2021 Lexus IS: Entry-lux cruiser great for urban environment

2021 Lexus IS: Entry-lux cruiser great for urban environment
2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The Lexus IS gets a refresh — not a complete redesign — for the 2021 model year. While it definitely fixes some of the things I didn’t like about the 2020 model, a lot of IS fans are hankering for a next-gen vehicle. 

However, I’ll argue, when you have a vehicle that works, little tweaks may be all you need.

In addition to the big changes (hello, touchscreen!), Lexus also simplified the trim and pricing structure, making this compact sedan more accessible for an entry-level luxury buyer.

The Hits

I’ve never been a fan of infotainment systems that force you to use a pad or dial to operate them. I can mostly tolerate the Mazda system, but I’ve never, ever liked the mouse or trackpad system in the Lexus. I habitually overshoot my on-screen target, and I’m constantly fidgeting to make my selections. So, even though Lexus adds the trackpad to the IS for 2021 (boo!), it also makes the infotainment screen a touch screen (hallelujah!). 

Another huge win for 2021: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard. Plus on the available large 10.3-inch screen, they look great.

2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The interior gets a bit of a refresh with upgraded materials, and overall looks really nice. The biggest design change, however will be seen on the exterior, with the new spindle grille design adding sharper edges and a more distinct weave to the grille pattern. There are also some sharper lines on the side of the vehicle, and I’m totally digging the two-tone side mirrors. Another nice exterior design touch: the blade-style tail lamps that connect through the red center line.

Basically, everything about the exterior just looks better.

Another of the big changes for 2021 is the introduction of the “Lexus Driving Signature,” which basically sets a tone for the driving experience in all Lexus vehicles. So, when you switch from an IS to an ES to an LC, you should recognize some similarities in the driving dynamics. What does that mean for the 2021 IS? Ride and handling gets a little tighter and a lot sportier. I consider that a huge win — even for a vehicle that already had decent driving dynamics.

While this should be no surprise at this point, I’m also a huge fan of the fact high-tech safety features are standard on the IS. For 2021, this means IS is upgraded to the 2.5 version of the Lexus Safety System +. This safety suite includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane trace assist, intelligent high beams, road sign assist, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

One final plus point on the IS: Rear-seat legroom exists. I’m not going to call it cavernous or roomy, but with the scooped out shape of the back of the front seats, you get some additional knee room. Assuming you don’t have a super tall person in the front, an average person should be able to sit in the rear with a little breathing room for feet and knees. 

2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The Misses

In case you missed it above, I hate the trackpad. The saving grace for this feature, however, is the redundant touch screen. I know there are people out there who don’t like fingerprints on screens and might actually prefer this system, but I don’t in its current iteration. Add more haptic feedback, make it easier to control, and maybe I’ll change my mind.

The 2021 IS also has the potential to have one of my biggest new automotive pet peeves — though the test vehicle didn’t have it — and that’s wireless charging without wireless CarPlay or Auto. Why is this a pet peeve? Because you can charge sans cord, but you’ll have to plug in to access the CarPlay/Auto features. Either have the cord or don’t have the cord. 

However, since wireless charging is a stand-alone option, you can choose to have this annoyance or not. 

Another tough spot on this compact sedan is going to be trunk space. While you’ll certainly be able to fit a few rollerboards back there for a road trip or airport drop-off, the 10.8 cubic feet of cargo volume is a bit skimpy. Plus, the opening to the space is very narrow, which means you won’t be able to put any big suitcases or bulky boxes back there. 

Finally, I’d like to point out that for petite drivers in a far-forward, height adjusted position, the headrest hits the ceiling. Seems like that could have been designed a tad better.

2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The Trims

As a part of the trim simplification, there will only be four trims, and ALL IS 350 models will also be F Sports — so there is no F Sport package for the lower two trims.  

IS 300 RWD ($39,000): This includes the 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine plus 8-speed automatic transmission and has standard features such as an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, Alexa compatibility, 18-inch wheels, 2 USB ports, standard Lexus Safety System + 2.5, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, dual climate control, passive entry, push-button start.

IS 300 AWD ($41,000): This includes the 260-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 plus 6-speed automatic transmission as well as features on the IS 300 RWD model. 

IS 350 RWD F Sport ($42,900): This includes the 311-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6  plus 8-speed automatic transmission and adds standard features such as 19-inch wheels, heated-and-ventilated front seats, 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, aluminum sport pedals, active sound control, performance instrument cluster with sliding bezel, F Sport Exhaust, G-force display, F sport badging and styling. 

IS 350 AWD F Sport ($44,900): Includes all of the above but swaps to the 6-speed automatic transmission.

2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The Chicago Factor

The Lexus IS has long been a Chicago favorite for its quick-off-the-line performance and compact size that makes it easy to maneuver and park in tight city spaces. This is definitely a driver’s car with the occasional space for passengers and stuff.

As an entry-level luxury car, I will say you’ll want to make sure you have an off-street — preferably indoor — parking space for the new IS. The paint colors are eye catching (especially the bright blue Grecian Water paint on our test vehicle!) but won’t look very good scuffed up and dinged from people who don’t know how to parallel park.

Additionally, though the base car is rear-wheel drive, you’re definitely going to want to upgrade to the all-wheel drive version considering Chicago winters. The good news: For just $2k, you get AWD and an upgraded engine. 

Fuel economy obviously is going to be better with the RWD models, but 22 mpg combined for the IS 300 and IS 350 F Sport AWD is still acceptable if not stellar, with the highway mileage ringing in at 26 mpg. 

My pick: the IS 300 AWD with the comfort package and 10.3-inch screen (which adds navigation). Skip the wireless charging.

2021 Lexus IS

2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD (Photo by Jill Ciminillo)

The Specs
Engine: 2.0L, I-4 (IS 300 RWD); 3.5L V-6 (IS 300 AWD, IS 350)
Horsepower: 241 (IS 300 RWD); 260 (IS 300 AWD); 311 (IS 350)
Torque: 258 (IS 300 RWD), 236 (IS 300 AWD), 280 (IS 350)
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 21/31 (IS 300 RWD); 19/22 (IS 300 AWD, IS 350 AWD); 20/28 (IS 350 RWD)
Drivetrain: RWD, AWD
Height: 56.5 inches (RWD); 56.7 inches (AWD)
Width: 72.4 inches
Length: 185.4 inches
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Seating capacity: 5
Cargo capacity (behind rear seats): 10.8 cubic feet
Base price: $39,000
Price as tested: $47,975


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  • Lexus features are 3 years behind the Camry. Side swoop also indicates that the design is too. Qi charging was standard.

    Having to plug in the phone to use Android Auto is also consistent with the Camry software upgrade, except I found out that some Android phones are not compatible with it. (The Service Manager said to come in to see if I can plug in my phone, but I didn't think that was worth it.)

    In short, the only reason to pay about $10,000 more for this car is if you like AWD or RWD, or bad gas mileage.

  • In reply to jack:

    I like the styling on the IS, and I do think Lexus tends to be a bit sportier. Oh, and AWD is huge. But the Camry does offer this now as well ...

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