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  5. 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Review

 
The Lexus IS has always been a revolutionary vehicle for the brand. Lexus had made the ES and LS sedans for more than a decade before the original IS came out in 2000, but those were luxury four-doors. The IS was new territory for the automaker, a sport sedan designed to take on the almighty BMW 3-Series with the naturally aspirated straight-six engine that appeared in the MKIV Toyota Supra and rear-wheel drive. The second-generation IS arrived for the 2006 model year and brought available all-wheel drive. Two years later, the V8-powered IS F once again took Lexus into a new realm of competition: the high-performance sport sedan segment.

Two decades later, the IS continues to be an innovative vehicle. The 2021 model is effectively the start of IS generation 3.5.  It's not an all-new car, but it has cosmetic and significant mechanical differences that set it apart from the 2014-2020 IS. Lexus's thorough reworking of the IS and fine tuning at the Nürburgring-inspired Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama test course resulted not only in a car that's more rigid and responsive than before, but one that starts the next major phase of Lexus's history as an automaker. The 2021 IS launches the Lexus Driving Signature, a comprehensive approach that will give future Lexus vehicle's "linear steering, brake responses, and optimized handling with exceptional ride quality" and make them distinctively refined, balanced, and confident.

As part of its overhaul of the IS, Lexus streamlined the model lineup by making the F Sport package exclusively available and standard equipment on the IS 350. I experienced the next Lexus revolution behind the wheel of an IS 350 F Sport equipped with infotainment, performance, and driver assistance options that brought its as-tested price to $55,190.


2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Exterior

 
The focus that Lexus put into the new IS's dynamics seems to have seeped into its sheet metal, as well. There's a sharpness, a visual efficiency to it. All of the front lights are combined into one blade-shaped case with the dramatic daytime running lights shooting over the individual headlights. Those point toward Lexus's unmistakable spindle grille, which comes with special mesh and an RC F-inspired lower air intake on F Sport models. The taillights are united by an LED light bar, an increasingly popular styling element.

Lexus made other, more subtle changes to the outside of the IS. The 2021 model is slightly wider than the outgoing car. Its redesigned rocker panels have a pronounced upward slant to them that flows into the IS's wider hips. Lexus took advantage of the slightly larger dimensions by making the IS available with 19-inch wheels - the largest ever offered on the sport sedan. My tester had the optional Dynamic Handling Package, which added a special set of lightweight 19-inch BBS wheels, a cool carbon fiber rear spoiler, and several other upgrades.


2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Interior

 
My press loaner's black interior makes it a little challenging to see some of the changes Lexus made to the cabin for 2021. If you look closely, you might be able to see the embossed intersecting lines on the door panels and the Piano Black accent panels around the cabin. One completely unexpected addition from the Dynamic Handling Package was the black Ash wood section at the top of the heated steering wheel. It was the last thing I expected in a sporty car, but given that it was the same color as the rest of the wheel, it was as sleek and technical as wood trim can possibly be. 

The most significant technology updates are much easier to spot - and hear. The available navigation/Mark Levinson audio combo now includes 17 speakers and 1,800 watts of clear sound. Lexus pairs that with a new 10.3-inch touchscreen that's nearly six inches closer and compatible with Amazon Alexa, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay.


2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Performance

 
The 2021 IS may be the first official car built according to the Lexus Driving Signature, but Lexus was practicing its penmanship well before it released this newest version of the sedan. I've driven the GS F and two different versions of the RC F and found all of them to be comfortable, approachable, and confidence-inspiring. The IS was no exception. 

Its Adaptive Variable Suspension, another part of the Dynamic Handling Package, provided a gentle ride quality in the Normal drive setting and control and composure in the more aggressive Sport S and Sport S+ modes. The steering grew progressively heavier as I advanced through the various performance profiles, but it never felt exaggeratedly under-assisted or leaden. Off-center, it had an unexpected lightness that set it apart from Mercedes-AMGs and the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. Power from the naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 came out smoothly and progressively, although after I fully indulged in its 311 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque on long straightaways, I found myself craving even more. Cutting my speed after WOT blasts was drama-free.

A couple of instances revealed that Lexus hit the balance it was trying to achieve. I was startled by how clearly the IS 350 communicated. It was the first car I've ever tested that made it crystal clear just how much of its weight was being transferred and where and when it was being shifted during certain maneuvers. 


2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Safety

 
In addition to the major - and welcomed - interior tech updates, the 2021 IS also benefits from the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 suite of features. Lexus made improvements to the camera and radar in the Pre-Collision System (PCS) that enable it to detect the vehicle in front of the IS, a bicyclist in daytime, or a pedestrian during the day or low-light conditions. PCS is now better at recognizing an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian when the IS is making a left-hand turn at intersections and engaging the appropriate safety features accordingly. A new overtaking feature built into the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and improved lane recognition capabilities round out LSS+ 2.5's major upgrades. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put the new IS through its stringent series of tests and awarded it a five-star Overall Safety Rating, the highest score possible. 


2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Overall

 
Lexus didn't just flip a switch to build the 2021 IS. It's the product of years of thoughtful engineering and careful development that was evident in earlier models. But it's also a turning point for the brand, a firm commitment to a tactilely discernible driving experience. It's safe to say that Lexus is headed in the right direction. If you want to experience the 2021 IS and scrawl the Lexus Driving Signature all over the road, you need to head to your local AutoNation-affiliated Lexus dealership.

Derek Shiekhi | Aug 24, 2021

2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

Layout

2-door, 4-passenger, RWD

Engine/Transmission

3.5L V6, 311 hp, 280 lb-ft
8-speed auto

Mileage

20/28 city/highway

NHTSA Safety Rating

★ ★ ★ ★ ★


AutoNation Drive Test Drive Review: ★ ★ ★ ★


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**Based on EPA mileage ratings. Your mileage will vary depending on specific vehicle trim, how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions, and other factors.