Lexus IS300 2021 luxury, Lexus IS300h 2021 luxury hybrid, Lexus IS350 2021 f sport
launch-review

2021 Lexus IS review: Australian first drive

Japan’s luxury mid-sizer gets a complete makeover.
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It’s always been the underdog in the fight for the premium mid-size sedan segment, trailing a trio of well-established Germans. But the Lexus IS continues to front up to the fight, bringing with it an affordable, comfortable, luxurious arsenal of weaponry.

By rights, this heavily revised and modified Lexus IS should have been an all-new model. After all, this generation (XE30) first made its debut in 2013. But, Lexus has deemed there’s a bit of fight left in its mid-sizer, so instead the IS range has undergone a heavy makeover for the 2021 model year, both externally and, more importantly, under the skin.

The Lexus IS range encompasses five core variants that can then be specced up with optional Enhancement packs.

The range gets underway with the IS300 Luxury priced at $61,500 plus on-road costs, and tops out with the IS350 F Sport priced at $75,000 plus on-road costs. You can read the full breakdown of the Lexus IS range in our pricing and specification story.

That pricing sees the Lexus IS play in a fertile ground of rivals, most notably the leading trio of Germans.

The segment’s best-seller remains the BMW 3 Series that starts at $69,900 plus on-road costs for the 320i. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class begins with the C200 priced at $66,300 plus on-roads, while the Audi A4 undercuts the Lexus on price, certainly at the entry point, the 35 TFSI wanting for $55,900 plus on-road costs.

2021 Lexus IS3002021 Lexus IS300h2021 Lexus IS350 F Sport
Engine2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol/hybrid3.5-litre V6 petrol
Power and torque180kW at 5800rpm / 350Nm at 1650–4400rpm133kW at 6000rpm / 221Nm at 4200–5400rpm (petrol), 105kW/300Nm (electric), 164kW (combined)232kW at 6600rpm / 380Nm at 4800–4900rpm
TransmissionEight-speed automaticCVT automaticEight-speed automatic
Drive typeRear-wheel driveRear-wheel driveRear-wheel drive
Kerb weight1660kg1700kg1655kg
Fuel claim combined (ADR) 8.2L/100km5.1L/100km9.5L/100km
Fuel use on test9.1L/100km7.4L/100km9.1L/100km
Boot volume (rear seats up/down)480L / n/a450L / n/a480L / n/a
Turning circle10.4m kerb to kerb10.4m kerb to kerb10.4m kerb to kerb
ANCAP safety rating5 stars (2016)5 stars (2016)5 stars (2016)
Warranty4 years / 100,000km4 years / 100,000km4 years / 100,000km
Main competitorsBMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4
Price as tested (excl. on-road costs)From $61,500From $64,500From $75,000

Buyers in the segment might also consider the Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Sport asking for $63,950, while a left-field choice remains South Korea’s answer to Lexus, the Genesis G70 2.0T priced at $59,300 as a starting point. A fertile plain, then.

Externally, the heavily revised Lexus IS range is distinguishable from its progenitor by standard-fit 18-inch alloys (against the outgoing model’s 17s), and a swathe of sharp lines and creases that lend it an appearance of sitting closer to the ground.

It’s longer, too, (by 30mm) than its predecessor, and wider (30mm), although the wheelbase at 2800mm remains unchanged. What has changed, and significantly, is the IS’s track, 45mm wider at front and 50mm at rear. It all adds up to a sleeker and tougher-looking IS, certainly when viewed in the metal.

Inside, the entire IS range now benefits from a new 10.3-inch touchscreen moved closer to the driver for easier touch-inputs, although Lexus’s proprietary software remains. It looks a little dated, certainly compared to others in the segment. For those who like tradition, Lexus has retained the touchpad as a secondary option for inputting commands into the infotainment system.

Standard equipment across the IS range includes an electric park brake, noteworthy because it replaces the manual foot-operated park brake of the previous models, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, road sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

Additionally, keyless entry and start, heated and eight-way power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control, DAB+ radio, satellite navigation with live traffic updates, and LED headlights with auto high beam are standard across the range.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring are also now standard, and the IS’s user experience is all the better for it. A 10-speaker Pioneer sound system is standard across the range, although adding the $5500 Enhancement Pack 2 to Luxury variants brings with it a premium 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, as well as a moonroof, 19-inch alloys, what Lexus calls ‘high grade’ LED headlights, leather-accented seat trim, ventilated front seats, driver memory settings, and a powered rear sunshade.

Additionally, Luxury-grade models can be optioned with the $2000 Enhancement Pack that adds a moonroof, while F Sport variants need a $3300 Enhancement Pack that adds the moonroof, a powered rear sunshade and the 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.

The IS’s cabin remains understated and plush in that oh-so-Lexus way. And it retains a youthful vibe, perhaps reflecting the IS’s intended market.

The materials used throughout look and feel like quality, with yielding surfaces aplenty. The front seats, as they have been for a long time in Lexuses of all shapes and sizes, are comfortable and supportive, arguably amongst the best in the business.

