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Lexus unveiled the 2021 IS sport sedan on Monday, and while it looks sharper and fresher than the current IS, don’t let the looks fool you — it’s essentially a major face-lift, riding on a revised version of the same platform and using a near-identical interior.
It does look pretty great, though. Every exterior body panel is new, at least, and even the door glass doesn’t seem to be carried over from the 2020 model. The new IS has a lower sharklike front end with an even larger and more complex spindle grille than before, and F Sport models have additional functional air intakes. The kicked-up C-pillar is more BMW than what’s found on actual BMWs, and I like the surfacing on the lower body with a line that spears up ahead of the rear wheel arch.
2021 Lexus IS has deceptively good looks
The IS’ rear end should prove to be controversial, though. As lots of brands are wont to do now, Lexus has connected low-down taillights with a central light bar, and thankfully they look less droopy than the 2020 model’s. The diffuser is more pronounced and the license plate surround is less angular, but I really want to focus on the trunk lid — the IS has basically got a Bangle butt! I think it works well in profile but looks wonky from some angles, and it’s sure to be divisive.
Lexus says the new IS will be the first model with the new Lexus Driving Signature, a uniform philosophy that will extend across the lineup. The brand hasn’t exactly described what that means, but it seems like new Lexus models will have a much stronger focus on driving dynamics. The new IS was the first Lexus to be developed at the new Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama, in Aichi, Japan, which features a 3.3-mile test track with elevation changes and a variety of corner types and road surfaces.
As it’s on the same platform as the current model the wheelbase remains the same, but the new IS has grown by 1.2 inches in both length and width. The new car is more rigid thanks to upgrades like reinforced radiator supports and additional weld points, increasing ride comfort and steering response while reducing noise and vibration. The revised suspension setup uses lighter components, new A-arms and swing-valve shock absorbers. For the first time 19-inch wheels are available, and even the wheel hub bolts are stronger and lighter.
While the exterior has undergone a near-complete overhaul, the interior only receives minor changes. There are now round air vents on each end of the dash instead of rectangular ones, the center console and armrest have been redesigned and there are some new color and trim options (like the Circuit Red in these photos), but that’s about it. The biggest news inside is the infotainment, which now is a touchscreen and ditches the old mousepad in favor of a touchpad. The standard 8-inch screen (1 inch larger than before) is positioned closer to the driver, and a 10.3-inch screen remains available. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are finally included, and the system also has Amazon Alexa integration.
Powertrains remain the same as the current model, too. The base rear-wheel-drive IS 300 uses a turbocharged inline-four still producing 241 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, but the eight-speed automatic transmission has been revised. Still confusingly, the IS 300 AWD actually uses a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 that makes 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, and it’s mated to a six-speed automatic.
The IS 350 is available with both rear- and all-wheel drive and uses that same 3.5-liter V6 boosted to 311 hp and 280 lb-ft. The IS 350 RWD uses the eight-speed transmission, while the AWD version gets the six-speed. Lexus says the IS 350 RWD will do 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds, matching the current model.
In addition to unique bumpers and other exterior and interior styling bits, the F Sport package now adds a cold-air intake and a sport exhaust system (as well as a fake sound generator that we’re less enthralled by). Newly available on top of the F Sport package is a Dynamic Handling Package, which brings adaptive suspension, 19-inch forged BBS wheels, carbon-fiber accents and a card key. DHP-equipped cars also get a Sport S+ driving mode and a limited-slip differential, both of which are available on the current IS.
Like other new Lexus models the IS gets a fairly comprehensive suite of safety features as standard, some of which have been updated for 2021. The adaptive cruise control now works in stop-and-go traffic, able to restart from 0 mph, and it will begin accelerating once the turn signal is activated if the car in front is going too slow. The automated emergency braking now has bicycle detection in addition to pedestrian detection and includes steering assist, and the lane-departure warning also includes lane centering. Other standard features are road-sign assist, rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot monitoring.
Lexus says the IS will go on sale this fall, but no pricing has been announced yet. A slight price hike over the 2020 model is possible, which would make the IS 300 RWD start at just around $40,000. Expect the top-of-the-line IS 350 F Sport to top out near $55,000.
We can’t say we’re not disappointed that the 2021 IS amounts to a heavy face-lift, but the styling changes, tech upgrades and promise of sharper handling should keep the IS relevant when pitched against its increasingly relevant competition. And it might not be long until a truly new IS comes around — rumors persist that a next-gen IS could ride on Mazda’s upcoming rear-drive platform.