Driven

Charming: 2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport

Lexus, and all of the automotive world, knows that sedans just don’t pull in the big-bucks quite the way they used to. With more buyers flocking towards ungainly SUV’s, it would be forgiven if Lexus wasn’t keen on focusing too much time, effort, and materials into its sedans. Lexus has done just that, though, and given the 3rd generation Lexus IS a fairly thorough freshening. Exterior styling is new, interior styling and accoutrements have been updated, and even the body structure has been stiffened it all the right areas. Would the 2021 IS350 F Sport and its spiffy new duds and stiff structure prove to be a revelation? Was it worth investing in a sedan, after all? We spent an eventful week at LSB contemplating the answers to such questions.

Our 2021 IS350 F Sport arrived on a frigid January evening, dressed in the extra-cost Cloudburst Gray paint. I myself am not usually a fan of grey paint, but I have to admit the way that Lexus mixed in a very fine metallic flake served to accentuate the surfacing of the car in dramatic fashion in the proper lighting. Whether or not gray paint is worth another $425 is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: this isn’t your average rental car gray. Perhaps the most obvious changes made to the 2021 Lexus IS are the widespread updates made to the exterior. By widespread updates, I mean that the 2021 IS literally looks altogether different than the 2020. The 2021 has completely different headlights and taillights, newly sculpted front and rear fascias, and even new side panel and door surfacing. From the rear 3/4 angle, hints of the Lexus RC’s taillight design can be seen in the newly redesigned IS. The exterior styling update is cohesive front-to-rear, and was complimented by more than one person during the short 1-week stay. Judged on the exterior alone, the 2021’s updates are a resounding success, resulting in a car that looks completely new and yet also very Lexus-like, incorporating new Lexus design themes to tie Lexus’ current lineup together. As is common with Lexus models, the fit and finish was absolutely excellent, with consistent, tight panel gaps and exceptionally good paint quality.

The interior was given less of an update than the exterior, but do not mistake that to mean that the interior isn’t a splendid place to rack up miles. The air vents are now round, and the infotainment has been updated to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and can now be operated via a touchscreen display. Whereas prior IS’s had a non-touch display that had to be operated by a finicky track pad, the new touchscreen is easy to use and quick to respond, making interacting with the technology in the IS easier and more intuitive than before. The seats included on the F Sport trim are very comfortable and supportive without being overly sporty. Take a corner quickly, and they hold you in, but not at the expense of everyday livability or comfort. There was an odd indentation into the driver’s footwell that could’ve been due to the AWD system present on our tester, and it did narrow the footwell a bit. I didn’t find it to be a deal-breaking issue, but it’s definitely something to note if you have longer than average legs and want the AWD version (we can’t confirm that the RWD version has the same indentation or not). My favorite aspect of the interior was the 17 speaker, 1800 watt Mark Levinson surround-sound, included as part of the Navigation and Mark Levinson Premium Audio package for $2,750. It’s $2,750 well spent, as the sound quality emanating from the 17 speakers was nothing short of stunning, providing an incredibly detailed and lifelike experience with well-recorded music. The only shortfall to my ears was a lack of low bass rumble and depth, which prevented ultimate enjoyment of a lot of R&B/Hip-Hop and some EDM. Regardless, the sound system provides one of the most superlative in-car audio experiences I’ve heard.

Lexus focused considerable attention on improving the dynamic attributes of driving the IS. For ’21, that means a more rigid body achieved through more welds in the structure and revised suspension components such as lighter front and rear anti-roll bars, aluminum upper and lower control arms, lighter coil springs, and lug bolts instead of lug nuts. For those especially nuts about handling, Lexus offers a new $4200 Dynamic Handling package, which brings lightweight 19-inch BBS wheels, adaptive dampers and rear limited slip differential, which our tester didn’t have. Despite lacking the handling package, the handling was perhaps the most dynamically engaging aspect of the IS. On a twisty road, the IS is downright fun, with well-controlled body motions, quick yet not darty steering, and a well-damped ride that is neither floaty nor harsh. The Lexus managed to shake off mid-corner imperfections adroitly, inspiring confidence in the driver at extra-legal speeds. The brakes were modulated by a firm and progressively responsive pedal, and the stiffened chassis imparts a feeling of solidity that’s especially reassuring as speeds and cornering g-forces increase. The IS is let down, however, by its engine and transmission. The IS350 F Sport is powered by the same 311 hp 3.5 V6 that it has been for years. When the third gen IS debuted in 2014, 311 wasn’t a groundbreaking amount of hp and in 2021, it’s definitely not at the front of the class. The issue isn’t even so much with maximum power output as it is with tuning, as even in sport mode the throttle seems to be relaxed, the transmission shifting languidly, conspiring to make the Lexus feel like it had less than 311 hp. Also, the V6 needs to be revved to feel powerful, and lacks the immediate torquey shove of the turbo-4 and turbo-6 competitors. Manual-transmission enthusiasts will be dismayed to find out that the IS350 F Sport AWD still comes with a dated 6-speed auto, and a slowly reacting one at that. The IS comes with paddles to shift the gears on your own, but they react slowly enough that you might as well leave it in D. Still, the IS is a very enjoyable drive, riding comfortably over just about every road surface and being fun to toss around corners, in need of a more powerful engine and more responsive transmission. The stiffened chassis is practically begging for it, and it would make the Lexus more class-competitive.

Lexus has baked in some lovely updates for 2021, and the IS 350 F Sport is now more relevant than it has been recently. Delivering a better value than much of its competitors with the features it offers at a lower cost, the IS350 F Sport isn’t the sportiest, but does offer a sporty driving experience. It isn’t the quickest, but it is quicker than your average commuter. It isn’t the most luxurious, but it does offer an outstanding 17 speak sound system and exceptional build quality (and presumably, reliability). While the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport may not be the best in class overall, or the most emotionally exciting choice, it’s a very sensible one to make and it looks stunning to boot. Most importantly, there are few SUV’s that come close to delivering the engaging driving dynamics of the IS350 F Sport, and from that perspective, the 2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport makes a very compelling argument against the death of the sedan.

-Ken Wilson

2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport AWD$44,900
Cloudburst Gray$425
Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package$2,750
Intuitive Parking Assist w/ Auto Braking, Rear Pedestrian Detection, and Panoramic View Monitor$1,400
Premium Triple-Beam LED Headlamps$1,250
Power Tilt-and-Slide Moonroof$1,100
Destination Charges$1,025
As-Tested MSRP$52,850

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