It’s a shame, then, the second row remains tight. Snuggling in behind my not exactly tall 173cm driving position, while not quite cramped, doesn’t offer the kind of space one could rightfully expect from a mid-size sedan. Any taller and there’d be contact with the seatbacks.

The second row is also hampered by a large transmission tunnel eating into foot and leg room, certainly for any potential middle-seat occupant. Suitable for short trips only is our tip.

One area Lexus has exercised a lot of engineering work is under the skin, the chassis strengthened and body rigidity improved. The use of lighter materials throughout has also resulted in a lighter Lexus IS, up to 30kg, all adding up to what Lexus hopes is a more responsive and agile driving experience.

We sampled three different variants at the local launch covering the three available drivetrains.

The Lexus IS300 is powered by a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine producing 180kW and 350Nm, and mated to a reworked eight-speed automatic transmission sending drive to the rear wheels.

It’s a decent drivetrain, too, offering brisk acceleration, without being outrageous, off the line before settling into an easy lope.

The ‘reworked’ eight-speed auto transmission – dubbed G AI-Shift – is said by Lexus to be more intuitive, taking its cues from driver inputs and the driving conditions. Lexus claims it will hold onto lower gears longer and use fewer gear changes overall, if the driving conditions warrant it. Lexus cited the example of testing the older transmission against the new iteration at its Shimoyama test track, the new IS effecting 22 gear changes against the older model’s 40.

Are you aware of it in day-to-day driving conditions? Not really, but it is noticeable when you’re having some fun through some twisties as we did at the launch, the IS willingly revving out a little longer in the hunt for better acceleration out of corners.

It certainly feels planted, too, with Lexus reworking the suspension tune to offer a level of dynamism without compromising ride quality. Even over the scrappy roads of Lexus’s launch route, the IS remained composed and supple under wheel – a testament to the work that has gone into the suspension tune.

It’s much the same story in the hybrid in the range, the Lexus IS300h. Its power comes from Lexus’s (and Toyota’s) tried and true 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine matched with an electric motor. It’s the same combination as found in the large Lexus ES300h and offers a combined 164kW output.

Unlike the non-hybrid models in the range, those outputs are sent to the rear wheels via a continuously variable transmission. It’s a commendable combination, as we’ve previously discovered in the broader Lexus hybrid range, with the CVT one of the better examples we’ve sampled of this type of transmission. ‘Shifts’ are seamless, and there’s none of the drone commonly associated with CVTs.

Performance isn’t thrilling, but then neither is it meant to be, the hybrid powertrain focused on minimising fuel consumption over out-and-out performance. It’s no slouch, however, willingly getting up to speed and maintaining it with ease, the extra shove afforded by the electric motor clearly felt, especially when pushing on for an overtake, say.

Like the IS300 non-hybrid, the 300h handled the rutted and pockmarked roads with aplomb, maintaining a composed and controlled stance on the road.

Undoubtedly the hero car in the new Lexus IS range is the IS350 F Sport. Power comes from Lexus’s tried and trusted 3.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol V6 pumping out a healthy 232kW and 380Nm. Drive is sent to the rear wheels via Lexus’s reworked eight-speed auto and it is at once an engaging combination.

There’s plenty of urgency from standstill, the IS350 getting up to legal limits quickly and effortlessly, all while the atmo V6 growls under the bonnet. It’s not raucous by any stretch, and if anything a little muted. But, it’s there and makes its presence heard, adding some aural theatre to the experience.

Available only in F Sport trim level, the IS350 certainly looks the part of a sports sedan. F Sport-specific elements include 19-inch alloys, an F Sport bodykit and spoiler as well as scuff plates, while performance enhancements include adaptive suspension and five selectable drive modes (Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport+ and Custom). Inside, F Sport seats and sport pedals complete the look.

On the road, the IS350 F Sport offers an engaging driving experience – rapid without being manic and assured under wheel. Acceleration is nice and predictable, the mid-sizer leaping forward with intent when pushed.

The steering, too, offers nice resistance, and its telegraphing of what’s happening underneath you is reassuring. Its precise nature inspires confidence, certainly when tackling some winding rural back roads, the IS350 remaining unflustered and calm, yet deceptively quick.

It’s here, too, where the eight-speed automatic transmission struts its stuff, eager to hold onto lower gears, and allowing the V6 to rev out freely, helping to pile on acceleration out of corners. It’s heady stuff.

The adaptive suspension does a decent job of keeping the IS350 flat through corners, while ironing out most of the imperfections that litter our roads, even in its firmest setting.

A long highway run highlighted the IS350’s duality of purpose, offering a quiet and serene cabin even at 110km/h and on low-profile rubber booted onto those 19-inch alloys. It barely raises a sweat.

And that’s the key to the IS range’s success over the years – a blend of premium and performance, while retaining the ability to provide comfortable motoring. How successful has the IS been since it first launched in 1998? Try 1.1 million sales globally. And counting.

This latest update, more than skin deep, should keep that successful formula invigorated.

As to whether the new Lexus IS can take the fight to the big guns from Europe, week-long garage reviews and comparisons await.