Aging gracefully
THE GOOD
  • Looks good inside and out
  • Blends comfort and sportiness
  • New touchscreen
THE BAD
  • Engine lacks grunt
  • Cramped back seat
  • Still has fussy touchpad interface

The 2021 Lexus IS has been given just a bit of new life, with the aging small sedan receiving an eye-catching styling refresh, infotainment upgrades, suspension tweaks, and enhanced driver-assistance systems.

In IS 300 AWD guise as seen here it runs with a mild 260-hp V6, but if you’re not in a hurry this model delivers a supremely comfortable and premium experience with a nice dash of sport.

Styling: 9/10

The Lexus IS has been around for a while, but here in new Grecian Water blue paint, sitting on 19-inch wheels, this refreshed 2021 version cuts a striking profile. While riding on the same platform, this reskinned IS is marginally wider and longer than the outgoing model and benefits from slimmer headlights, a larger spindle grille, and cleaned up lines overall.

The artistically scooped flanks deliver drama and tension. There’s a revised rear light cluster, and adding some spice is a subtle deck lid spoiler that, while part of the F Sport package that this tester does not have, is available as a dealer add-on for $525.

Safety: 8.5/10

The 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD comes with a standard suite of safety features that includes full LED lighting with automatic high-beams, lane-departure alert and assist, lane-centring assist, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking with enhanced pedestrian and bicycle detection. Also new this year is so-called “left turn intersection support,” which uses the camera and radar to keep an eye out for fast approaching vehicles when making a left turn, and applying emergency braking if necessary.

You’ll want blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert, yes? That comes with this tester’s comprehensive Ultra Luxury package ($7,600) that also folds in 360-degree surround-view camera, automatic windshield wipers, and low-speed front and rear collision warning with auto braking if the driver doesn’t react in time.

Practicality: 6.5/10

Sedans like this aren’t particularly practical by nature, and the Lexus IS is less so due to its cramped rear quarters; you’ll find more space in key rivals like the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Volvo S60. The IS’s trunk has a modest 311 L capacity. Compare that to the BMW (478 L), Mercedes (356 L), and Audi A4 (339 L), although it does beat the Genesis G70’s 297 L. For 2021, the IS’s cupholders have been relocated.

User Friendliness: 7.5/10

For 2021, the IS makes restitutions for Lexus’s notoriously imprecise touchpad infotainment interface by providing the option of largely ignoring it all together. Yes, the pad’s still there aft of the shifter, but the dashtop screen (a healthy 10.2 inches here) now sits closer within reach of the driver, and offers touchscreen capability. This means that just about every function previously resigned to the touchpad can now be done by poking the screen icons. The menu structure is logical and response is quick. A notable ergonomic improvement.

To Lexus’s credit, there is also a host of well-marked analogue controls for HVAC, seat climate, and audio functions. Especially welcome is the tuning knob that makes cruising through the satellite radio station list a breeze. A large rotary selector on the console makes selection sport mode when on the move an easy task, and the gear selector with its traditional P-R-N-D detents works with precision.

Features: 8.5/10

The base IS 300 AWD comes reasonably well equipped, though there are plenty of packages to pick from: Premium, F Sport Series 1, Luxury, F Sport Series 2, and Ultra Luxury. This tester sports the $7,600 Ultra Luxury pack that layers on the goodies: blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, 19-inch wheels, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, heated steering wheel, driver seat memory, heated and ventilated front seats, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, navigation, a host of connected services, surround-view monitor, park assist, 10.3-inch touchscreen, 17-speaker stereo, and satellite radio.

Power: 7/10

The 300 AWD is the middle child in the IS family, slotting in between the base 241-hp four-cylinder IS 300 RWD (rear-wheel drive) and the 311-hp 3.5L V6 IS 350 AWD. The 300 AWD uses a detuned version of the 350’s naturally aspirated V6, making 260 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. Power is adequate but not particularly scintillating, with the sedan feeling flat-footed on occasions when looking for passing or merging power. On the plus side, this engine is smooth and happy to rev, and once in the higher reaches of the tachometer it kicks out a cool snarl and some eager shove. However, we’re now used to easy mid-range turbo torque in our premium sports sedans, and the IS 300 AWD does not play that game.

