2021 Lexus IS 350 Review: First Drive

Kyle Patrick
by Kyle Patrick


Engine: 3.5L V6
Output: 311 hp, 280 lb-ft
Transmission: 6AT, AWD
US fuel economy (MPG): 19/26/22
CAN fuel economy (L/100KM): 12.2/9.0/10.8
Starting Price (USD): $41,015 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (USD): $56,445 (est, inc. dest.)
Starting Price (CAD): $45,045 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (CAD): $60,095 (inc. dest.)

Where do you draw the line between a facelift and a new generation of sport sedan?

Lexus is forcing us all to consider the question with this, the 2021 IS. Try as the Japanese luxury brand might, it can’t quite convince us this is the latter. It shares the same basic platform with its predecessor—which debuted back in 2013—after all. Same goes for the drivetrain combos, too.

Get a Quote on a New Lexus IS 350

To its credit, however, Lexus has wrought one of the most comprehensive facelifts in the industry for this 2021 model. With new looks and a much-improved driving experience, I believe Lexus’ pre-drive pitch that this latest IS will appeal to younger buyers. Will it outshine the thick spread of talent in the compact sport sedan set? That’s a tougher sell.

New skin

It’s a lot more modern, yeah? Like plenty of new cars, the 2021 Lexus IS needs to be seen in the metal for its lines to really make sense. On an overcast day, the dark gray paint picks up the light in all the right places, thanks to a few choice creases along the flanks. Remember how the outgoing car had a confluence of awkward angles right around its headlights? That’s all gone, with slimmer, simpler units up front, though they do keep those checkmark LEDs. The lower headlight mounting and larger grille work together to visually slam the nose to the ground, giving this sedan a hint of LC coupe style.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Lexus LC Convertible Review: A Future Classic

Lexus needed to incorporate a whole new stamping process to get the rear decklid into production. In pictures the complex curves look a little Neanderthal brow overtop the full-width taillights, but it’s much more cohesive in person. In fact, as a whole, “cohesive” is the best word for the IS. It now looks like a part of the Lexus family again, yet retains its own identity. It’s amazing how a stretch of about an inch (25 mm) from nose to tail has worked wonders for the sedan’s proportions.

My IS 350 AWD tester goes a step further in top F Sport guise. Depending on market, this specific car goes by a different name: it’s the F Sport with Dynamic Handling Package in the US, and the F Sport 3 in Canada. No matter if you call that thing on your head a beanie or a toque, that translates to very cool 19-inch forged BBS wheels, an adaptive suspension with additional selectable drive mode, and other goodies.

Reach out and touchscreen

Crack open any one of the four doors and you’ll find a sea of red leather. It isn’t subtle, but in typical Lexus fashion, it all feels good, and the whole interior feels solidly screwed together. Fair enough: the basic design isn’t far removed from the 2020 model, so Lexus should have lots of practice. That sounds like a knock, but the layout is pretty easy to understand, and includes redundant physical buttons for the most common functions. Rectangular air vents give way to circular items, and the trackpad and drive select knob have swapped places around the shifter. But the biggest, most welcome change sits atop the dashboard, where Lexus has brought the screen six inches (150 mm) forward and given it touchscreen abilities.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Genesis G70 Review

The built-in system is still cumbersome to use, but the IS now includes standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, so you can rely on your smartphone for most functions. If you’d rather go in the opposite direction, there’s still a CD player. Just two USB-A plugs exist, both in the front row. No matter what device you choose, rest easy in knowing the 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system will give you the best versions of your favorite songs.

Those bright red thrones are mega comfy, plus they’re heated and ventilated. The driving position is solid, though AWD models like my tester have an awkward protrusion just ahead of the gas pedal. Leaving the front seat set for my 5’10” frame, I find enough room in the back, with my hair just brushing the headliner. I like that there’s actually some curvature to the rear cushions too: you sit in the rear seats, not on. Both rows feel slightly narrow. It isn’t what you’d call a tight fit, but it feels intimate. Which is just what I want when the GPS route starts looking like less like a grid and more like a sound wave.

