2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Review
Introduction - Find the best Lexus deals!
The Lexus IS is the luxury brand's smallest rear-drive-based sedan and the sportiest 4-door car in its lineup. Also available with all-wheel drive (AWD), the Lexus IS competes with established compact luxury sport sedans such as the Acura TLX, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti Q50, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, as well as relative newcomers such as the Genesis G70 and Kia Stinger.
The IS is the second-best-selling sedan from Toyota's luxury brand and appeals to a younger demographic than the top-selling but more conservatively styled front-drive Lexus ES. The Lexus IS remains an important draw for singles and young couples moving up from a mass-market sedan such as a Honda Civic or Mazda3 and for buyers who don't want or need the elevated driving position and larger footprint of an SUV.
For 2021, the Lexus IS is available in two model series: IS 300 and IS 350 F Sport. The F Sport trim, previously an option package available solely with IS 350 models, is now standard on the 350. Both the IS 300 and IS 350 F Sport are available with rear- or all-wheel drive. The IS is one of the few Lexus models without a gas-electric hybrid variant.
The Lexus IS receives a freshening for the 2021 model year. There's a slightly larger version of the brand's outsized spindle grille flanked by dagger-like LED headlamps and L-shaped daytime running lamps up front. In profile, the fenders and rockers get new creases accenting the muscular, wasp-waisted sides. The coupe-like, semi-fastback roof tapers to a sloping trunk lid with a kick-up spoiler.
A full-width LED light signature with upturned L-shaped lighting accents the rear. This year, filling the wheel wells are larger alloy wheels, 18s replacing last year's 17s on the IS 300 and 19s substituted for the 2020 IS 350's 18 inchers.
Inside, the most significant update is a new multimedia system featuring an 8- or 10.3-inch touchscreen that moves nearly 6 inches closer to the driver and front passenger.
Under the skin, engineers have stiffened the body and lightened chassis components where possible to improve handling and responsiveness. Drivetrains, however, are carried over from the 2020 model year.
What Owners Say About the Lexus IS - Find the best Lexus deals!
Photo: Ron Sessions
According to data collected from verified owners for the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, 56% of Lexus IS buyers are female (vs. 37% for the compact premium car segment), and the median age of an IS buyer is 48 years (vs. 55).
Owners say their favorite things about the Lexus IS are (in descending order) the:
- Exterior styling
- Driving feel
- Feeling of safety
- Driving comfort
Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Lexus IS are (in descending order) the:
- Setting up and starting
- Interior design
- Getting in and out
- Infotainment system
- Fuel economy
In the J.D. Power 2020 APEAL Study, the Lexus IS ranked number three out of eight compact premium cars.
What Our Independent Expert Says About the 2021 Lexus IS - Find the best Lexus deals!
In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides an analysis of a Lexus IS 350 F Sport equipped with rear-wheel drive and the following options:
- F Sport Dynamic Handling (adaptive damping, Torsen limited-slip rear differential, BBS wheels, carbon-fiber rear spoiler)
- Navigation with 10.3-inch screen
- Mark Levinson surround-sound audio
- Triple-beam LED headlamps
- Intuitive parking assist with auto braking and panoramic-view monitor
- Power tilt/slide moonroof
- Door edge guards
- Premium Iridium paint
The price of the test vehicle came to $55,190, including the $1,025 destination charge.
Getting In and Getting Comfortable
Photo: Ron Sessions
The Lexus IS cabin feels upscale in a traditional, durable-goods sense that's neither gimmicky nor glitzy. A legacy analog clock centered in the dash sets the tone. Most controls are straightforward and easy to use. F Sport trim, however, adds some drama with reconfigurable driver instrumentation, adapted from the LFA supercar, that changes with different drive modes.
Overall, material quality is good. Standard IS fare includes dual-zone automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, keyless access, pushbutton start, and paddle shifters. A power tilt-and-slide moonroof is optional.
The front bucket seats are form-fitting with generous lateral lower torso and thigh bolsters. Padded console sides aid knee comfort during cornering. The base IS 300's front seats are manually adjustable, covered in perforated faux leather, and heated in AWD versions. F Sport trim brings power-operated, heated and ventilated sport-bolstered front seats and a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel. The F Sport front buckets hug you in the corners yet are all-day comfortable for long trips. A driver seatback massage function, however, is not available.
Storage is an issue. There's not enough of it. The smallish glovebox is half full just with the owner's manual in there (tip: put it in a baggie in the spare tire well under the trunk floor). There's decent space in the door pockets for beverages and personal items but not much console storage. There's no place for small items atop the console other than the two cupholders, as the infotainment touchpad, drive mode selector, and seat heat/ventilation controls take up much of the space.
A covered bin under the console armrest can swallow a pair of sunglasses or a small camera and is where you'll want to stash your cellphone. There is a pair of Type-A USB ports inside the console bin, but you have to be a contortionist to access anything from inside the compartment once seated.
As you'd expect of a Lexus, the cabin is hushed.
