The Lexus IS has been challenging the likes of BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class since the late 90s, an era where a slew of other left-field options also emerged in the segment – Jaguar X-Type and Alfa Romeo 156 just to name a few.
Fast forward to 2021, the luxury sports sedan segment has gotten even more crowded. The German establishment now includes the Audi A4, Volvo is represented by the S60, and newcomer Genesis is making a bold entry with the G70.
The original challengers are taking things more seriously as well, with the Jaguar X-Type rehashed to become the XE, and the Alfa Romeo 156 rebranded as the Giulia.
In an increasingly saturated market space, does the Lexus IS have what it takes to compete? Let’s find out.
The 2021 Lexus IS may look all-new but it isn’t. It’s still based on the same platform as the existing third-generation model, and the engines and transmissions have been carried over. Even the cabin is largely the same as the existing car, save for a few subtle changes.
The “new” Lexus IS then, is more of a heavily facelifted model of the outgoing car than a completely new model – a missed opportunity we think, as the current third-gen model dates way back to 2013. That said, Lexus has at least gone to great lengths to ensure the car look fresh from all angles.
As part of the update, the Lexus IS range has also been rejigged, with the line-up now made up of just the base Luxury and top-spec F Sport trims with price starting at $61,500 plus on-road costs. The previously available range-topping Sports Luxury variant has been dropped. Instead, Lexus now offers two optional enhancement packs which can be opted to fully deck both the Luxury and F sport models up to the previous Sports Luxury levels.
Buying it on looks alone?
Style is a powerful thing, and Lexus knows that. Never mind if the underpinnings are not new, when buyers are splashing upwards of $60k on a car, they want – first and foremost – something that stands out.
And that’s where Lexus has smashed it out of the park with the new IS. It looks properly good, with sporty proportions all around and design elements inspired by the ultra-posh Lexus LC coupe. Previously a controversial talking point, the much-resolved Lexus spindle grille now blends remarkably well with the rest of the car, while those grown rear haunches along with wider front and rear tracks lend it aggressive stance.
Despite its mechanical connection with the outgoing model, every exterior body panel is new, too, except for the front and rear windscreens and front windows.
The oddball twin section headlights are now gone and in their place more conventional single clusters with integrated daytime running lights. At the opposite end, the single LED light bar that stretches the width of the rear looks cool at night.
The previous 18-inch wheels have always looked too small for the IS, and we are glad to find new 19-inch items now bundled with the optional enhancement packs and fitted as standard on the F Sport models. F Sport further adds sporty touches with gloss black mesh grille and bumper accents.
Step inside the new IS and immediately obvious is how familiar everything is. In sharp contrast to the rejuvenated exterior, the cabin has largely stayed unchanged. And it’s really starting to show its age, especially when compared with the much more modern interiors in the 3 Series and C-Class.
Nevertheless, there’s a new larger 10.3-inch infotainment screen which has been moved closer to the front occupants. It’s now a touchscreen which means you don’t have to use Lexus’ clumsy touchpad style interface anymore. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The screen graphics and menu structure, however, have not been updated and are seriously falling behind the competition.
The standard 10-speaker is sound system is nice but the optional 17-speaker Mark Levinson unit is surreal.
Comfort is key
Typical of Lexus, cabin comfort is ensured to a high degree. Like much of the rest of the cabin, the seats have been carried over unchanged. But there’s no need to because they are easily some of the most comfortable seats in the business.
The front bucket seats feel snug around your body with excellent support, yet contoured so perfectly that you don’t feel much fatigue even after hours of being in them.
Electric adjustments and front seat heating are standard across all grades, with cooling fitted to higher spec F Sport variants. Optionally available on all models as part of enhancement packs is a powered rear windscreen sunshade.
Space and practicality
The IS offers good space for the front occupants, but rear legroom is tighter than its German rivals. The middle rear passenger will also have to deal with the chunky drivetrain hump, a common drawback of rear-wheel drive cars.
For young families, two ISOFIX anchorages can be found in the rear, along with three top-tether attachment points for baby seats.
Boot capacity is listed at 480 litres for non-hybrid models, which is about typical for the segment. The space drops to 450 litres for the hybrid model due to the presence of a battery pack under the boot floor.
The 2021 Lexus IS carries over the existing powertrain line-up, which includes the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 180kW/350Nm in the IS 300, 2.5-litre petrol-electric hybrid setup producing 133kW/221Nm in the IS 300h and the 232kW/380Nm 3.5-litre V6 petrol unit in the IS 350.
Both the IS 300 and IS 350 drive through an eight-speed automatic transmission, while the hybrid IS 300h uses a CVT. All IS models are rear-wheel drive.
