For the greater part of the past three decades, the Lexus luxury division of Toyota shined brightly as the best-selling Japanese luxury division, topping Acura (Honda's luxury arm) and Infiniti (Nissan's answer to the Japanese luxury question).
All three were envisioned as competitively-priced alternatives to Germany's big three premier brands (Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW) along with American favorites Cadillac and Lincoln.
Introduced in 2001, Lexus' compact, rear-wheel drive IS (pronounced by uttering each individual letter, not the formed word 'is') has served as the sporty, inspirational choice between two compact sedan offerings. The higher volume compact ES enjoys front-wheel drive while delivering a luxurious, but more subdued atmosphere. When piloting behind the IS steering wheel, seating positions measure a bit lower than ES and most other sedans with a tight 5.5 inches of ground clearance.
For those of us stationed in the upper Midwest, IS also affords an all-wheel-drive option in both engine rims (a $2,000 ding), well worth considering when four distinct seasons remain the norm.
According to Lisa Materazzo, vice president of Lexus Marketing, "The IS customer is our youngest, most loyal yet," and important ingredient, from a corporate standpoint, when creating strong brand loyalty.
The 2021 effort continues representing a mature-staged third-generation platform introduced back in 2014; but its exterior presence continues looking marvelous. Upgrades and changes this year remain few, yet notable. Larger 19-inch wheel are available creating better stability. A revised suspension also works in tandem with the larger tire footprint. Behind the scenes, lighter weight hub bolts increase braking rigidity and handling working with coil springs weighing in 20 percent lighter. Enhanced body rigidity, complements of reinforcing radiator side supports, and a greater number of weld points helps eliminate unwanted vibrations and noises. The cabin remains whisper quiet, a Lexus hallmark.
Sales in the 2021 calendar year reached 13,600 units, down 8.8 percent from the previous non-pandemic 12 months.
Once stationed behind the three-spoke steering wheel, the most notable visual update awaits between the very supportive front bucket seats. The much maligned square wiggle pad used for right-hand control of an in-dash screen-centric darting curser has been upgraded to a newer technology now utilized in most Lexus models.
It's a flat, square, quad-paneled touch sensitive pad requiring finger pressure to motivate an in-screen curser floating inside an eight-inch in-dash multi-function screen jetting up from the mid-dashboard region (the screen also reacts to an actual finger touch to summon a command, requiring a healthy arm stretch). Steering wheel-mounted buttons also serve as convenient secondary sources of sound-volume and station pre-set choices. In addition, the two most popular Smartphones, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, now coordinate with IS stereo and hardware so downloaded phone Apps appear in the car's center screen, which also includes a three month complimentary subscription to Sirius/XM Satellite radio.
The electronic stop-start push button resides on the dash up and to the right of the steering wheel. One push and the flat screen and instrument cluster rain with a cosmic purple fireworks display.
Look under the hood and find the most potent engine (thus far) sold in IS, a naturally aspirated (non turbo) 3.5-liter V-6 cranking out 311 horsepower and teamed with a traditional six-speed automatic transmission in all-wheel drive models. It's a thirsty sucker, averaging 19 miles per gallon in city travel and 26 highway while requiring premium unleaded fuel to satisfy the 17.4 gallon tank.
The IS offers one additional internal combustion engine. The rear-wheel drive IS 300 comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine pumping out 241 of horsepower starts at $39,000 in 2021. Lexus IS 300s with all-wheel drive come standard with the 3.5-liter V-6, but pumps out a slightly less 260 horses. The electronically-controlled all-wheel drive maintains a 30:70 front-to-rear torque split delivering maximum performance, but can revise by sending as much as 50 percent of power to the front wheels in certain circumstances.
While Lexus counts more gas-electric hybrid opportunities that its two luxury Japanese rivals (Infiniti and Acura), IS has yet to debut a gas-electric hybrid version let alone an all-electric or extended-range electric offering.
Starting price for the top-trim IS 350 F Sport with all-wheel drive checks in at $44,900. In the 2021 model year, F-Sport packaging is available only in the six-cylinder IS 350 and comes as standard fare. A goodly number of packages and a-la-carte opportunities await including upgraded sounds system with larger touch-screen ($2,750), triple beam LED headlights ($1,250) and extra high-tech safety nuances in the form of rear pedestrian detection and park assist with auto braking (1,400). The bottom line with $1,025 reached $58,040.
The F Sport includes form-fitting bolstered heated and ventilated front seats, F Sport suspension tuning, 19-inch allow wheels, black geometric film interior with red enhancements and a movable circular analog meter inside the instrument panel.
Also returning as an option for 2021 when opting for the IS F Sport; an F-Sport dynamic handling package ($3,800) including such exterior extras as a carbon fiber rear spoiler atop the trunk lid and Matte Black wheels. Inside, an extra drive mode selection (Sport Plus) joins Eco, Normal, Sport and Snow. The Ash wood trimmed steering wheel warms to the touch when summoned and adaptive variable suspension enhances ride quality.
For those looking for more boost and willing to wait one model year, Lexus launches a 2022 IS 500F Sport Performance model with a new-to-IS 5.0-liter V-8 engine cranking out 472 horsepower.
Upfront, the Lexus brand prominent spindle grille resembles a compact hourglass cinched in the middle with check mark style daytime running lights. Underneath reside an angled row of three small bejeweled-type diodes. The back end includes a long, thin horizontal light bar extending from end-to-end and three bejeweled LEDs.
Compact dimensions and vertical floor hump down the middle create a nice two-seat region in row two. Three works during very limited-mile rides. If cargo carrying pops up as a concern, seatbacks fold down with a 60/40 split gaining trunk access. Volume inside the truck measure in at a tight 10.8 cubic feet.
Under the multi-function flat screen resides a pair of narrow air vents flanking a regal, round analog clock with illuminated hands and face, always a welcome sight. Circular air vents adorn ends of the dashboard. The ventilation region below the clock includes dual temperature zones controlled by vertical touch sensors; slide a finger up and down these thin rails to raise and lower temperatures. In between, two rows of push buttons monitor fan speed and direction.
At a Glance
2021 Lexus IS 350
Price as tested: $58,040
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Overall Length: 185.4 inches
Overall Width: 72.4 inch
Overall Height: 56.6 inches
Fuel Economy: 19 m.p.g. city, 26 m.p.g. highway
Curb weight: 3,880 pounds
Powertrain warranty: 70,000 miles/72 months