Comfort: 8.5/10

Part of the 2021 IS’s reset includes a strengthened structure (additional welds and bracing), giving the sedan a more substantial feel and better isolation. Additionally, some suspension components have been lightened to reduce unsprung weight. This all adds up to a car that glides easily and quietly over the road, shrugging off most imperfections that would otherwise impinge on passenger comfort – even on these 19-inch wheels shod with P35/40R19 rubber. In this respect, the IS 300 AWD drive feels every inch a Lexus, delivering an impressively refined and compliant ride.

The coddling does not stop here. The front buckets are superb, serving up high levels of comfort and long-distance support. With seats this good, you don’t need myriad parameters of adjustment. Tri-level heat settings are well judged, starting with a warm glow. Getting a heated steering wheel and front seat ventilation means ponying up for the requisite $7,600 Ultra Luxury package.

The seats are trimmed in a convincingly soft and supple faux leather. If you count a rich environment at comfort, then the IS delivers. It’s a lovely cabin, showing jewel-like build quality, silken controls, tactile surfaces and here, resplendent in caramel and black that had one rider exclaim, “It looks like a Bentley in here.” And despite the cramped rear quarters, the seats in the back are comfortable and well contoured.

Driving Feel: 8.5/10

The Lexus IS 300 AWD is not a rapier of a sports sedan. It trades speed and apex carving ability for a more sedate driving experience, though it also serves up some nicely cohesive dynamics. The revised steering is naturally weighted, accurate, and devoid of any on-centre numbness. The chassis always feels balanced, and with its rear-biased all-wheel drive it tucks into corners and powers through with satisfying precision and poise. The 2021 suspension upgrades serve this IS well.

The IS 300 AWD runs with a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. It’s a smooth and generally brainy unit, and in light of all rivals having a minimum of eight gears, I found this unit to be refreshingly simple and unobtrusive. Response to shift paddle inputs is not as quick as a dual-clutch unit or the ubiquitous ZF eight-speed auto, but it is enough to keep you engaged if you want to take control over the proceedings.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

The 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD asks for premium fuel, and its Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) fuel consumption figures are 12.2 L/100 city, 9.0 highway, and 10.8 combined. My week of mixed winter driving netted 10.6 L/100 km.

Value: 7.5/10

Compared to its German rivals, the 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD offers good value, along with a much simpler purchasing experience; no need to wade through endless packages and option lists to arrive at the car you want. Opt for the $7,600 Ultra Luxury package and the IS gets everything one could hope for in a premium sedan such as this. Additionally, Lexus has lowered IS prices for 2021. The base IS 300 RWD starts at $42,950, a decrease of $2,300 from the 2020 model. However, that’s without freight; factor in another $2,095 for a pre-tax total of $45,045.

The Verdict

With this 2021 refresh, Lexus shows it still places stock in its smallest sedan. And these are all meaningful improvements. Its freshened looks meld with improved dynamics and a more intuitive infotainment interface to further enhance this sedan’s blend of exquisite build quality, comfort, and satisfying sportiness. Not sporty enough, you say? Look for the 2022 IS 500 F Sport Performance with an honest-to-goodness 5.0L V8 making 472 hp and 395 lb-ft of torque. Now that shows sports sedan commitment.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.5L   Model Tested 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $43,400
Peak Horsepower 260 hp @ 6,600 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 236 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm   Destination Fee $2,095
Fuel Economy 12.2 / 9.0 / 10.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $53,720
Cargo Space 311 L  
Optional Equipment
$8,125 – Ultra Luxury Package, $7,600; Dealer-added deck lid spoiler, $525