New look, sportier drive?
We were supplied the IS 300h Luxury for this review. Obviously, the hybrid model isn’t the sportiest IS in the range, with it favouring efficiency and smoothness over performance. While there’s no shove in the back acceleration here it does offer a very relaxing drive with still plenty of go both around town and on the freeway – partly thanks to the assistant of instant torque from the electric motor.
Speaking of which, the transition from electric drive during light acceleration to engine power is impressively seamless, as there is barely a hint when the engine kicks in. It’s also superbly quiet and comfortable, making it a great long-distance cruiser.
The hybrid drivetrain still uses a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, though. It’s disappointing that Lexus has yet to make the transition to newer lithium-ion battery found in the new LS and LC hybrid which allows for greater energy bursts, aiding acceleration and electric-only driving range.
Weighing 1,720kg, the IS 300h is quite heavy but it’s far from sloppy in the handling department. Corners are handled with excellent composure with very little body roll thanks to a neutral chassis and excellent grip. The weight dulls its responses slightly through bends and the steering isn’t the most communicative, but it is still a reassuring drive.
Has the ride quality suffered by upsizing to 19-inch wheels? Not that we noticed. The ride is compliant across all but the most broken of roads.
Over our week-long test with predominantly urban driving, the IS 300h’s recorded average fuel consumption figure of 6.0L/100km is impressive. At about a litre higher than the claimed 5.1L/100km, its real-world fuel economy is comparable to a diesel if not better, but you get much better refinement and lower emissions. With more conservative driving, it’s not hard to bring the figure down to the mid fives.
Design & Comfort
Performance & Handling
Equipment & Features
- Sharp looks
- Excellent refinement and comfort
- Smooth and efficient hybrid powertrain
- Improved touchscreen infotainment system
- Lack of interior and drivetrain updates
- Showing its age
The redesigned 2021 Lexus IS has certainly got the looks to tickle the hearts of prospective buyers, but the mainly skin deep update might struggle to convince the head.
Still, the Lexus IS‘ value proposition remains strong, with the range comprehensively equipped and backed by a lengthy 4-year factory warranty. There’s also no doubting Lexus’ renown quality and reliability.
The IS 300h we drove was nice but the IS 350 F Sport would be the one we’d be telling people to buy.
2021 Lexus IS pricing and specification
|Pricing (Excluding on-road costs):||From $61,500|
As tested: $70,000 (IS 300h Luxury with Enhancement Pack 2)
|Warranty Customer Assistance:||4 years roadside|
|Country of Origin:||Japan|
|Service Intervals:||12 months/15,000km|
|Engine:||2.0-litre in-line turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol:|
180kW @ 5,800rpm, 350Nm @ 1,650-4,000rpm
|2.5-litre in-line 4-cylinder hybrid (tested):|
133kW @ 6,000rpm, 221Nm @ 4,200-5,400rpm
|3.5-litre V6 petrol:|
233kW @ 6,400rpm, 378Nm @ 4,800rpm
|Transmission:||8-speed automatic/CVT (hybrid only)|
|Power-to-weight Ratio (W/kg):||IS 300: 109.8|
IS 300h: 97.6
IS 350: 141.6
|0-100km/h (seconds):||IS 300: Claimed – 7.0|
IS 300h: Claimed – 8.5
IS 350: Claimed – 5.9
|Combined Fuel Consumption (L/100km):||IS 300: Claimed: 7.5|
IS 300h: Claimed: 5.1/Tested: 6.0
IS 350: Claimed: 9.7
|Fuel Capacity (L):||66|
|Safety:||5-star ANCAP, 10 airbags, ABS, AEB, BA, EBD, Brake Emergency Display (Hazard/stoplights), ESP, Traction Control, Adaptive Cruise Control, LED DRL, reverse camera, front and rear parking sensors, Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Sway Warning System (SWS), Automatic High Beam, Blind-spot Monitoring (BSM), rear Cross-Traffic Alert (RCTA)|
|Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B) mm:||4,710/1,840/1,435/2,800|
|Boot Space (L):||IS 300h: 450|
IS 300 & IS 350: 480
|Kerb Weight (kg):||IS 300: 1,680|
IS 300h: 1,720
IS 350: 1,685
|Towing Capacity (kg):||Braked: 1,500/Unbraked: 750|
|Entertainment:||10.3-inch high-resolution touchscreen with sat-nav, Bluetooth and voice control, AM/FM, DAB+, iPod, 10-speaker sound system, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto|
Competitors: Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti Q50, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Volvo S60, Jaguar XE, Genesis G70, Alfa Romeo Giulia