Lexus has been engineering a makeover of its lineup, in case you haven’t noticed. The brand, which was born in 1989 as Toyota’s luxury division, has looked into the future, and realized its audience of comfort-oriented Boomers will soon shuffle off this mortal coil. A younger group of buyers must be cultivated, while somehow retaining the aging set. Lexus’ strategy is to sharpen its offerings, enriching performance, sharpening handling, elevating styling, and emphasizing craftsmanship. The resulting products, like the LC sports car, the RC performance coupe, and the NX crossover vehicle, have succeeded on some fronts, not on others. Now Lexus has focused its learnings on the new fourth-generation IS, which debuts as a 2021 model.
Simply put, IS punches up. The target here is the BMW 3 Series, which has been the prototypical premium compact sports sedan for most of this century, and entered its seventh generation of production in 2019.
Exterior design, subjective though it may be, is a strength for the IS. The sedan is athletically proportioned and has a great stance, with more than its share of elegance. Designers often quantify elegance by measuring the distance between the front axle and dashboard. A greater distance (up to a point) conveys elegance, and the IS nails it. The cabin looks compact beneath its fast roofline. The new version of the Lexus signature “spindle” grille is filled with an attractive diamond mesh, and narrow headlights give the IS an assertive squint. Paint, chrome, and panel gaps are flawless, as expected on a Lexus. Inside, the dash is tastefully simple. The center stack looks like a collection of components plugged into an attractive rack, a little retro hi-fi feel that’s cool and different. The interior in general matches the exterior, with bold, assertive choices, authentic lines and build quality, and a modern aesthetic.
BMW’s reputation is built on performance and handling, though – not on appearance.
Lexus invested time, energy, and engineering resources testing and developing the IS at the new Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama, which is near Lexus’ global headquarters in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. The IS debuts the “Lexus Driving Signature,” a philosophy that “pursues linear operation that is faithful to driver’s intentions, such as in the seamless transition from deceleration to steering and acceleration during cornering, in all types of driving situations,” according to the company.
IS 300 rear-wheel drive gets a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline engine with a turbocharger that puts out 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. IS 300 all-wheel drive gets a 3.5-liter naturally aspirated (non-turbo) V6 gasoline engine tuned to produce 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, while the IS 350 models, both all-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, get the same V6, but cranked up to 311 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Rear-wheel drive models come with an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters, while all-wheel drive models get a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Lexus reports a 143 mph top speed for all models of IS. Acceleration from 0 – 60 mph ranges from 6.9 seconds for IS 300 RWD to 5.6 seconds for IS 350 RWD.
My test drives took place on public roads in a rear-wheel drive IS 350. It has a 54/46 front/rear balance, and weighs in at 3,748 lbs. With double-wishbone front and multi-link rear independent suspension and electrically powered rack-and-pinion steering, IS does feel crisp, precise, and balanced.
The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 mpg city/31 mpg highway/25 mpg combined for the IS 300 RWD, 19/26/22 for IS 300 AWD. IS 350 RWD is rated at 20/28/23, and IS 350 AWD is rated at 19/26/22.
The IS makes good use of Lexus’ various connected services, and generously includes free trial periods for owners to decide if they’ll benefit from spending money. Lexus Enform Safety Connect is an important suite of features, and comes with a three-year trial subscription. Lexus Enform Service Connect comes with a 10-year complimentary subscription, and activates alerts for service and maintenance, with the option of including your chosen Lexus dealer. Lexus Enform Wi-Fi comes with a 4GB/three-month trial, and Lexus Enform Remote (free for three years) is compatible with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Additionally, the Lexus mobile apps (Lexus Enform Remote, Lexus Drivers, and more) are also available for connection with the IS.
The subscription model for technology has pitfalls to watch for in some cases. If you add the Navigation Package to your IS, Dynamic Navigation and Destination Assist are included – but only for the first three years of ownership. Considering this package starts at $1,670, the subscription is an annoying unknown for the future.
One tech option I love is the Mark Levinson 17-speaker, 1,800-watt premium surround sound audio system with Quantum Logic surround, starting at $1,080. Mark Levinson is a respected name in high-end home audio, and has been engineering car audio for decades now. The IS’s system is superb, and still includes a CD player, an obvious nod to its older fanbase.
The 2021 Lexus IS comes in four trim levels. IS 300 RWD starts at $39,000; IS 300 AWD starts at $41,000; IS 350 RWD F Sport starts at $42,900; and IS 350 AWD F Sport starts at $44,900. Several packages are available, including Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package ($2,750); Navigation Package ($1,670); F Sport Dynamic Handling Package ($3,800 – $4,200); Comfort Package ($1,950); along with a few stand-alone options.
On pure price, the IS defeats the BMW 3 Series. A 2021 BMW 330i, the base model, starts at $41,250, and prices climb quickly from there. Adding all-wheel drive costs $2,000 and puts you in a 330i xDrive at $43,250. Step up from the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the 330i models to a twin-turbocharged V6 in the M340i and M340i xDrive, and you’re looking at $54,700 and $56,700 respectively. There’s also a mild-hybrid version, 330e, that starts at $44,550. BMW bundles options in expensive packages, like the $3,200 Premium package, which is made up of features that I feel should be included on a premium sports sedan’s base price, like proximity key, lumbar support, ambient lighting, and heated front seats, along with genuine premium ones, like a head-up display and Live Cockpit Pro with navigation. Driver assistance packages are also bundled as extras ($700 and $1,700), so you have to pay more for features that IS buyers are getting with their base models.
In terms of performance, IS can’t match BMW horsepower-to-horsepower or lb-ft-to-lb-ft, but the Lexus Driving Signature is more than a new label, it’s a new feel, sharpness, and drivability some drivers may prefer to the BMW experience. While I often appreciate the razor sharp feel of a 3 Series, I found the IS to be very precise, but very smooth and easy to drive.
In the end, the 2021 Lexus IS may have what it takes to retain its older audience, and could very well pick up smart younger buyers who think of performance in terms other than pure power.