Lexus first introduced their compact sport sedan, dubbed ‘IS 300,’ as I was headed off to my first day of middle school. The rear-wheel drive sedan went toe-to-toe with BMW’s E46-era 330i, and was about as fun to drive without all the neat little hassles. Its subframe mounting points stayed where they had been welded, the cooling system wasn’t prone to catastrophic failure, and Toyota’s 2JZ inline six-cylinder was just as sweet to both hear and feel as BMW’s M54. A college friend drove a bright red IS 300 with requisite five-speed manual transmission, and it was such a delight to occasionally take the wheel.
Now, 21 years later, I haven’t ridden a school bus in quite some time, and Lexus has just introduced their newest version of the IS. Although the 2021 Lexus IS 350 is “new,” it’s not… entirely so. Regardless, Lexus tossed me the keys to their latest – and hottest – IS 350 to see how it stacked up against other compact sport sedans.
While the market for sedans is indeed giving way to the crossover, the compact sport sedan segment is still rife with competition. BMW’s 3-series endures, alongside the Audi A4, Genesis G70, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. And don’t forget about the Tesla Model 3, if you’re a fan of electric propulsion and your car becoming a surprise convertible.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport. Lexus calls the car “new,” and it is, sort of. It’s ultimately a moderate redesign of a car that we first saw in 2014. With this latest redesign, Lexus added stiffness to the chassis and reduced unsprung weight where they could. Every 2021 IS benefits from lighter springs, A-arms, and sway bars.
My tester, being an IS 350, was by default an F-Sport car. Prior iterations of IS could have the F-Sport package applied no matter the engine choice. For 2021, Lexus shuffled some options around, and only offers the F-Sport on its fastest variant of IS. With a turbocharged four-cylinder and less-powerful V6 sitting below it, the IS 350 is “top dog” in the lineup. Its 3.5 liter “2GR” V6 is found in countless Toyotas and Lexuses, but produces 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque here.
Lexus has kept the IS on a rear-drive platform, and while the IS 350 can be had in F-Sport trim with rear-wheel drive, my car was saddled with optional all-wheel drive. I say “saddled” as it added 130 pounds to the already-hefty curb weight (totaling about 3,880 pounds) and forced me to contend with a huge hump in the driver’s footwell, right behind my foot – not good for any longer distance driving where you’re looking to stretch out and let the just-okay adaptive cruise control help you out.
My test car also came with most of the Dynamic Handling Package – “most” because it was technically a pre-production model, and the carbon fiber mirror caps were nowhere to be found. Regardless, the important bits were there, to include adaptive shock absorbers, a carbon fiber trunklid lip spoiler, and – most notably – unique BBS wheels that are four pounds per corner lighter than the standard IS 350 wheel. Again, a reduction in unsprung weight. Nice job, Lexus.
Total MSRP of my loaded-up 2021 IS 350 F-Sport with AWD and Dynamic Handling Package came in around $56,000.
Lots to Like on Back Roads, but All-Wheel Drive Comes with Caveats
I mentioned buyers have a choice of rear-drive or all-wheel drive with the IS 350. Ignoring the weight penalty and cramped footwell, there’s two additional reasons to save money and skip the all-wheel drive option.
Every IS 350 comes with a tremendously sonorous variant of the 2GR V6. Seriously. The noises it makes are undoubtedly the best part of the car. There’s no fancy exhaust valves to be found – just a surge of appropriately-loud intake and exhaust noise at any engine speed.
Should you choose all-wheel drive, though, you’re given a six-speed automatic transmission compared to the newer eight-speed unit found on rear-drive cars. The six-speed is fine, but an extra ratio or two could help acceleration and highway economy alike. And I hope the eight-speed can shift just a hair quicker.
The other caveat with an all-wheel drive IS 350 is also found in power delivery. Rear-drive cars with the Dynamic Handling Package are given a Torsen limited-slip differential out back, to help put power down to both rear wheels. The AWD IS 350 makes do with an open differential, presumably due to the powered front axle. Whatever. Save the weight, get a flat floor, and buy another set of wheels and some Blizzaks if you need ‘em.
On back roads, my test car was a happy dance partner. That fantastic V6 builds power in a swelling fashion as the tach climbs beyond 3,000 rpm – though it’s less happy above 6,000. More gears would help here, as the six-speed contributes to the feeling of power dropping off as the engine winds out. Steering, electronically assisted (as everything is now), had nice weight and enough feel through corners. Brakes were strong, even when cold. And the adaptive suspension struck a balance between composed corner carver and relaxed cruiser.
I still think the rear-wheel drive IS 350 is the one to have, but people choosing all-wheel drive are still getting a car that can handle some corners when asked. Less weight from the rear-wheel drive variant would have the IS feeling a bit lighter on its feet, more eager to turn in, and less apt to chew through consumables like tires and brakes. I’m just glad Lexus offers both options, to be honest.
Comfortable Highway Cruiser – for Two
Unfortunately, back roads are the exception and not the norm for many of us. We need cars that are competent-or-better when things get twisty (or at 7 AM on a Saturday when you find yourself at a track weekend), but also must be buttoned-down and well-mannered around town and on the highway.
The 2021 IS 350 F-Sport pulls it off, to a point. The drivetrain, suspension, and other mechanical bits are all very good for “normal people” driving. They work together in good harmony and, in my case, allowed the IS 350 to achieve over 30 miles per gallon on a long highway drive.
Lexus’ excellent brand-wide Mark Levinson sound system was equipped in my IS 350, and you’d be dumb to buy an IS without it. New for 2021 – finally – Lexus has ditched their awful “mouse” Remote Touch controller used to command the infotainment system. The screen was brought closer to the front seats and is now a touchscreen. Better yet, the system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto if you’re not a fan of Lexus’ Enform operating system.
Front seat comfort was also excellent, with plenty of adjustability and bolstering. Beyond seat comfort, I found the cockpit to be laid out well, if a bit cramped up front. Rear seat room was basically nonexistent with front seats set for six-footers. I have to wonder if this is partially due to forced use of “hard points” that come with the older IS’ platform.
The segment where the IS 350 competes is fiercely competitive, and everything in the segment has advantages to the right buyer. This 2021 Lexus IS 350 F-Sport is a very attractive redesign on a still-competent, upgraded platform. I found myself wanting to deride the IS 350 for not being a clean-sheet design, yet in practice, I grew to like it quite a bit over the week we spent together. It looks great, will go, stop, and turn with competence, and is just modern enough without being overwhelmingly so.
But seriously. Rear-wheel drive and snow tires.