2021 Lexus IS 300 Review: A Simpler Sport Sedan

Chocolate teapot. Inflatable dartboard. Entry-level luxury car?

I’ll admit, it does seem like a contradiction. Sure, technically every luxury brand has an entry-level model, but does anybody desire them? Should they?

Get a Quote on a New Lexus IS

To answer these and other questions, I spent a week with the 2021 Lexus IS 300, in base-level rear-drive form. What I found was a refined, easy-to-like package. This Lexus sport sedan is just a little old-school too, which could be a selling feature to those who lament just how complicated the average compact executive sedan has become. Those looking for the latest and greatest tech will find the Lexus coming up short, however.

What’s new?

Lexus gave the IS lineup a thorough refresh for 2021. While the basic platform is the same, engineers focused on increasing the rigidity, using higher-strength steel and increasing the number of spot welds. A retuned suspension is also part of the package.

You’ll notice the spiffy new styling right away. The old IS was awkward, looking like everyone involved in the styling never saw each other’s work. This new one is straight-up gorgeous; an inch-long (25-mm) stretch from nose to tail does wonders for the proportions, and the cleaned-up front-end styling looks smart. There’s more than a hint of the LC coupe in the low nose. Swing around the side and the strong L-shape ahead of the rear arches emphasize the IS’ rear-drive roots.

What hasn’t changed is the slightly confusing underhood lineup. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is standard on rear-drive IS 300 models like this tester, hooked up to an eight-speed automatic. Check the all-wheel drive box, however, and in comes a 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated V6, sending slightly more horsepower and slightly less torque through a six-speed auto. The IS 350 uses the V6 in a higher state of tune, but keeps the eight-speed in rear-drive form, and the six for AWD. In Canada, the IS 350 is an AWD-only affair.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance First Drive Review: Worth the Ticket

New for 2022 is the—deep breath—Lexus IS 500 F Sport Performance. This V8-powered hooligan of a four-door is rear-drive only, spitting out 472 horsepower and 395 lb-ft of torque. Contributor Gabe Ets-Hokin was smitten with the IS 500 when he drove it recently—even if it cost him.

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Interior and comfort

A luxury car needs to make its occupants feel pampered, and that’s a tall order for the first rung on the model ladder. The IS 300 earns some quick three-pointers right from the jump: the front seats are supremely comfortable, making the highway miles melt away. The NuLuxe material is good enough that you won’t miss leather, and with a single option package, there’s both heating and ventilation available up front. As a true test, the IS shuttled two newlyweds from the venue back to their hotel. Even in her dress, the bride commented on the front-seat comfort. Not having a sunroof means headspace is ample. The rear row is fine for adults, though the 32.2 inches (818 millimeters) of legroom makes even the coupe-like second row of the Genesis G70 seem spacious.

The interior layout isn’t the most adventurous, but it’s easy to get the lay of the land from behind the wheel. The audio and climate controls are clearly labelled, and mostly straightforward to use. The exception is the odd touch-sensitive heating controls, which prove finicky on anything but smooth pavement.

In typical Lexus fashion, everything is tightly screwed together, with nary a stitch out of place. There are some low-quality plastics that remind you where the IS 300 sits in the market, however. The two prime offenders are the cheap-feeling plastic shield at the six-o’clock position on the wheel, and the huge blanking plate between the seat temperature controls.

Another sign of the IS’ age is its lack of in-cabin storage. You’re stuck with the smallish door pockets, and the center console. That’s it.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Genesis G70 Review: First Drive

Technology and features

For 2021, Lexus relented and brought back a touchscreen in the IS. The one in the IS 300 is a smaller 8.0-inch affair, with thick black bezels dating it. The native system is not the prettiest, but it gets the job done, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard. I recommend sticking with either. Lexus’ infuriating touchpad continues to take up space on the center console. I’m normally a fan of redundant controls (BMW’s iDrive, Mercedes’ little wheel-mounted thumb pads), but not this unintuitive one.

(As an aside, due to the wonders of scheduling, I drove the IS 300 the same week as the new NX. I can’t stress enough how good that crossover’s new user interface is, and the quicker Lexus spreads it across the rest of the lineup, the better.)

One thing that hasn’t changed is the cool LFA-inspired instrument panel. Yes, it still moves over when you switch to the more serious drive modes. Never change that, Lexus.

The lack of a wireless charging pad dates the IS. So too does its duo of USB slots, located within the center console.

SEE ALSO: 2020 BMW 330i xDrive Review

Driving impressions

A rear-drive, well-balanced chassis is pretty much the ideal sport sedan blueprint. With the stiffer chassis, and tried-and-true double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension, the IS 300 has the right credentials. Find a curvy bit of road and the IS initially impresses, with a taut, all-of-a-piece feel as it rides over the tarmac. It’s still plenty comfortable too, soaking up imperfections without upsetting the quiet cabin or jostling the wheel. The steering is light yet consistent, making it easy to pin that low nose to your line of choice.

In the dry, there’s more grip than you’d reasonably need on the street. That blown 2.0-liter produces 241 hp and 258 lb-ft, and the latter is available across most of the rev range. There are huge 265/35R tires on those rear 19-inch wheels though, and they keep the show under control.

An early-autumn shower did give the traction control some work on a particularly twisty piece of tarmac, however. Here, the brakes also lacked both bite and feel, eroding confidence. Yet again, in the dry, control was absolute. The weather-related attitude change was genuinely surprising for such a mainstream car.

What’s the competition?

There’s a lot of talent in the compact exec class. On layout and size, the IS 300 competes with the likes of the BMW 330i and Mercedes C300. The latter is about to be replaced, but the former is very good, with more user-friendly tech and a less thirsty engine. Similarly, the Genesis G70 is all-around excellent, with darling dynamics and sharp looks all its own.

The Audi A4 offers its own high-tech charms, though it can’t match the rear-drive competition in driving enjoyment down your favorite backroad. Acura’s TLX is the same idea: it’s larger, but feels comparatively aloof. It manages to have the worst infotainment system in the class, too.

If you’re considering a rear-drive, base IS, you’re probably a fan of left-field options. Don’t overlook the Cadillac CT4 or Alfa Romeo Giulia, both of which major on driving enjoyment.

Our Canadian-spec tester doesn’t quite have an exact US counterpart. If you want this car’s F Sport visual upgrades—slightly more aggressive bumpers, a discreet rear lip spoiler, those pretty 19-inch wheels, Ultrasonic Blue paint—you’ll have to upgrade to the 35o engine. This car includes the heated leather steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats which, along with a power moonroof, are all part of the $1,950 US Comfort Package. It’s required on US-spec IS 300s, essentially making the entry price $42,075, including $1,075 in destination charges. In Canada, this tester is a reasonable $45,715 CAD.

Verdict: 2021 Lexus IS 300 Review

The 2021 Lexus IS 300 is one smooth operator. It’s a lot of car for not a lot of cash, and carries the sort of badge kudos you just can’t find on even the fanciest Camry or Accord. The traditional Lexus refinement makes it an excellent long-distance cruiser, yet that rear-drive chassis can still entertain when asked.

The aged interior and infotainment keep it short of the best in the class. But if you yearn for the sport sedan feel from the turn of the century, and want (most) modern amenities plus a new-car warranty, the rear-drive IS 300 is a four-door you need to check out.

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