2021 Lexus IS 350 RWD F Sport First Drive Review10/15/2020
When we reviewed the 202o Lexus IS just a few months ago, we lamented how far it has fallen behind the curve. Rivals offered a superior drive experience and more modern interiors compared to the tech-deficient Lexus. Finally, for the new model year, the 2021 Lexus IS receives a thorough update, though not a complete redesign. Are the changes enough to help the compact sport sedan catch up to its competition?
By targeting young, performance-minded buyers, Lexus is putting a heavy emphasis on the F Sport line. Almost half of its IS cars will be F Sports, Lexus anticipates. Previously, the F Sport was available on the lower-output IS 300, but for 2021, it can only be had on the top-tuned IS 350, rated at 311 hp. In fact, all 2021 IS 350 models will bear the F Sport moniker. The 350 has always been the gem of the lineup, as the four-cylinder felt underpowered, and the detuned 260-hp V-6 didn’t offer the best bang for your buck.
Before hopping behind the wheel, we could already tell the update is paying dividends. Although it’s only a little more than an inch longer and wider than before, the 2021 Lexus IS has more pleasing proportions. A long hood progresses seamlessly into a sleek rear deck with newly connected taillights. Up front, the bigger grille makes the IS look lower and more planted to the ground. The headlights and daytime running lights are now integrated into one unit for a more cohesive look.
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But something made us uneasy: The 2021 IS sedan is underpinned by a platform that dates back to 2013. Should we expect a wobbly ride similar to what we encountered when we drove the outgoing 2020 model? Although it utilizes the same basic architecture as before, the updated IS promises big changes under the sheet metal. First, Lexus stiffened the chassis in an effort to reduce vibration. It also enhanced the suspension with lighter coil springs, control arms, and anti-roll bars. New swing-valve shock absorbers add a second valve to maintain ride comfort over small road imperfections. In order to get the adaptive variable suspension, you now must opt for the Dynamic Handling Package, which brings other performance goodies such as new 19-inch matte black wheels, a carbon-fiber rear spoiler, and Sport S, Sport S+, and Custom drive settings. A Torsen limited slip differential is also part of the package.
The hard work paid off. We noticed an improvement in ride quality on our 2021 IS F Sport tester with the Dynamic Handling Package compared to the old IS. Although the suspension remains firm and you can still feel grooves in the pavement, it is controlled and no longer bounces over big bumps in the road. The suspension kneads out imperfections large and small, so drivers aren’t jostled around. Even at high speeds, and in the sportiest suspension setting, the ride is stable and composed. But some wind noise had us turning up the radio a little getting on to the highway. Living up to its name, the Dynamic Handling Package delivers sharp steering, requiring few corrections at the wheel. Eco mode provides a light steering feel, while Sport S+ mode is considerably tighter.
The engine in the IS 350 is a carryover, but we’re not complaining. The 3.6-liter V-6 engine pumps out 311 hp and 280 lb-ft, providing strong acceleration for all the driving situations we encountered. It doesn’t immediately leap off the line, but it gains power quickly as you accelerate. The full, evocative engine note matches the car’s sporty intentions.
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Open the doors, and the interior should look very familiar if you’ve spent time in the previous IS. For better or worse, the center stack layout is largely the same, sparing no room for helpful storage cubbies. A few vestiges remain: a CD player and an old-school clock face. That said, the interior has improved greatly thanks to finer materials and a healthy dose of modern technology. Unlike the previous screen, the larger 10.3-inch unit on our tester allows touch controls and is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Drivers can also control the infotainment screen with a new touchpad that’s slightly easier to use than the unruly mouse-like controller from the previous IS. Our advice: Just stick to the trusty touchscreen because it’s easy enough to reach from the driver seat.
Eagle-eyed observers will notice a few other small but important changes. Lexus spruced up the temperature haptic controls, making them bigger and more touch-friendly. Circular vents on either side of the cabin harken back to the original IS.
Our model came with perforated and bolstered faux leather seats that are plush to the touch, featuring heating and ventilation up front. Ash wood trim on the steering wheel and subtle metallic accents throughout the cabin add to the elegant feel. Other goodies include a vivid 8-inch instrument cluster display and a crisp 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system. Drivers will also find it easy to see out the cabin, with a low-set windshield and side windows.
Once again, though, buyers looking for spacious quarters will be disappointed. Key rivals like the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Genesis G70 offer more legroom. At 10.8 cubic feet, the trunk is also small compared to some rivals. But that’s not why you’re buying a sport sedan, is it?
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The Lexus IS 350 F Sport is actually cheaper than before. Prices start at $43,925, making it $2,475 less expensive than last year. AWD versions start at $45,925 or $1,810 less than before. Keep in mind that previous F Sport models came standard with adaptive variable suspension, which is now optional with the new Dynamic Handling Package that costs $3,800 on RWD models and $4,200 on AWD cars. Still, the IS F Sport is a cheaper alternative to the 2021 BMW M340i ($55,695) and the Audi S4 ($50,945), though both have a bit more power.
Some other luxury compact sedans might be more refined and engaging to drive, but the Lexus IS can now stand proudly with its competition. Key improvements in ride quality, technology, and interior comfort are enough to keep it worthy of buyers’ considerations.
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