Sport luxury sedan goodness; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it …
Sorry if this sounds like a broken record (remember those?), but Lexus refuses to mess with success when it comes to its IS 350 sports sedan.
For instance, Lexus sticks with its trusted 3.5-liter V6, keeps the IS 350’s overall dimensions within an inch of its predecessor and delivers the same smooth luxury feel to go along with ample performance to still claim it as one of the best sports sedans for less than $60,000.
OK, so what DID change?
The tested Iridium Silver ($425 extra) test car, an AWD model, looks sleeker than its earlier models because Lexus has gone with its newer thin swept taillights and full-width light bar in back and thinner headlights that meld perfectly into the stylish creases of the hood and front fenders.
The look is stunning, although some may still argue that the large angular spindle grille here is garish. Well, pish posh because all luxury makes are going shamelessly crazy with large, visually striking grilles bedecked with monster logos on their noses. It’s ironic because all the grilles are uniquely shaped to identify the brand, so logos are mostly unnecessary accouterments.
Beyond styling, Lexus has strengthened its chassis, which makes for easier ride and handling tuning, while also cutting weight a bit with aluminum vs. steel control arms and lighter springs and anti-roll bars.
The standard touchscreen has been upgraded to a 10.3-incher, perfect for this size car, and the seats are covered in NuLux, a faux leather. You’ll likely not be able to tell it from the real deal as the surface is soft as a baby’s bottom.
For the tested F Sport the suspension and brakes are upgraded. There’s a double wishbone front suspension with gas shocks and a stabilizer bar and a multi-link rear suspension. Brakes feature 4-piston calipers with 13.1-inch discs in front and 11.7-inchers in back. Stopping power is excellent.
View Mark’s video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTgbQ-TaHio
Likewise the rest of the IS’s performance is what you’d expect. The 311-horse V6 is strong and will quickly propel the AWD sedan to highway speeds, although adding a turbo would surely make acceleration more exciting. That AWD system favors the rear wheels unless there’s a slippery surface, so the speed nearly always comes from those back wheels, 19-inchers, but more on that in a minute.
The V6 in the AWD models is linked with a Lexus 6-speed automatic, which some might think outdated as 8- to 10-speed trannies are grace many a luxu model as they mildly help boost gas mileage. But this one is perfectly suited here and delivers buttery smooth shifts. If you go with the rear-drive model an 8-speed automatic comes standard.
Handling and ride are pure sports sedan. You can toss the IS into corners with confidence as the steering is quick and the grip as sticky as a toddler’s fingers. No body lean either, and all that improves in Sport and Sport+ drive modes that are part of the F Sport package. The car also offers Eco, Normal and Custom modes.
Ride is firm but so well controlled by all those lighter and new suspension pieces that you feel a jiggle on railroad tracks or pot holes, but never a sharp rap to the tailbone. Ride is as confident and plush as the steering is taunt.
Inside the biggest upgrade, in my little mind, is the fine 10.3-inch touchscreen that also includes a radio tuning knob below it. No longer must you rely on the awkward haptic touchpad for tuning as you drive. The pad is still there to help access other screen functions, but is rarely needed. Finally!
Lexus stylists are not shy, as the grille would indicate, so they deliver a black over red interior with matte medium red NuLuxe seats. The soft fake leather looks great too. Plus Lexus continues with some of the best seats in the biz with awesome hip and kidney support, a real pleasure to ride in these power seats. Plus the fronts are heated and cooled. Bravo!
Head and legroom are good up front and moderate in back, but if no one is super tall in the family everyone will fit comfortably. If you need more legroom, consider the Lexus ES.
Complementing the red seats is black dash and door trim at the tops along with red door trim with faux leather inserts below that. The lower dash is red plastic too and this is where I had a quibble. I expected a better finish. The lower door and dash plastic looked a bit too shiny and, well, like plastic. A matte finish would squelch some of that luster to better match the seats and upper dash.
Ironically, the rear seat door trim seemed much more muted and acceptable. Maybe the front trim was a one-off test car finish issue.
That black dash features red stitching as does the leather steering wheel, which really should be a flat-bottom number for a sport sedan. That would create easier entry and exit for driver knees. Good news though, the steering wheel is heated, much needed in northern climes.
