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Despite the company's focus on crossovers and SUVs, Lexus does still make sport sedans. Bypass the brand's family-haulers and you'll find the compact IS, a sweetly styled four-door that's been heavily refreshed for 2021.
I say "heavily refreshed" because, while the IS' underpinnings and engine options are mostly the same as before, the sheetmetal gets a fantastic makeover. In short, the IS looks awesome. The Grecian Water blue of my IS 300 tester is gorgeous, and the redesigned spindle grille neatly tucks between the new headlights. I never thought I'd end up liking Lexus' huge grille, but it really works on the IS. There's a nice little kick toward the rear when you view the car in profile, which emphasizes the wider hips. The fact that the LED running lights span the width of the trunk help with that wide stance, too.
The IS' platform might be the same, but Lexus' engineers made a number of tweaks to the suspension components and increased body rigidity for better overall handling. It works, too -- the steering quickly responds to my inputs and is nice and heavy. This car feels nimble in a way that past IS models haven't.
What hasn't changed are the powertrains, and this is also where things get a little confusing. The base IS 300 with rear-wheel drive uses a 2.0-liter turbo I4 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 naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, but downgrades to a six-speed automatic transmission. Step up 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 auto and the IS 350 AWD gets the six-speed auto. Weird, I know.
The six-speed transmission in this IS 300 AWD is pretty slow to respond and doesn't really encourage sporty driving. I can't get the transmission to downshift while braking for a corner, even on the IS' most aggressive Sport Plus drive setting. Paddles on the steering wheel solve that problem, but the shifts are hardly quick. The engine is strong and offers linear power delivery, and the chassis is really good, too, but the transmission really prevents the IS 300 from being properly entertaining.
Fuel economy is not the IS 300's strong suit, with the all-wheel-drive version only EPA-estimated to return 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. Over the course of a few days, I'm averaging just over 21 mpg. 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 supportive 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 it with lane-keeping assist for easier highway driving like you can in a BMW 3 Series or even a Mercedes-Benz CLA.
New for 2021, the IS can be optioned with a 10.3-inch color touchscreen running the Lexus Enform infotainment system. The screen is positioned closer to the driver than in the previous IS, and the touch capabilities are a godsend. Yes, Lexus' stupid touchpad controller is still here, but I can't recommend anyone use it, especially since it's so difficult to operate while driving. Lexus should really just take it out.
While I'm glad the user experience is better, the Enform design itself still isn't great. The menus and submenus are disorganized and tough to work through, though, thankfully, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. Furthermore, the backup camera is awful -- it doesn't fill the full display and it's fish-eyed, blurry and distorted. Backup cameras have been standard safety requirements for years now; poor resolution is unacceptable. You can get a panoramic-view camera as an option, but it's $1,400. Come on.
I don't personally love my tester's dark-tan-over-black interior, though other Roadshow staffers disagree (to each their own). You can get a nice red-over-black option, and that's way more my style. All the cabin materials look and feel great, but there isn't much in the way of interior storage. There's room for a water bottle and maybe a small tablet in the door pockets, but there isn't really any place to put your phone. There's no wireless charging pad available, either.
The 2021 Lexus IS 300 starts at $40,025 including $1,025 for destination, and my well-equipped tester comes out to $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 against a bunch of really great options. The BMW 3 Series is the most obvious competitor, and the 330i is more efficient and has better tech. I'll also say that I love, love, love the Kia Stinger, which looks awesome, is great to drive and is a real value proposition, too -- a twin-turbo V6 version with AWD costs as much as this loaded IS 300.
There are a lot of reasons to like the 2021 IS. It looks great, the interior is comfy and it's nicer to drive than before. But placed against its competitors, the IS -- especially the IS 300 -- continues to fall short. Until the powertrains and tech get a real upgrade, the IS will always be one step behind.