First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS Makes Evolutionary Improvements

Mild makeover sees tweaks throughout and a generous suite of safety features

2021 Lexus IS front

Lexus has redesigned the IS, its entry-level luxury sedan, for the 2021 model year. Its styling is evolutionary, and the powertrains carry over. The real promise this updated IS makes is that its ride, handling, and steering deserve the “sports sedan” label.

The current car was billed as a sports sedan ready to take on European standard bearers such as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, but as our road test exposed, it is outmatched.

The new version is again offered in rear- and all-wheel-drive configurations, with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and two V6 engine choices. The interior features traditional upscale amenities, with the latest Lexus infotainment system, an available high-powered, 17-speaker audio system, and a long list of connected technologies, such as remote services and mobile WiFi. There is a generous suite of advanced safety and driver assistance features that come standard, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection.

Ahead of the Lexus IS going on sale this fall, we rented an early sedan from the automaker, giving us a chance to experience the top version, an IS 350 F Sport.

If you’re a Consumer Reports member, our initial expert assessment of the Lexus IS is already available to you below. If you haven’t signed up to become a member yet, click below to access this full article and all our exclusive ratings and reviews for each vehicle we buy and test. Joining also gives you full access to exclusive ratings for the other products our experts evaluate in several categories, including electronics and home appliances.

We plan to put a Lexus IS through more than 50 tests at the CR Auto Test Center, including those that evaluate acceleration, braking, fuel economy, handling, car-seat fit, and controls.

CR members will get access to the full road-test results as soon as they’re available.

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What we rented: Lexus IS 350 F Sport
Powertrain: 311-hp, 3.5-liter V6; 6-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
MSRP: $44,900
Destination fee: $1,025
Total cost: $45,925

CR's Take

The new Lexus IS looks very similar to the outgoing model, inside and out. There are some styling tweaks, where an angle is reversed here or there, but clearly, this is an evolutionary update.

Even in the top trim, with the 3.5-liter V6, the staff thought the IS still didn’t quite live up to the “sports sedan” billing. A bit more verve, and powertrain refinement, would help it measure up better with its European rivals. That said, most shoppers looking for a compact luxury sedan would be satisfied with its interior ambience and responsive handling. Oddly, the base 2.0-liter turbo can’t be matched with AWD.

There are a few demerits that could be experienced right on the showroom floor, such as the tight interior space, lack of storage nooks, and frustrating touchpad controller. On the other hand, the fit and finish is impressive.

There are some incremental gains in how the car feels to drive, but this isn’t the thorough makeover the IS really needed to be competitive. The new Lexus just “is,” without threatening to shuffle the hierarchy in the category. We will buy a more popular configuration for testing and report on how that measures up.

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