can’t count out sedans just yet, especially compact premium sedans like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Lexus has also been tinkering in this market since 1999 with the IS, and have done fairly well. The IS has always impressed us with its upscale interiors, handsome looks, and smooth but always underpowered engines. The last IS that we tested was back in 2018, and while we enjoyed its trick instrument cluster, polished powertrain, and impressive road manners, we heavily criticized its horrid infotainment unit, somewhat outdated 6-speed gearbox, and cramped interior and center console. Let’s see if the new 2021 mid-cycle refresh changes any of that.
Right off the bat, you can tell Lexus paid clear attention to the exterior styling. The entire front end has been uplifted with a cleaner and more sophisticated look. Though the massive 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. Safe to say that Lexus finally designed a headturner of a sedan, especially in F Sport guise that loads a more aggressive front and rear bumper, rear lip spoiler, 19-inch wheels (a first for the IS) with larger rear tires, an F Sport exhaust accompanied by a sound generator that pipes in extra noise into the cabin, and a unique rear diffuser. We also have some new paint colours for 2021, including Grecian Water that you see on the model we tested. So far so good.
The interior receives a few revisions but unfortunately, nothing that makes us fall in love with it. 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. Nevertheless, we suspect most owners will sync up their phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and use that instead. Synthetic leather seating that Lexus coins as NuLuxe comes standard now, along with power and heated front seats, and the full suite of driver assistance features like automatic emergency braking, frontal collision warning, dynamic radar cruise control, and blind spot monitoring. The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel has also been slightly updated with a circling crease on the airbag cover that slims down its visual size.
Otherwise, the general layout remains the same with its raised dashboard, massive analog clock perched within, and a somewhat cluttered center console. 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.
Powertrain options for the IS are carried over but with minor revisions. There are still three models to choose from: IS 300 RWD that features a 2.0-litre turbo-four delivering 241 hp and 258 lb-ft through an updated 8-speed automatic with adaptive transmission control, IS 300 AWD with a 3.5-litre V6 pushing out 260 hp and 236 lb-ft through a 6-speed gearbox, and the IS 350 AWD with the same V6 but uprated to 311 hp and 280 lb-ft through the same 6-speed. Lexus also says they have beefed up the body rigidity by reinforcing the body structures and increasing the number of welding points, ultimately benefiting ride comfort and steering response. They have also revised the suspension to accommodate the larger 19-inch wheels and have reduced the car’s unsprung weight via lighter components.
We tested the IS 300 AWD with its V6 and 6-speed gearbox, which we predict to be the volume seller of the lineup, and though we couldn’t exactly tell a major difference with the outgoing model, we can’t argue that it’s an exceedingly gentle and refined unit. Torque builds up linearly without it being choked up by turbochargers, and even though low-end acceleration won’t kick you into the seat back, it should be more than enough for casual drivers and the occasional punt up the road. The 300+ horsepower offered by the IS 350 is a nice treat but far from necessary. The non-F-Sport IS 300 makes some decent noises as well when flooring the pedal and though a lot of it is piped through the cabin speakers, the bass-filled grunt is incredibly satisfying.
The outgoing IS model always felt a little heavy and its aging platform meant it was never an adept sports sedan. While the new and more rigid IS is still a far cry from dancing with the stars, it has become somewhat more engaging. There’s a lighter and more delicate feel to the steering, giving you more confidence to accurately place the front wheels where you want them. Road comfort remains exemplary, and it’s no different here with the revised suspension setup. The IS heavily prioritizes a soft and supple suspension tune over a stiff one, as it lacks the fidelity and zestiness that make the BMW 3 Series such a compelling dancing partner. The 19-inch wheels don’t seem to impact ride quality, but only enhance it with a larger contact patch with the road.
It’s odd that Lexus still retains a 6-speed transmission as the entire field has moved onto 8- and 9-speeds. It seems they haven’t found a way to mate the new 8-speed to this V6. It is not a terrible gearbox, just a little slow to react when manually taking charge via the paddles. A bit long geared as a result as well, and lacks the crispy shifts and resulting fuel efficiency of the 8-speed ZF in the rivaling 3 Series. Over a mix of both city and highway driving, we averaged a shoulder-shrugging 12.6 L/100km - slightly higher than the class average.
The updated 2021 Lexus IS is far from being a bona fide sports sedan but that’s alright. Its excellent road manners, handsome styling, and polished powertrains have both our thumbs pointing upwards. But when you look at it as a whole, you can’t help but notice its drabby gearbox tune, cramped interior accommodations, and messy infotainment unit. Lack of focused performance aside, there’s a lot going for the new IS. It’s one of the best looking sedans out there. There just isn’t much else that warrants an upgrade from the outgoing model, or a certain cross-shop against its more cohesive and well-packaged rivals.
Model: 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD Ultra Luxury
Paint Type: Grecian Water
Base Price: $43,400
Price as Tested: $51,000
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,710 / 1,840 / 1,440
Curb weight (kg): 1,745
Engine: 3.5-litre V6
Horsepower: 260 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 236 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 12.2 / 9.0 / 10.8
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 12.6