As is often the case among premium compact sedans, rear-seat space is cramped. Cars in this segment rarely offer much legroom. Adult passengers must duck getting in and out of the rear seat.
The Lexus IS has seatbelts for five passengers, but it's essentially a 4-seater, and even a pair of adults won't be comfortable in the back seat for long. It offers over a foot less rear legroom than is available in the Lexus ES. To accommodate anyone in the back seat approaching 6-feet tall, the IS driver or front passenger will have to skootch the front seats forward a bit to make room.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Multimedia System Review
Photo: Ron Sessions
The 2021 Lexus IS gets a revised infotainment system that improves functionality by moving the touchscreen nearly a half foot closer to the driver and front passenger. Its highlights include:
- Base touchscreen size increases from 7 to 8 inches
- Optional 10.3-inch touchscreen with embedded navigation
- Wired (via USB cable) Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
- Alexa + Lexus compatibility
- Voice command
- 10-speaker Pioneer AM/FM stereo
- HD Radio with traffic flow and weather
- 3-month trial of SiriusXM satellite radio
- Optional 17-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound audio
- 3-month trial of Lexus Enform 4G LTE in-car Wi-Fi
- CD player
The most significant improvement for 2021 is a choice of two infotainment touchscreens (base 8-inch or a 10.3-inch display included with optional navigation) within reach of a seated driver or front passenger. The tricky-to-use, helicopter landing pad-like touchpad on the console is still functional, but the touchscreen can now be used for most infotainment interactions.
Below the analog clock and climate control buttons and bracketing the CD player are easy-to-use analog volume and tuning knobs for quick adjustments without the need to scroll through distracting menus. Further, you can now access the infotainment system via the steering wheel and voice controls.
Voice prompts were answered quickly. The IS 350 F Sport test car had the optional navigation that includes Dynamic Voice Command that knows the speaker's current location. The system had no problem changing audio sources, selecting radio stations, or finding a wide range of destinations, from local coffee shops and a nearby aircraft museum to the closest hospitals and a remote mountain-top general store—all requested in plain English.
Navigation mapping and voice directions were spot on, too. However, the system-recommended shortest route to the mountain top store would have taken the IS sedan up a primitive, rock-strewn dirt road more suitable for higher-clearance pickup trucks and SUVs. I took the 35-mile-longer paved route instead.
The system paired quickly via Bluetooth with my Android phone, and I could make and receive phone calls hands-free.
Retaining the vestigial infotainment touchpad steals precious console-top real estate, space that would be better reallocated to small-item storage or a wireless device charger, which the IS does not offer.
The optional Mark Levinson premium surround-sound audio system delivered a spine-tingling 1,800 watts of sound through 17 speakers. More importantly, the system delivered crystal-clear fidelity at lower volumes and proved a welcome companion for long highway slogs.
What It's Like to Drive the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
Photo: Ron Sessions
There are three engine choices for the Lexus IS. Powering the IS 300 rear-drive model is a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder rated at 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, good for 7-second 0-60 mph performance. All-wheel-drive variants of the IS 300 drop the slightly boomy 4-cylinder for a more sonorous-sounding 3.5-liter V6 rated at 260 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque, cutting the 0-60 mph time to just over 6 seconds.
Both the rear- and all-wheel-drive iterations of the 2021 IS 350 F Sport have the 3.5-liter V6 but get a version retuned to a livelier 311 hp and 277 pound-feet of torque. Sprints from rest to 60 mph drop to the mid-5-second range, which sounds spritely until judged against the surprisingly quick Toyota RAV4 Prime, which can do the deed in 5.5 seconds.
All 2021 IS models get steering-wheel shift paddle manual control. Rear-drive versions employ an 8-speed automatic transmission; AWD models get a 6-speed. Both gearboxes offer smooth performance, but neither is particularly quick to shift.
Until the 472-hp, 5.0-liter V8-powered IS 500 debuts in 2022, the IS 350 F Sport is the Lexus brand's top-performing sedan. The IS 350's standard 311-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 provides ample performance, but not the thrilling kick, say, of a twin-turbo Genesis G70 or any of the turbocharged six-cylinder offerings from European competitors currently in showrooms.
Particularly in F Sport trim, the IS looks faster and meaner than it is. It still delivers on the unique Lexus blend of comfort and power, but in a tidier, more European package with fun-to-drive qualities. The F Sport package brings adaptive variable damping, extra-light BBS 19-inch wheels, and slightly stiffer suspension tuning, plus rear-drive versions can be optioned with summer performance tires and a Torsen limited-slip rear differential.
The 2021 model is the first IS to benefit from development work done at Toyota's new Nurburgring-inspired Shimoyama test track. Among other improvements for 2021, engineers increased the body stiffness and reduced the weight of chassis components to improve handling response.
The IS 350 F Sport test car offered an engaging driving experience over a wide range of roads. Equipped with 225/40R19 front and wider 265/35R19 rear summer tread tires, the F Sport delivered precise steering with good turn-in response and just-right effort. Brake response from the amply sized 4-wheel discs was linear, with a firm top-of-pedal feel and fade-free snubs from highway speeds.
