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2021 Lexus IS - Review by Larry Nutson +VIDEO

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Sporty and Suave

By Larry Nutson
Executive Editor and Bureau Chief
Chicago Bureau
The Auto Channel

Not to be hampered by the pandemic that has gripped the world in 2020, Lexus continues to roll out new and updated models. For 2021 the compact IS sport sedan gets a freshened exterior styling, a reimagined interior, retuned driving dynamics, more advanced driver-assistance safety features and an updated infotainment system.

The 2021 Lexus IS made its debut in a mid-2020 virtual reveal. Prior to my IS drive experience Lexus partnered with the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA), of which I am a member, and hosted a web-based MAMA eMeet to review key highlights of the new IS. 

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Lexus College Senior Analyst Chad Deschenes provided a product overview and fielded live questions. This was an all-important update for MAMA journalists since the 2021 Lexus IS is a candidate for MAMA’s Luxury Family Vehicle of the Year award.

The IS has been a part of the Lexus model program for more than 20 years. It’s the first step for many customers into the Lexus brand, priced slightly lower than the ES. For 2021 the IS lineup is a bit revised now with two trims: an IS 300 and an IS 350 F SPORT. Both trims are available in rear-wheel or all-wheel drive (AWD).

IS 300 is powered by a 241hp 2.0-L turbo four-cylinder engine. The IS 300 AWD gets a power boost with a 260hp 3.5-L V6. The IS 350 F SPORT is powered by a 311hp 3.5-L V6 in both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive setups. Rear-wheel drive models use an eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission while AWD models send power through a six-speed automatic.

Performance is plenty adequate with a 0-60mph time for IS 350 F SPORT RWD of 5.6 seconds and IS 350 F Sport AWD of 5.7 seconds.

In developing the new(ish) IS Lexus engineers set an objective to offer both high-quality ride comfort as well as high-level vehicle control. The underlying architecture and body structure is where it all starts with enhanced body rigidity. Lexus says through hours of testing they achieved their goal to help reduce unwanted noise and vibration, improve riding comfort, driving performance and steering response.

Coined as the new “Lexus Driving Signature”, Lexus says it will be the new development standard that every model will reflect moving forward. Development is done at Toyota’s Technical Center Shimoyama near Lexus’ global headquarters. The center includes a country-road test course based on the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany, well known around the world for its grueling driving conditions.

On the outside the IS is lower and wider with a more muscular look all around. A new spindle grille, slimmer LED headlamps and DRLs, full width L-shape blade-style taillights and restyled rear fascia provide balance to the overall coupe-like design.

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New are standard 18-inch wheels with optional 19-inch wheels. IS 350 F SPORT has 19-inch graphite alloy wheels as standard.

IS 350 F SPORT features a unique front bumper with functional aero enhancements, rear bumper, grille surround, rear lip spoiler, rocker molding, exhaust diffuser and badging. Unique F SPORT 19-inch wheels and larger 265/35R19 rear tires are fitted for added performance.

The interior cabin features standard NuLuxe-trimmed seating, 10-way power driver and 8-way power adjustable front passenger seats, a dual-zone automatic climate control system with touch-sensitive controls, and an available power moonroof. IS 350 F SPORT gets unique graphic patterns and interior trim.

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The standard 8-inch or a larger optional 10.3-inch touchscreen are now more than 5 inches closer to the driver. Touchscreen functionality is a big improvement, while the touchpad is still also equipped. The new infotainment system also features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility plus Amazon Alexa integration.

The standard Lexus Safety System+ (LSS+) receives additions for 2021 in the form of the new LSS+ 2.5. A number of key features that are part of the LSS+ have been enhanced, along with the addition of a few new features. The Pre-Collision System, which include Frontal Collision Warning, Automatic Emergency Braking, Pedestrian Detection and Bicyclist Detection, features an enhancement to expand the response range. It is now possible for the system to help also detect a preceding bicyclist in daytime and even a preceding pedestrian in daytime and low-light conditions. At intersections, the system has improved recognition of an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian when performing a left-hand turn and is designed to activate typical pre-collision functions if needed.

More information and specs on the 2021 Lexus IS can be found at Pricing for the IS 300 begins at $39,000. IS 300 with AWD is $2,000 more at $41,000. The IS 350 F SPORT is $42,900 and $44,900 with AWD. The new IS is in dealers now.

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For my drive experience I was behind the wheel of a IS 300 AWD finished in an attractive Grecian Water exterior with a Glazed Caramel interior trim. Overall I found the IS attractive to my taste with a well-grounded sporty and yet also premium look and feel both in and out. I prefer lighter tone interiors, so the Caramel was right to my liking. The V6 delivers decent performance—it’ll get to 60mph in 6.1 seconds. I didn’t stretch things out, but Lexus says top end is 143mph. The front seats are quite comfortable and roomy. The rear seats 3-across, and that can be a bit tight.

I liked the overall compact exterior especially for negotiating city traffic. The trunk at 10.8 cu.ft. is good for two on a weekend getaway, but might be a challenge with more.

Lexus hit the mark with ride and handling. There’s plenty of fun to drive in the IS coming in part from new suspension components and reduced unsprung weight. I was pleased with the 235/45R18 tires fitted to this IS as they provide a good balance in ride comfort and handling. Lower profile 40- or 35-series tires get to be risky to puncture on “worn” city streets.

Optional navigation and Mark Levinson 1800-watt 17-speaker premium audio was fitted for $2,750. Comfort Package for $1,950 added heated leather-trimmed steering wheel, power tilt-and-slide moonroof, heated and ventilated front seats and black geometric interior trim.

The premium compact segment has some new entries such as the Cadillac CT4 and Genesis G70 as well as others from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. The refreshed 2021 Lexus IS is a viable consideration if you are shopping in this segment.

© 2020 Larry Nutson, the Chicago Car Guy