Tested: 2021 Lexus IS 350

It may be getting old, but at least it is getting better.

The IS 350 first found its way to Lexus stores as a 2014 model. In the intervening years, a steady stream of updates have kept it competitive.

For the 2021 model year, Lexus has endowed the IS with a second mid-cycle refresh that includes visual, content, comfort and technology upgrades.

 

The most obvious visual change is a new version of the controversial ‘spindle’ grill.

Wider and even more aggressive, it is flanked by headlights and daytime running lights now incorporated into single units. At the other end, smaller tail lights span the full width and the rear fenders are even more prominent. The whole vehicle is slightly (2 cm) longer and wider.

The interior changes are small but mighty. The cupholders have been relocated, the air vents are round instead of rectangular and there is more storage space on the centre console.  The haptic controls for the HVAC system are larger and the infotainment screen moved 80 millimetres closer to the driver.

 

2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD (Photo: Garry Sowerby)

 

That tablet-style screen and the infotainment system itself are the largest single improvement to the 2021 Lexis IS 350 – in my opinion.

The annoying track pad is now supplemented by a larger (23-cm) touch screen. The ability to use the touchscreen instead of trying to maneuver on the little pad, makes the Lexus system much more user friendly, but still far from the best.

Functionality is further improved by the addition of Android Auto compatibility to Apple CarPlay, allowing all phone users to have integration.

 

2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD (Photo: Lisa Calvi)

 

Not all the improvements are visual or tactile, nor under the hood or inside. The engineers added extensive reinforcement to the chassis, providing a stiffer mounting points  for the suspension.

Attention to detail is clearly evident in the replacement of wheels nut and studs, with bolts, shaving one kilogram from the overall weight. Lighter springs, control arms and anti-roll bars were also introduced.

Staggered 19-inch wheels are used on the F-Sport package, larger in the rear than front.

 

The 2021 Lexus IS comes in three and one-half flavours.

At $43,000, the least expensive vehicle to wear a Lexus badge is the IS 300 RWD. It has a 241-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

The next step up the ladder the IS 300 AWD at $43,400. While carrying the same numeric designation, this IS has a 260-horsepower, 3.5-litre V6 under the hood. It is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and a full-time all-wheel-drive system.

Next up? The IS 350 AWD. At $53,300 it has a 311-horsepower version of that V6, sending power to all four wheels through the same six-speed automatic transmission.

A half step up from that, and the subject of this review, is the IS 350 AWD with the $4,700 F-Sport Series 3 package.

 

2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD (Photo: Garry Sowerby)

 

At $58,000, equipped with the stronger V6, adaptive variable suspension and upgraded wheels and tires included in that package, this compact luxury car has serious sporting credentials and abilities.

Power in the IS 350 is adequate if not overly impressive. The normally-aspirated V6 is silky smooth and happy with lots of revs. But it gives up the immediate low-end punch of the turbocharged competition.

One gripe here – the transfer case for the excellent AWD system requires a large bulge in the transmission tunnel where your ankle normally resides.

 

The 2021 Lexus IS 350 really shines when the road develops the bends, especially if the surface is less than billiard-table smooth.

Thanks to those optional adaptive shock absorbers, the ride is supple and composed over even nasty surfaces. There is practically no body roll in turns and the steering is sharp and communicative, especially in Sport + mode.

Driven with verve on a rough secondary road that is part of my normal test route, the IS 350 acted like a sports car on the rough stuff and a luxury car the rest of the time.

 

The interior is worthy of luxury car status.

Material quality and placement is tasteful and first rate. The use of a CD player is the only reminder this car is getting up there in age. On the other hand modern technology abounds.

This is a compact sedan with emphasis on compact. The front seats are supportive and comfy for long stretches. The steeply-sloped windshield and low roofline requires considerable bending and stooping to get in. Rear seat residents will find both head and legroom at a premium. Cargo space is also at the low end of the competitive set.

A full slate of active and passive safety features is standard at this trim. The adaptive cruise control is more responsive to sudden changes in speed and pedestrian and cycle detection has been added. A 360-degree camera makes parking a breeze.

 

Sedans may be falling from favour, but the competition is still pretty stiff.

The Lexus IS 350 is more than competitively priced, even in top trim with the F-Series package. Combine the Lexus badge and attendant quality/reliability with this much athletic prowess and this old car is still young.

 

FACTS & FIGURES – 2021 Lexus IS350 AWD

 

PRICE

Base: $53,300

As tested: $60,226 including freight

 

SAFETY

Blind spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, automatic high beams, pre-collision system with pedestrian and bicycle detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane tracing and departure alert with steering assist, front-to-front risk detection, left turn intersection support.

 

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

19-in BBS alloy wheels, power heated mirrors with memory, auto tilting and auto dimming; heated and ventilated front seats, dual zone automatic climate control

 

SIGNIFICANT OPTIONS

F Sport Series 2, $4,700 – includes Power moonroof, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, driver seat memory, LED headlights, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Lexus navigation with remote – includes embedded navigation, destination assist (3 yr. trial), Enform remote, and safety connect (3 yr. trial), Enform service connect (10 yr. trial), eight­way power adjustable driver and passenger seats, 26-cm infotainment screen, 10 Speakers, Satellite radio (3­Month Trial Subscription), carbon fibre spoiler

 

MECHANICAL

3.5-litre V6, 311-horsepower, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, NRCan rating (litres/100km city/highway): 12.2/9.0

 

DIMENSIONS

Length, 4,710-mm; width, 1,840-mm; wheelbase, 2,800-mm; weight, 1,685-kg

 

COMPETITION

Audi. A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CT4-V, Genesis G70 and Mercedes C-Class

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