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 are quite familiar. The real promise this next-generation 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 the European standard bearers, 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 and an available high-powered audio system. There is a complete roster of advanced safety and driver assistance features that come standard, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection.

The IS has promise, but the question remains, will it deliver on the sports sedan promise? We will find out. For now, here is what we know.  

What it competes with: Alfa Romeo Giulia, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CT4, Genesis G70, Infiniti Q50, Kia Stinger, Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Powertrains: 241-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine; 260-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine; and 311-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine with an eight-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel-drive version comes with a six-speed automatic. Rear- or all-wheel drive.
Price: $39,000 to $50,000 (estimated)
On-sale date: Late fall 2020

CR's Take

Lexus says it paid special attention to improving overall dynamics with the next-generation IS. This is a good thing, because the outgoing model had quite mixed performance, especially when held up against the rival BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The 2020 IS doesn't even come close to the German pair's ride and handling prowess, fun-to-drive character, technology features, or luxury appeal. Plus, the fuel economy was disappointing.

The real question for the new IS comes down to how it blends sportiness and luxury. The engines are essentially the same—that bodes well for reliability, but it probably means this IS won’t have any more verve. The overall size is just a hint bigger, so we don’t expect that much changed in terms of passenger accommodations and packaging.

We look forward to seeing whether the new IS lives up to its promise when we buy one to drive in the fall.  

2021 Lexus IS rear

Outside

The new IS doesn’t stray far from the old one. At a glance, it looks very familiar, although there are a number of styling revisions that show an evolutionary change.

There is a clear visual connection in the front with the flagship LS. It has a large spindle grille, like other Lexus models, flanked by thinner headlamps. The body sculpting is familiar but different, with a very defined, dramatic L-shaped sweep from along the rocker panel under the doors up to the rear fenders. Add to that a slight gain in size (an inch in length and width), and the new IS has a lower, wider stance.

The taillamps have a very horizontal design that carries across the back of the sedan. The rear glass pours down to the short trunk lid, giving the car a coupelike appearance.  

2021 Lexus IS interior

Inside

A 10-way adjustable driver’s seat and 8-way adjustable front passenger’s seat are standard.

The standard 8-inch infotainment screen is 3 inches closer to the driver than before and now is touch-enabled. A larger 10.3-inch screen is available on models equipped with navigation or the upgraded 1,800-watt, 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. It includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, as well as Amazon Alexa integration.

The IS still uses the dreaded Lexus touchpad, which we have found to be distracting to use in other vehicles. With the screen being touch-enabled and closer to the driver, it might alleviate some of the frustration.

The F Sport seats are available in Circuit Red, as shown. The eye-popping perches have two-way lumbar and four-way head restraint adjustments.

We found that the seats on the current IS are not up to par with those in rival cars and notably lack height-adjustable lumbar support. It doesn't appear that our current criticisms of access, seat comfort, and passenger space in the 2020 model have been addressed. Likewise, our tested IS was short on storage space, and as you can see in the interior photos, this new one looks a bit skimpy on places to stow travel sundries. 

2021 Lexus IS seats

What Drives It

The IS will be offered with three different powertrains, each available in rear- and all-wheel drive. The base version, the IS 300, comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 241 hp—same as the 2020 model. The engine is teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission. For clarity, we wish the base model was named IS 200, corresponding with the engine’s displacement.

The IS 300 is also available with a 3.5-liter V6 engine that puts out 260 hp. The peak output for the V6 is 236 lb.-ft. of torque, while the four-cylinder creates 258 lb.-ft. The V6 is matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission in rear-wheel drive. Oddly, AWD versions get a six-speed automatic.

For more power, there is the IS 350 F Sport with a 311-hp, 3.5-liter V6. The rear-drive version uses the eight-speed transmission, and the all-wheel-drive setup comes with a six-speed transmission.

The handling dynamics are said to be improved through reduced suspension weight, 19-inch wheels (up from 18 inches), and a stiffer body. There is an available limited-slip differential to help direct power to where there is the most grip and an adaptive suspension.

Again, the F Sport trim denotes the most performance-focused configuration, combining the most powerful engine with the various chassis upgrades.

Developed at a new test facility in Shimoyama, Japan, that was modeled after the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife track in Germany, the IS introduces the Lexus Driving Signature—a recipe for driving character that will be used with future models to bring consistency across the Lexus lineup. The company describes this as a focus on "linear steering, brake responses, and optimized handling with exceptional ride."

Safety & Driver Assist Systems

The IS is the first model to showcase the latest version of the Lexus’ suite of advanced safety and driver assist features, dubbed Safety System+ 2.5. This bundle includes forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and daytime bicycle detection, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic warning, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and road sign recognition.