Lexus and parent company Toyota have a horrible habit of letting cars go stale by ignoring them for years. This is precisely what happened to the Lexus IS. After the IS was introduced in 2014, Lexus didn’t pay the sedan any attention. Lexus fans will be happy to hear that the IS has finally received an update for the 2021 model year.
So, what’s new? A quick rundown of the list includes new headlights, taillights, and grille, a reworked infotainment system with smartphone compatibility and touch capability, along with handling upgrades in the form of a stiffer chassis and revised suspension. For Lexus, these are massive changes and they do wonders for the IS. The sporty, luxury sedan goes from sitting at the back of the pack because of its age to being relevant. More crucially, the much-needed changes result in an IS that feels fresh and fun to drive – as long as you get the right spec.
Standing out in the compact luxury crowd isn’t easy. You have drop-dead gorgeous sedans like the Alfa Romeo Giulia competing side by side against the hideous BMW 4-Series. Changes to the IS 350 F Sport’s design aren’t dramatic, but they do a world of difference in helping the sedan not fall through the cracks.
The more angular headlights, larger spindle grille, more prominent fender flares, and reworked taillights that are now connected with a slim horizontal bar, give the IS 350 F Sport a sportier look than before. This thing looks angry, aggressive, and ready to take on some curvy roads. People complimented the car all week, claiming they loved the color, which is Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0, and the way the bold design. It’s a win.
Changes on the inside aren’t nearly as large as the ones that took place on the outside. Redesigned elements, like the circular air vents, new trim, and HVAC panel, are positioned alongside items and an overall design that hasn’t changed since 2014. After getting a glance at the outside, seeing how little Lexus has done on the inside is disappointing.
The cabin still feels upscale and I could watch the instrument cluster dance between its modes all day, but it feels old. And dated. Thankfully, Lexus has updated the infotainment system for 2021, fitting the sedan with a 10.3-inch touchscreen that comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as standard. You can choose to use the tricky trackpad if you’d like, but the touchscreen is far easier to use. The trackpad isn’t the only thing that’s hard to use, as the sliding buttons for the HVAC are peculiar, too.
The IS 350 F Sport still gets the main things right. The steering wheel is thick and meaty, the front seats are comfortable and supportive, while the shift knob that’s angled toward the driver is a nice touch that makes it feel more comfortable in hand. The issues include tight rear seats and an atrocious cargo capacity of just 10.8 cubic feet.
Despite the changes, Lexus decided to maintain the IS 350 F Sport’s powertrains from last year. That means the IS 350 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine. With all-wheel drive, our tester was rated at 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque and came with a six-speed automatic transmission. The F Sport adds a limited-slip rear differential (with rear-wheel-drive models), adaptive suspension, and staggered 19-inch wheels.
While the V6, AWD system, and transmission remain unchanged for 2021, Lexus has made quite a few changes underneath the body. The sedan comes with a more rigid body and an updated suspension that includes new coil springs, lighter stabilizer bars, aluminum A-arms, and swing-valve shock absorbers.
The lack of a new engine, but updated suspension result in two sides of the coin with the IS 350 F Sport. The engine is fine, it produces a decent amount of power and sounds great, but the six-speed and AWD system suck the joy out of really pushing the sedan. Shifts are slow and clunky, while the AWD system has so much grip, you wind up getting a fistful of understeer when you attempt to have any fun.
There’s some good news and it has to deal with what’s underneath the body. The chassis is really good. It feels stiff – nowhere near as racing-derived as the new Acura TLX – and the ride quality manages to be both supple and capable. Turn-in is sharp, while the brakes are strong. The steering is accurate, though it’s incredibly heavy in the S+ mode, and the feedback is as informative as a White House press release.
Driving the IS 350 F Sport, you immediately get the feeling that the rear-wheel-drive model with the eight-speed auto would be a far more willing dance partner. The car feels like it could easily handle a V8 engine. Oh, in case you didn’t know, that’s apparently happening with the IS 500 F Sport Performance.
Kudos to Lexus for finally updating the 2021 IS 350 F Sport. It doesn’t get everything right, but it manages to live in a sweet area for the majority of people. It’s sporty enough, looks great, manages to be comfortable on a daily basis and when driving on a twisty road, and has a V6 engine that makes a decent amount of power. If you’re really looking to get the best IS 350 F Sport, we recommend getting rear-wheel drive. Either way, it’s nice to see Lexus have a sporty sedan that’s actually enjoyable to drive again.