2021 Lexus IS 300 review: Still so close to greatness
Despite the company’s focus on crossovers and SUVs, Lexus still produces sports sedans. Ignore the brand’s family transporters and you’ll find the compact IS, a sweet-styled four-door that has been heavily revamped for 2021.
- Responsive chassis
- Extremely quiet cab
- Racy appearance
I do not like
- The infotainment remains lackluster
- No internal deposit
- Transmission aging hinders performance
I say “heavily refreshed” because while the IS basics and engine options are mostly the same as before, the sheet metal undergoes a fantastic makeover. In short, the IS is great. The Greek aqua blue of my IS 300 tester is gorgeous and the redesigned spindle grille slides neatly between the new headlights. I never thought I’d like Lexus’ huge grille, but it really works on the IS. There is a nice kick to the rear when looking at the car in profile, which emphasizes the wider hips. The fact that the LED running lights cover the width of the trunk also helps with that wide stance.
The IS platform may be the same, but Lexus engineers have made a number of changes to the suspension components and increased body stiffness for improved overall handling. It also works: the steering responds quickly to my inputs and is nice and heavy. This car feels nimble in a way that the IS models of the past don’t have.
What hasn’t changed are the thrusters, and that’s where things get a little confusing too. The base IS 300 with rear-wheel drive uses a 2.0-liter I4 turbo with 241 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque, and an eight-speed automatic transmission. The IS 300 AWD – which is what I have here – gets a 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 with 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, but downgrade to a six-speed automatic transmission. Upgrade to the IS 350 and you’ll get a more powerful version of the same 3.5-liter V6 with 311 hp and 280 lb-ft. The IS 350 RWD has the eight-speed car and the IS 350 AWD gets the six-speed car. Strange, I know.
The six-speed transmission on this IS 300 AWD is rather slow to respond and doesn’t really encourage sporty driving. I can’t downshift the transmission when braking when cornering, even with the IS’s most aggressive Sport Plus driving setting. The paddles on the steering wheel solve the problem, but the shifts are not fast at all. The engine is powerful and offers linear power delivery, and the chassis is really good too, but the drivetrain really prevents the IS 300 from being adequately fun.
Fuel economy isn’t the IS 300’s strong point, with the all-wheel drive version only EPA estimates will return 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26mpg on the highway and 22mpg combined. Over the course of a few days, I’m averaging just over 21mpg. The turbocharged IS 300 RWD, meanwhile, returns 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined.
The IS 300 is great for highway cruising, with support seats, an extremely quiet cabin and a relatively robust suite of driving aids. The standard adaptive cruise control has full speed coverage, which is nice, but you can’t combine that with lane keeping assistance for easier highway driving like you can in a BMW 3 Series or even a Mercedes- Benz CLA.
New for 2021, IS can be optional with a 10.3-inch color touchscreen with extension Lexus Enform infotainment system. The screen is positioned closer to the driver than the previous IS and the touch capabilities are a godsend. Yes, Lexus’ stupid touchpad controller is still here, but I can’t recommend anyone to use it, especially since it’s so difficult to use while driving. Lexus should really bring it out.
While I’m glad the user experience is better, Enform’s design still isn’t great. The menus and submenus are disorganized and difficult to process, however, thankfully,is they are standard. Plus, the backup camera is awful – it doesn’t fill the entire display and is fish-eyed, blurry and distorted. Backup cameras have been standard security requirements for years now; poor resolution is unacceptable. You can have a panoramic camera as an option, but it costs $ 1,400. Come on.
I personally dislike my tester’s dark-tan-over-black interior, although the other Roadshow staff members disagree (to each their own). You can get a nice red on black option, and that’s a lot more my style. All of the materials in the cabin look great, but there isn’t much in the way of internal storage. There’s room for a bottle of water and maybe a small tablet in the door pockets, but there’s really nowhere to put the phone. There is also no wireless charging pad available.
The 2021 Lexus IS 300 starts at $ 40,025, including $ 1,025 for the destination, and my well-equipped tester comes in at $ 47,975. If you don’t need the added traction of all-wheel drive, I say stick with the RWD IS 300 or upgrade to the RWD IS 350, simply because of the more modern eight-speed transmission.
Unfortunately, the Lexus IS 300 competes with a bunch of really cool options. The BMW 3 Series is the most obvious competitor and the 330i is more efficient and has better technology. I will also say that I love, love, love the Kia Stinger, which looks great, is great to drive and is also a true value proposition: a V6 twin-turbo version with all-wheel drive costs as much as this loaded IS 300.
There are many reasons to like the 2021 IS. It looks good, the interior is comfortable and it feels better to drive than before. But pitted against its competitors, the IS, especially the IS 300, still falls short. Until the powertrains and technology get a real upgrade, the IS will always be one step behind.