The Lexus brand is often slow to innovate but doing such has paid off for their unsurpassed reliability track record and unique design and luxury appeal that’s helped keep them relevant and trusted my many. In their methodical approach to their lineup, Lexus chooses to keep the compact-sized IS around but with some updates that make it a more attractive offering. For the 2021 and 2022 model year, Lexus does a welcomed refresh for the IS in addition to adding a V8 engine for the new 2022 IS 500. However, for the IS 350, one of their mainstay trims for the luxury sports sedan, things get spicy in the design department but are kept civilized for the performance that’s been polished with a few refinements.
The 2021 Lexus IS 350 gets restyled LED headlights, front grille, taillights, and rear end for a rather sporty head-turning look. In a way, the Lexus IS has grown up a bit but retains its compact size that’s sometimes unliked for those who must sit in the back – there’s not much headroom, legroom, or shoulder room. Up front, there’s a nice space that fits most like a glove with a good driving position and the enjoyment of a surprisingly smooth ride.
The new IS feels more refined in the way it rides and handles, partly due to the new adaptive dampers found on my IS 350 F Sport test vehicle thanks to an optional F Sport Dynamic Handling Package that incorporates adaptive variable suspension, a Torsen limited-slip rear differential, 19-inch matte black BBS wheels, a carbon fiber rear spoiler, a few other small bits that don’t do anything to modify performance. The ride quality and buttoned-down feeling is the best it has ever been in the IS where the chassis feels as if it can handle a lot more power without any additional work, hence there’s the new IS 500 with its 472-horsepower V8 engine.
Powering the Lexus IS 350 is a return of the 3.5-liter V6 engine with 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. The power from the V6 is good through the midrange but requires that you really put your foot into it to extract its 300-plus horsepower. The 8-speed automatic transmission may be a slight hold-back in some cases, but its programming is much improved over previous iterations in the Lexus IS with slightly faster shifting. Still, the 8-speed automatic is a bit slow on its up and down shifts at times.
The Lexus IS 350 F Sport feels nimble and can easily handle spirited driving without much drama from unwanted tire squeal. Fuel consumption is mostly consistent, and you can easily obtain the EPA estimated 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, sometimes besting those figures for as much as 29.4 mpg that I saw when traveling a few miles-per-hour over the Interstate speed limit.
The styling of the new Lexus IS literally turns heads especially in the F Sport trim that you see here. The contrasting colors and red perforated leather seating surfaces do the overall luxury-sports theme justice. The front seating areas are comfy with plenty of forward and aft adjustments, in addition to heating and ventilation. However, as stated earlier, the back seats are a tight space reserved for smaller adults or kids.
The trunk cargo space is a bit short at 10.8 cubic feet, but the rear seatbacks do fold down to open up additional room passing through the trunk.
Lexus’ slowness to innovate plays into the IS 350’s formula where the infotainment unit is only an update from the older system where they added touchscreen capability along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Most other switchgear and controls are carried over all the way from 2013 when the current IS platform was reworked for a full redesign. The dreadful touchpad interface is still present, but the touchscreen makes up for such a disaster allowing you to have a choice of interaction with a familiar interface. However, the use of the older tech is a testament to the expected reliability out of Lexus where there’s plenty of proven tech that will last for many years to come without fail.
There’s a bevy of active safety features that are somewhat disconnected in the way you control them, such as the adaptive cruise control and lane departure/steering assist systems don’t seem that cohesive, but they do work when you figure out how to enable or disable them through what I think is an unconventional method.
The Lexus IS carries the rear-wheel-drive sedan throne (optional all-wheel-drive IS 300) apart from the large Lexus LS since there is no longer a GS. I have to wonder if the fresh styling is enough to keep the IS relevant. Though, I consider the IS to be a good buy considering the collective of the refinements, new sporty styling, proven reliability, and respected price point where my loaded-up IS 350 F Sport test vehicle prices out at $55,050, including a $1,025 delivery, processing, and handling fee. Now, I must get my hands on the IS 500 and its naturally aspirated V8 and let everyone know how it stacks up for its soon-to-be-announced price.