Coupe charisma in a born sport sedan
Don’t expect to drive anywhere incognito in an Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport. The mild refresh of this sport sedan has gone all-in to turn heads with coupe-charisma styling.
Maybe it was the searing blue paint or the slashing, swept-back body lines, but young men along street corners turned to give it an approving jaw-jut nod.
It’s a tough design job these days to lure drivers from their SUVs. Many of those high-riding vehicles have credible performance attributes concealed in a glorified family vehicle.
With its 2021 redesign, Lexus has positioned the compact-midsize IS sedan as a style-conscious choice. It’s a born sport sedan. If the Lexus loyalist wants a more traditional sedan, there is the midsize ES and it is one of the top-selling sedans in the luxury segment and the brand’s top-selling four-door.
The midsize luxury segment is dominated by the Audi A4, BMW 3-series, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with which the IS is most commonly compared. Those slightly larger competitors have taken the more formal styling direction for family function. And while those competitors also have fearsome performance models they also have fearsome pricing to create the badass family car.
The IS is more of an alternate ego sedan — right-sized and contemporary.
For 2021, the lineup doesn’t rise to the peak performance levels of some competitors, but neither does its pricing. However, a more wicked variant is set to debut a new line of performance models this fall. The upcoming IS 500 F Performance will be gratuitously powered by a naturally aspirated 472-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine. With peak torque of 395 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm, Lexus claims 0-60 acceleration in 4.5 seconds.
Lexus IS pricing
The current IS has three model choices, in rear- or all-wheel drive, with three power choices.
The entry rear-wheel-drive IS 300 has a 241-hp, 2.0-liter, turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. Its pricing starts at $41,525, including the $1,025 freight charge from Kyushu, Japan. The 2.0-liter engine was updated for 2021 with an adaptive transmission control that helps determine the most appropriate gear for each driving situation based on driver input.
The IS 300 AWD, powered by a 260-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, starts at $42,500.
The IS 350 F Sport is powered by a 311-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and eight-speed automatic. Pricing starts at $43,975 for rear-drive or $45,974 for AWD.
Today’s tester, the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport, was $55,220. Among its options were the Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 paint ($595) and Dynamic Handling Package ($4,200).
Other options added up quickly, such as the power moonroof ($1,100), triple beam LED headlights with automatic dimming ($1,250) and navigation system with Mark Levinson audio ($2,750). And intuitive parking assist with auto braking, rear pedestrian detection, and panoramic view monitor added $1,400.
How does the F Sport drive?
The force of the V-6 just feels right in this car. The engine is not rabid in its bite, but it digs in with satisfying force. With 280 foot-pounds of peak torque at 4,800 rpm, there is quick uptake of launch power. Lexus cites acceleration to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, which is competitive with the standard-model competitors.
The eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters provides timely shift points, but punch up Sport-plus and let the V-6 do the talking. There is a satisfying sense of tightness between steering input, braking, and absolute roll-on of throttle.
The IS cabin has the close-quarters feel of a performance coupe. The front seat area is accommodating for the tall driver with 38.2 inches of headroom and a very long 44.8 inches of legroom.
It’s a hands-on experience for accessing switches and other controls — meaning that the area is compact and orderly. But there is not a lot of storage space for small items. The shift console, for example, is packed with the shifter, a touchpad to access the upper touch screen and a controller dial for performance modes, and a pair of cup holders. Oddly, there is no wireless phone charging.
Sightlines are open across the fenders at the front windshield corners and side mirrors, which are offset from the body. Over-the-shoulder views are more complicated with the fastback wrap of the rear glass, but it’s workable for lane changes.
The rearview camera, with its 360-degree view, is an asset in tight parking situations. And the turning circle of 34.2 feet is unbelievably tight for any four-door car.
With a trim curb weight of 3,748 pounds, the fuel economy ratings are competitive at 20/28/23 mpg city, highway and combined, using the required premium fuel. In a week of driving, my average fuel economy ranged from 23.4 to 25.7 mpg, with more highway driving. Its large, 17.4-gallon fuel tank helps extend the cruising range.
Performance of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
As a sport sedan, the cabin is well soundproofed but the staggered-size,19-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires (235/40 front, 265/35 rear) are ultra-high performance. At highway speeds, the tires will spin up noise and even wander a bit on rain-grooved concrete interstate highways. The super-sticky treadwear rating (UTQG) of 140 is among the lowest I’ve tested on any performance car. Do not expect high mileage — and as Bridgestone advises, these tires are not intended to be driven in near-freezing temperatures, through snow or on ice.
The electronic adaptive variable suspension can get very busy on some stretches of concrete highway that feels like bobbling. But on blacktop and most other non-concrete roads, the F-Sport-tuned ride is a honed carving knife.
The stars shine brightly for the IS in NHTSA’s crash-test ratings. It earned the government agency’s top five-star overall rating with four stars for driver and front passenger; five stars in the side barrier and pole test for front and rear seats; and five stars for low rollover risk.
The Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 allows Level 2 semi-autonomous driving while keeping both hands on the wheel. The system integrates enhanced all-speed dynamic radar cruise control and lane change assist, front cross-traffic alert, and pedestrian alert.
The driver-assist system capably keeps the car centered in the lane, but like most systems, it will randomly shut off. Sometimes the system gets confused by light-colored road-surface conditions and highway lines that are broken up and uneven. The safety system will be beneficial for those drivers who have daily commutes in heavy traffic. It is an extra six eyes on the road to watch for less-attentive drivers.
The safety system includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane tracing assist, lane departure alert with steering assist, road sign assist and all-speed dynamic radar cruise control.
The smaller size of the IS is felt in the back seat. The area is quite compact with just 32.2 inches of a knees-up and butt-down legroom, divided by a tall exhaust-AWD tunnel.
At 10.8 cubic feet, trunk space is a couple of cubic feet smaller than the competition. But space is still very usable for travel getaways, and the back seat folds 60/40.
Why buy the Lexus IS 350 F Sport?
For those not needing to wedge a family into the back seats, the IS 350 F Sport is a flag of don’t-tread-on-me independent thinking.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport RWD
Body style: compact, 5-seat, 4-door sedan with rear- or AWD
Engine: 311 hp, direct-injected 24-valve 3.5-liter V-6; 280 lb.-ft. torque at 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters
0-60 mph: 5.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 20/28/23 mpg city/hwy/combined; premium fuel required
Fuel tank: 17.4 gal.
Trunk space: 10.8 cu. ft.
Front head/leg room: 38.2/44.8 in.
Rear head/leg room: 36.9/32.2 in.
Length/wheelbase: 185.4/110.2 in.
Curb weight: 3,748 lbs.
Turning circle: 34.2 ft.
Safety features include: 10 air bags, traction and stability controls, brake-force distribution, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert
• Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 includes pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane tracing assist, lane departure alert with steering assist, road sign assist, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control and intelligent high beams
Base price: $43,925, including $1,025 freight charge; price as tested $55,220
Options on test vehicle: Power moonroof $1,100; triple beam LED headlight with automatic dimming $1,250; navigation with Mark Levinson audio $2,750; intuitive parking assist with auto braking, rear pedestrian detection and panoramic view monitor $1,400; Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 paint $595; Dynamic Handling Package, $4,200
Where assembled: Kyushu, Japan
Warranty: 4-years/50,000-miles basic with roadside assistance with free 1st and 2nd scheduled maintenance services and lodging for emergency breakdowns 100 miles from home; and 6-years/70,000-miles powertrainRead more