By Derek Price
Driving enthusiasts appear on the verge of extinction.
Buyers who prefer practicality and roominess are snapping up bulbous crossover vehicles as fast as car companies can make them. But people who actually enjoy driving for the visceral thrill of it prefer something like this: the Lexus IS sports sedan.
Fun-to-drive cars like this — with rear-wheel drive, rip-roaring power and sleek looks — are struggling to grow sales in a market that seems obsessed with the mundane. Lexus has responded by heavily refreshing the IS in an attempt to make it more thrilling for the 2021 model year.
Did they succeed? Yes and no.
I just spent a week driving a pre-production prototype of the new IS, and it definitely feels better from the driver’s seat. The whole car seems firmed up with a newfound tightness in the steering and suspension that the old one lacked.
I call it “tighter.” The manufacturer has a fancier phrase for it, “Lexus Driving Signature,” and this is the first car to get it. The new IS was developed from the outset to deliver predictable, noticeable road sensations to the driver that were honed on a test track in Japan.
This car does what you tell it to do — and quickly. Steering, braking and suspension travel all feel fluid and linear, without any jerks or surprises, even when driving aggressively and intentionally trying to throw it off balance. It always seems poised and controlled.
It looks better, too, especially from the side profile where a noticeable crease rises up to meet the rear fender. Narrower headlights and a neat twist on the brand’s signature spindle grille freshen the style up front.
Inside, the latest IS is built with the predictable perfection of a Lexus. Everything feels solid, supple and thoughtfully designed, including a new touchscreen that’s conveniently easy to reach. An 8-inch touchscreen comes standard, while cars that are upgraded with either a navigation system or the spectacular Mark Levinson premium sound system get a bigger 10.3-inch screen.
Where the new IS falls flat, though, is raw excitement.
My tester was the V6-powered F Sport version, which ought to be the one that delivers heart palpitations. Instead, the car was so quiet and floated so softly over bumps that it felt more serene than thrilling most of the time.
Depending on what you’re looking for, that could be a great thing. It’s an excellent highway car for people who want to have fun on winding roads but also enjoy a silky, silent ride on long trips.
More power would help, too. The 311 horsepower on tap in the V6 powered IS 350 is more than enough on paper but doesn’t feel excessive in real life, again, perhaps because the sound insulation is so darn effective.
You also can get it with a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine in the IS 300. This engine makes 241 horsepower.
Interestingly, Lexus is changing its strategy for F Sport models, which have sportier styling touches and a stiffer suspension. All V6 cars are automatically given the F Sport treatment in the IS lineup for 2021, which means there is no such thing as a four-cylinder F Sport nor a V6-powered version without the sport suspension.
An optional adaptive suspension provides some control over the damping.
Pricing starts at $39,000 for the IS 300 with rear-wheel drive, or $42,900 for the IS 350 F Sport. All-wheel drive adds an extra $2,000 on either version.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport ($44,900). Price as tested (including $1,025 destination charge): $45,925
Wheelbase: 110.2 in.
Length: 185.4 in.
Width: 72.4 in.
Height: 56.7 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (311 hp, 280 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Estimated fuel economy: 19 city, 26 highway
Why buy it?
The IS is noticeably sharper for 2021 after a major update. Its handling is linear and precise without sacrificing a smooth highway ride, and its fresh styling is more eye-catching than ever.