With the adaptable dampers included with the F Sport Dynamic Handling package, the IS offered good ride quality and kept the IS balanced and composed over a wide range of roads and surfaces. It ate up ruts, small road dips, and bumps while providing firm vertical body control overall. Body roll in tight corners was minimal. The F Sport felt nimble overall and was very composed on winding back roads.
For this class of cars, the IS offers good outward visibility to the front and sides. Rear-seat head restraints that can be retracted almost flush with the seatbacks also help improve rearward visibility.
Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 Review
Photo: Ron Sessions
The 2021 Lexus IS is equipped with the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 suite of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) and related safety features. Lexus added enhanced capabilities for 2021 that provide improved functionality. They include:
- Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian, cyclist, and junction-turning detection, as well as emergency steering assist within the lane
- Lane-departure warning
- Lane-keeping assistance with haptic steering-wheel feedback
- Lane-centering assistance
- Automatic high-beam assistance
- Road sign assistance
- Blind-spot warning
- Rear cross-traffic warning
- Intelligent adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability
Optional in the Lexus IS is a package that includes a sonar-based front and rear parking assist system with automatic emergency braking (up to 10 mph). The system beeps with more urgency as the IS nears an obstacle and applies the brakes if necessary to avoid an impact. The package also replaces the standard reversing camera with a 360-degree monitor that displays an overhead view of the Lexus IS, its projected path, and its immediate surroundings.
The updated forward-collision warning system for 2021 has enhanced radar and camera sensing to detect pedestrians and bicyclists in low light. It can also detect oncoming traffic and pedestrians when making a left turn at intersections.
Also updated for 2021, the adaptive cruise control will now accelerate proactively when changing lanes while overtaking a slower vehicle if the turn signal is activated.
Notably, Lexus includes most of its ADAS tech as standard equipment, unlike the case with many European-brand competitors that often group it in extra-cost packages.
Where clearly delineated lane markings are present, the lane-keeping feature in the Lexus IS delivers gentle steering torque to help the driver keep the car from wandering too far off course. It is not as aggressive or intrusive as the systems in some competing models, such as the BMW 3 Series.
2021 Lexus IS FAQ - Find the best Lexus deals!
Photo: Ron Sessions
How much trunk space does the 2021 Lexus IS have?
The Lexus IS sedan offers 10.8 cubic feet of luggage capacity. That's room enough for 4-5 airport roller bags but less space than that available in the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and a lot less than in the BMW 3 Series. The Lexus IS 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold down, although not completely flat, but still providing the flexibility to carry longer items.
Does the 2021 Lexus IS get good gas mileage?
In EPA testing, the 2.0-liter turbo powering the rear-drive IS 300 gets 25 mpg in combined city/highway driving, while AWD versions with the 260-hp 3.5-liter V6 achieve 22 mpg. The IS 350 F Sport with the same 3.5-liter tuned to 311 hp gets an EPA rating of 23 mpg in combined driving with rear-wheel drive and 22 mpg in AWD versions.
In 160 miles of mixed in-town and highway driving, the rear-drive IS 350 F Sport test vehicle managed an indicated 24.5 mpg. With the car's 17.4-gallon fuel tank, the driving range for this trip topped 425 miles.
Is the 2021 Lexus IS safe?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rated the 2021 Lexus IS with five stars overall and gave it four out of five stars for frontal crash performance and five out of five stars for side impacts and rollover resistance.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the Lexus IS a 2021 Top Safety Pick+ and gave it Good ratings for small and moderate offset front impacts, side impacts, roof strength, head restraints, and seat performance.
How much is the 2021 Lexus IS?
2021 Lexus IS prices range from $39,000 for the rear-drive IS 300 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder model to $44,900 for the AWD IS 350 F Sport 3.5-liter V6 version. The destination fee is $1,025.
What are the 2021 Lexus IS 350 competitors?
In the J.D. Power 2020 Initial Quality Study (IQS), the Genesis G70 ranks highest in the compact premium car segment. The Lexus IS and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class are the next highest-ranked models.
In the J.D. Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the BMW 3 Series ranks highest in the compact premium car segment. The Lexus IS and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class are the next highest-ranked models.
Other competitors to the 2021 Lexus IS include the Acura TLX, Audi A4, and Infiniti Q50.
Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Lexus deals!
Photo: Ron Sessions
The 2021 Lexus IS is an agile and balanced premium compact sedan with an engaging character. While there are roomier and quicker examples in the segment, the IS is equally suitable as an everyday commuter or a weekend twisty-road exploration machine. The 2021 refresh adds important infotainment updates and enhances the small sedan's ready-to-rumble good looks. An IS 350 F Sport with the optional Dynamic Handling package is this editor's recommendation for the most rewarding IS driving experience, that is, until the 472-hp V8-powered 2022 IS 500 makes its debut.
Ron Sessions is a seasoned vehicle evaluator with more than three decades of experience. He has penned hundreds of road tests for automotive and consumer websites, enthusiast magazines, newsletters, technical journals, and newspapers.
The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.
No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2022 J.D. Power