A drive transformed

Lexus took the existing IS platform through a few rounds of Crossfit training for the 2021 model. Engineers targeted the chassis rigidity, adding more spot welds, additional bracing, and more high-strength steel. Those BBS wheels shed over 16 lb (7.4 kg) of unsprung weight, further enhancing handling.

I descend upon the wriggly portion of the day’s test route right as the sun peeks back out. I switch to Sport Plus mode, exclusive to the Dynamic Handling Package. This sets the adaptive suspension to its stiffer setting, hunkering down in preparation for more lateral gs. Even with the added weight of the AWD system, the IS 350 feels tidy, turning in sharply and resolutely holding its line. The F Sport steering wheel weights up nicely, responding quickly and consistently as corner after corner comes up. Lexus makes a big song and dance about its new Shimoyama test track, which drives the new “Lexus Driving Signature” debuting in the IS. But it works: there’s a maturity to the ride here that allows you to not just trust the IS as you fling it from apex to apex, but relish the act.

On the plus side, the carryover V6 still eschews turbos, so its power delivery is linear, and it sounds pretty good too. But the lack of snails means it can’t hope to match the straight-line speed of the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes C-Class; its sprinting stats line up closer to their respective four-cylinder models. It also means torque doesn’t arrive until the second half of the tach needle’s travel, so it can feel a little lethargic around town. The six-speed auto doesn’t help: it’s quick enough when handling upshifts on its own, but takes its time heading back down. Knocking the shifter into manual and using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters doesn’t speed things up, either.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Lexus NX300 Review

Lexus hasn’t sacrificed its trademark cruising ability for this newfound sportsmanship, either. Set the drive mode to Normal and the IS still wafts with the best of them. It rides over bumps with barely a noise making its way to the cabin. The V6 snarl quiets down to a gentle purr: you can artificially amp the noise back up via a dial to the left of the steering wheel, if you must.

The 2021 model also packs in a lot more driver assists than before. Dubbed Lexus Safety System 2.5+, it includes adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist. I use the adaptive cruise control for a short highway portion of the trip and it functions smoothly, keeping a consistent distance even when braking to a complete stop.

Verdict: 2021 Lexus IS First Drive Review

For all its improvements, the 2021 Lexus IS is a vehicular holding pattern. Lexus has spent two decades carving out its own little space in the segment, and it wasn’t going to jump ship just because the market has gone SUV-obsessed. The way the brand sees it, it has a two-pronged approach: the smooth-sailing ES for pure luxury, and this IS for the more sports-oriented buyer.

That’ll work for folks already in the Lexus showroom. The improvements are more than skin deep: this is a fine-handling four-door, with a balanced, athletic character. In fact, the better chassis shines a spotlight on the IS 350’s weak spot: its drivetrain. With the AWD (standard in Canada), the 350 feels more on pace with the segment’s four cylinder models. The slow-witted six-speed auto doesn’t help.

But that’s about it on the hard-cons list. The 2021 IS addresses a lot of the previous model’s faults, and wraps it all up in a much more appealing design. The updates don’t turn it into the new segment leader, but considering the bones Lexus is working with, the fact it’s this good is impressive.

Become an AutoGuide insider. Get the latest from the automotive world first by subscribing to our newsletter here.


  • Stylish new looks
  • Vastly improved ride/handling
  • Finally, a touchscreen!


  • Engine lacks oomph
  • AWD exacerbates that
  • Odd packaging foibles
Kyle Patrick
Kyle Patrick

Kyle began his automotive obsession before he even started school, courtesy of a remote control Porsche and various LEGO sets. He later studied advertising and graphic design at Humber College, which led him to writing about cars (both real and digital). He is now a proud member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), where he was the Journalist of the Year runner-up for 2021.

More by Kyle Patrick

Join the conversation