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Needed Updates Put the IS Back in the Game

Do you remember sedans? Do you? Once the staple of the American automotive landscape, the venerable three-box, four-door configuration has all but faded into irrelevance in recent years. Trucks, SUVs and crossovers are so dominant that when automakers—already strapped for cash as they dump billions of dollars into electrification and autonomy—aren’t canceling their sedans outright, they’re just keeping them afloat with modest updates instead of all-new versions. Case in point: the “new” 2021 Lexus IS.

The last time we got a new IS, Lexus’s ostensible competitor to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, it was 2013. Seven years on, we still can’t say we’re getting a completely new one. The IS has instead been heavily upgraded for the 2021 model year, bringing changes to its exterior, technology package, suspension and more. To diehard fans of Toyota’s homegrown performance cars hoping for an upstart sport sedan that can really take it to the Germans, that is a disappointment.

But the good news is that these upgrades were not only badly needed, but they were also worth it. They fix some of Lexus’s biggest issues in recent years, and they do enough to keep the IS feeling fresh enough.

The 2021 Lexus IS comes in three powertrain flavors: the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 with 241 horsepower from a 2.0-liter turbo-four; the all-wheel-drive IS 300, with a 260-HP, 3.5-liter V6; and the IS 350 F Sport, which comes in AWD or RWD with a 311-HP version of the same V6. The car you see here is an AWD IS 350 F Sport, effectively the range-topping model until Lexus drops in a V8 so the IS F can make a comeback. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.) Also, I should add that the RWD variants get an eight-speed automatic; the AWD ones come with a somewhat dated six-speed automatic, a few gears behind most competitors now.

Much of the car carries over from before, including those engines and the bulk of the interior. But important changes have been made. First and foremost, the infotainment system finally incorporates touch controls and is now compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This is a big deal. If you’ve driven a Lexus in recent years, you’ve been subjected to its clunky, infuriating trackpad controls to dial in addresses, operate the car audio, scroll through menus and more. 

Ostensibly, this was done to help keep your eyes on the road, but as I found when I tested the LC 500 Convertible earlier this summer, it just meant I used my phone for everything. Finally, Lexus has decided it can’t outdo Apple and every other smartphone and tablet maker on the planet, and so the touch-operated screen is a welcome change. The trackpad remains as a redundant control interface if you’re a loyal Lexus buyer who got used to that. I didn’t use it at all in my four-day test.

On the outside, tweaks include a revised front and rear end, a wider grille, and all-new headlamps and taillights. It strikes a handsome, athletic figure, even if it doesn’t go out of its way to stand out. More important changes happened under the skin; the suspension has been heavily revised with lighter coil springs, aluminum A-arms, and anti-roll bars. (For a full rundown of the changes, read this.) 

An RWD IS 300 starts at $39,000; the AWD IS 350 F Sport starts at $44,900. My pre-production tester, which included options like the power moonroof, panoramic rear-view mirror, 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, auto-braking parking assistant, triple-beam LED headlamps and premium paint (yes, premium paint) came in at $52,850. All in all, not a bad value, and probably a few grand cheaper than similarly equipped German competitors.


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