- Broad powertrain lineup
- Good active safety features
- Lower grille
- Smartphone compatibility
- Not much feels new
- No word on high-performance version
- Recycled powertrains
- Competitors start where Lexus stops
The 2021 Lexus IS compact luxury sedan prioritizes comfort and convenience, perhaps not outright performance.
The 2021 Lexus IS compact luxury sedan is new—and also very familiar—to begin its third decade on sale in the U.S.
Since 2000, the Lexus IS has competed against stalwarts from Europe and the U.S., but at times has struggled to carve a niche among its competitors. It has been offered as a small wagon, a high-performance sedan, and as a hardtop convertible in previous iterations. The 2021 Lexus IS is a four-door sedan, available with one of three engine choices, in rear- or all-wheel drive. All of the above are similar to the outgoing version, right down to the power figures and wheelbase. The 2021 version gets a new look, but we’ll have to wait to see if it gets a new feel.
It goes on sale in late 2020, but Lexus hasn’t yet said how much it costs.
Style and performance
The new Lexus IS isn’t a dramatic departure from the last version, complete with a familiar hourglass grille, boomerang LED running lights, sculpted body sides, and tapered rear end.
At the back is where the new IS is most recognizably different from the model it replaces. A wide strip of LED taillights spans the trunk from side to side, below a stamped “shelf” that serves as a tall tail. The mishmash of creases, lights, upright panels, tall decklid, and fat rear bumper above comparatively tiny rear exhausts has our brows furrowed—but our final judgment will have to wait until we see it in person.
Inside, not much has changed for the new Lexus IS compared to the old sedan. Most of the center stack and console remain, including a large touchscreen perched on top of climate controls, gear shifter, and infotainment touchpad controller. Drivers get a digital instrument cluster borrowed from the LFA supercar (Ed’s note: If anyone remembers what that is anymore.) and the same steering wheel and controls as the outgoing car. The biggest change inside may be gimballed vents at the corners of the dash, for better or worse.
Under the hood of the 2021 IS is a familiar trio of powertrains, largely identical to the outgoing car. The base IS300 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which is the same as the 2020 version. It’s paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive.
The IS300 with all-wheel drive substitutes in a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 260 hp and 236 lb-ft and a 6-speed automatic. The all-wheel-drive system is biased toward the rear, but can send up to 50 percent of its available power to the front wheels.
The 2021 Lexus IS350 is the top of the hill for now and uses a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 311 hp and 280 lb-ft. With rear-wheel drive, it’s mated to an 8-speed automatic; with all-wheel drive, it gets a 6-speed automatic. Lexus estimates that the IS350 will accelerate up to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with rear-wheel drive, which is the same time it takes a BMW 330i with its base turbo-4 engine.
The IS350 can be equipped with more performance hardware when optioned with an F Sport package, which is only available on the top engine this year. It gets 19-inch wheels that are wider in the rear for better traction, and an available handling package that includes adaptive dampers and a rear limited-slip differential (rear-wheel-drive models only.) We haven’t yet driven the 2021 IS350 but the tale of the tape isn’t encouraging; Lexus’ top models compare to many base models from German competitors.
Still, Lexus says it nipped and tucked parts of the 2021 IS to drive better than the 2020 version, including stiffer springs and suspension components, lighter-weight wheels and mounts.
Comfort, safety, and features
The new Lexus IS is nearly identical to the model it replaces, with an inch added to the overall length and width. The wheelbase is the same as the 2020 version, which doesn’t bode well for interior comfort; the IS was already on the small side for passenger room among competitors.
The interior is shod with synthetic leather upholstery as standard equipment and power-adjustable front seats. F Sport models get their own treatment with two-tone interiors or red synthetic leather. Lexus hasn’t said if real leather will be available in the IS.
Every IS is equipped with a suite of active safety gear that includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, active lane control, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic high beams.
Lexus isn’t showing its hand with all the available features in the IS, but an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility is standard on all sedans. A 10.3-inch touchscreen is available. Premium audio will be on the options list, along with exclusive paint shades that cost extra.
The 2021 Lexus IS will go on sale in late 2020.