The rest of the IS dash layout is fine, the touchscreen a winner, and the controls all easy to use and figure out. Oh, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are now standard.
The test car added mucho options, as seems the practice on Lexus models of late. A power sunroof, not panoramic but fine, adds $1,100. The other major interior add-on was a souped up Mark Levinson audio and navigation system with voice recognition. For $2,740 you get the touchscreen and nav, but the audio is crazy powerful with 1,800 watts (about 1,000 extra over the norm) and 17 speakers. Old folks with hearing difficulties will have no trouble grooving to Motown tunes now. And get this, there’s a CD player. Yes! Again, catering to the older demographic that may be intending to buy a luxo sport sedan.
What the IS doesn’t have is a wireless phone charger, a big oversight. Sure, you can plug a phone into outlets inside the console’s big well-padded armrest/storage box, but if you’re like me, it’s a lot easier to forget a charging phone that’s out of sight.
Other options include a park assist program with panoramic view mirror that runs $1,400 and the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package costing $3,800. It includes flat black BBS wheels that give the IS a high-perf look. And as mentioned above the sporty drive modes and an adaptive suspension system are part of the deal. Ash trim adds to the interior’s glitz and a small carbon fiber trunk lid spoiler are included in the package, along with a Smart access card key.
A triple beam LED headlight package for $1,250 is the last major spiff, but a few others provide thick plastic floor mats and illuminated door sills, etc.
Standard are all the electronic safety features you’d assume on a luxury sedan, and good news, the lane departure system can be turned off for easier city and construction zone driving.
The test car started at $45,925, with delivery, and all those options pushed it to $58,040. That’s well into the luxury range, but not unusual among competitors, such as the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Acura TLC, Mercedes C Class and Volvo S60.
It’s also not unusual for a high-performance car to need premium fuel. That’s suggested for this V6, although it will run fine on lower octane, just not as peppy. Gas mileage is just OK tough. I got 21.5 mpg in a mix of city and highway while the EPA rates this at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.
If less power is OK by you, then save some cash with an IS 300 that features a turbocharged I4 that creates 241 horsepower. It lists at $39,000 and also comes with a smaller 8-inch touchscreen. Adding AWD costs $2,000 but also upgrades to a V6 packing 260 horses.
For luxury sport sedans the IS continues to be a solid and comfortable choice, plus it includes a 6-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty. Its reliability and strong resale value don’t hurt either!
FAST STATS: 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD
Hits: Sporty styling inside and out, smooth power and shifts, quick handling, AWD and big-time brakes. Large touchscreen, heated wheel and heated/cooled seats, sunroof, fancy audio system plus CD player, and lane departure control can be shut off.
Misses: No wireless charger, touchpad still a backup for touchscreen, no turbo to boost V6 power, front door panels/lower dash too plastic looking, and some would say grille is garish.
Made in: Tahara, Aichi, Japan
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 311 hp
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Weight: 3,800+ lbs.
Wheelbase: 110.2 in.
Length: 185.4 in.
Cargo: 10.8 cu.ft.
MPG: 21.5 (tested)
Base Price: $45,925 (includes delivery)
Intuitive Parking Assist w/auto braking, rear pedestrian detection, and panoramic view mirror, $1,400
F Sport Dynamic Handling package (19-inch flat black BBS wheels, drive mode select w/Sport/Sport+/Custom modes, adaptive variable suspension, Ash heated/wood-trimmed steering wheel and interior trim, carbon fiber rear spoiler, Smart access card key), $3,800
Triple beam LED headlights, $1,250
Nav/Mark Levinson audio package (nav system w/10.3-in. touchscreen, Enform Dynamic nav system, voice command, destination assist, Mark Levinson 17-speaker and 1,800 watt premium surround sound system), $2,750
Premium paint, $425
Power moonroof, $1,100
Illuminated trunk sill, $450
Rear bumper applique, $85
Illuminated door sills, $425
All-weather floor mats, trunk tray, $290
Door edge guards, $140
Test vehicle: $58,040
Sources: Lexus, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage