Road Test: 2021 Lexus IS 300 AWD

Lexus is chasing the compact performance segment owned by BMW once again, but things are different this time. Tuned and engineered at Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama, a new test facility, and a whole new way of thinking for Lexus, could this finally be it? Has the 2021 Lexus IS 300 finally beat its German rival?

We spent a week with a 2021 IS 300 AWD model in Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 to find out. Lexus engineers spent a lot of time enhancing body rigidity. This was done in key areas such as reinforcing the radiator side supports, increasing the number of front-side-member weld points, and optimizing reinforcement structures from the C-pillars to the sides of the roof.

Exterior

The bold new exterior styling of the 2021 IS not only aims for a provocative design, but its athletic silhouette is also meant to signify the agile changes that have taken place below the sheet metal. Overall, the new IS evokes lower, wider proportions. It is slightly wider, with muscular fenders that extend to enhance and accommodate the larger 19-inch wheels and larger diameter tires. The wide and low form nods to the inherently high level of driving performance the IS possesses, but the sleek lines are also complemented with overtly aggressive sharpness carved into the side and shoulder character lines.

Starting at the front, a newly designed spindle grille features a three-dimensional, polyhedral structure that originates from the foremost tip of the grille to emphasize a sense of presence. The grill includes mini spindles within its design. According to Lexus, the intricate pattern required six different types of cutting tools in order to create the mold.

New slender headlamps are a big surprise and they work incredibly well. A sharp L-shape daytime light signature runs across the lateral axis just above the newly developed compact and lightweight lamp units. The new headlamps help contribute to expressing a low center of gravity through low-positioned areas around the grille, and they are matched by lowered side character lines that carry all the way through to the rear of trunk. Our model featured the optional triple-beam LED headlight design which is absolutely incredible at night, illuminating the road ahead as if it were day. Auto high beams help too.

New rocker panels accent the side profile of the new IS with a design that kicks up in the rear, featuring a sharper overall contour that carries into the muscular shoulders over the rear wheel wells. Gently sloped rear-quarter pillars, which help form a firm cabin silhouette that wraps around from the sides, contrast with the rear fenders to further enhance the aggressive look.

Moving toward the back of the IS, lines of the rear fenders blend into the extended, lowered rear deck to create a low stance that enhances the wider hips. The three-dimensional form of the rear deck design is created with a stamping technology called press-in mold construction. Our eyes were drawn immediately to the L-shaped blade-style lightbar that spans across the rear of the vehicle.

Interior

Luxury and performance are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and yet the two live in harmony in the new IS. The interior features standard NuLuxe-trimmed seating, with 10-way power driver and 8-way power adjustable front passenger seats, a dual-zone automatic climate control system with touch-sensitive controls, an available power moonroof, and SmartAccess with push button start.

Piano Black accents also can be found on surface elements for cabin atmosphere that is both dignified and sporty. Glazed Caramel looks gorgeous inside and really increases the level of luxury in the 2021 IS.

Front seat comfort is excellent, with great posture and padding all around. Elbow rests are buttery. Rear seating is also very good, with enough legroom for a six-foot adult.

Trunk space is plentiful for a compact sedan, shaped well with fold down seats.

Infotainment

Our IS featured an expansive new 10.3-inch touchscreen, which is 5.9 inches closer than the previous multimedia screen, and the incredible Mark Levinson audio system with navigation. Of course Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard, along with Amazon Alexa integration.

Apple CarPlay can be controlled via the Remote Touch Interface pad on the center console or the screen itself. Having both options makes this the best Lexus system to interact with.

The Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio System is also enhanced, with a 17-speaker system with a new amplifier offering an impressive 1,800 watts. The audio amplifier has enhanced Quantum Logic Surround for playback of compressed sound sources and to provide a 7.1 surround sound listening experience.

Powertrain

For some, the IS can only be viewed as a rear-wheel-drive compact sports sedan. But in reality, some live in areas where all-wheel-drive is a necessity.

The rear-wheel drive IS 300 features a 2.0-liter, turbocharged and intercooled inline four-cylinder engine that delivers 241 horsepower, and a solid 258 lb-ft of torque.

Our tester though featured all-wheel drive and was powered by the fantastic 3.5-liter V6 that delivers 260 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. The electronically controlled all-wheel drive system is designed to help enhance traction and grip by automatically varying front-to-rear torque distribution. On dry roads it maintains a 30:70 front-to-rear torque split for maximum performance, but it’s capable of sending as much as 50 percent of the power to the front wheels in certain conditions.

For those who crave maximum power, there’s the IS 350 in either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive powered by the 3.5-liter V6 that produces 311 hp and 280 lb.-ft. of peak torque. The rear-wheel drive model uses the same eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission found in the IS 300 RWD, while the AWD version sends power through a six-speed automatic.

Fuel economy on our tester averaged a commendable 29.6 mpg after a week of mixed driving.

Safety

The standard Lexus Safety System+ (LSS+) found on the new IS receives additions for 2021 in the form of the new LSS+ 2.5. A number of key features that are part of the Lexus Safety System+ have been enhanced, along with the addition of a few new features.

For starters, the Pre-Collision System (PCS), which include Frontal Collision Warning (FCW), Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Pedestrian Detection and Bicyclist Detection, features an enhancement to the single-lens camera and millimeter-wave radar elements to expand the response range. By enhancing the radar and camera capabilities it is now possible for the system to help detect not only the vehicle ahead but also a preceding bicyclist in daytime and even a preceding pedestrian in daytime and low-light conditions.

At intersections, the system has improved recognition of an oncoming vehicle or pedestrian when performing a left-hand turn and is designed to activate typical PCS functions if needed. Additional PCS functions include Emergency Steering Assist (ESA), which is designed to assist steering within the vehicle’s lane as cued by the driver.

All-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) can be activated above 30 mph and is designed to perform vehicle-to-vehicle distance controls down to 0 mph and can resume from a stop. DRCC also includes a new feature that allows for smooth overtaking of slower vehicles. We tested it and what an improvement it is!

If traveling behind a vehicle traveling slower than the preset speed, once we engage the turn signal the system will provide an initial increase in acceleration in preparation for changing lanes; after changing lanes, the vehicle will continue acceleration until it reaches the original preset driving speed.

Lane Departure Alert is designed to help notify the driver if it senses the vehicle is leaving the lane without engaging a turn signal via steering wheel vibrations or audible alert. When DRCC is set and engaged, Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) is designed to provide slight steering force to help steer to the center of the lane to assist the driver with staying in the lane using visible lane markers or a preceding vehicle. LTA alerts the driver with a visual warning and either an audible alert or steering wheel vibration. In the new IS, the lane recognition performance, which makes LTA possible, has been improved with enhanced recognition of line and road edge, lateral G performance, and enhanced control and stability after lane change.

Additional LSS+ 2.5 features include the aforementioned Intelligent High Beams, which detects preceding or oncoming vehicles and automatically switches between high beam and low beam headlights.

Road Sign Assist (RSA) is designed to acquire certain road sign information using a camera and navigation maps when data is available and displays them on the multi-information display (MID).

Aside from the standard LSS+ features, the new 2021 IS provides drivers with additional confidence for lanes changes thanks to the standard Blind Spot Monitor that is designed to help detect and warn you of a vehicle approaching or positioned in the adjacent lanes. Standard Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) can offer added peace of mind by helping to detect vehicles approaching from either side while backing out with a visual and audible warning.

And lastly, Lexus Enform Safety Connect comes with a three-year trial with access to Lexus Enform response centers 24/7/365. With Lexus Enform Service Connect, complimentary for the first 10 years, the vehicle can send alerts for specific factory recommended maintenance while simultaneously alerting a preferred Lexus dealer. In addition, the Lexus App allows guests to do everything from starting their vehicle remotely with a smartphone, to contacting dealers for a service appointment, and much more. With an active subscription, the Lexus App dashboard provides a personalized view of convenient vehicle and connected service information, including the Vehicle Health Report, scheduled maintenance and vehicle health alerts. Guests also can manage their subscriptions right from the palm of their hand.

Summary

Finding the perfect balance of sportiness and sophistication is no easy task, but the 2021 Lexus IS walks that fine line with an air of elegance and effortlessness. We commend the engineers, designers, and manufacturing team for building a world-class sports sedan that in our opinion, is superior to the German competition in just about every category!

Summary Scorecard (1-10)
Ride and Handling10
Braking10
Powertrain and Fuel Economy10
Noise10
Headlights10
Interior Fit and Finish10
Seating9
Visibility9
Gauges and Controls10
Infotainment9
Crash-Avoidance10
Total Score97

Make: Lexus
Model: IS
Trim Level: 300 AWD
Engine: 3.5L V6
Transmission: 6-Speed Auto
Options: Comfort Pkg, Nav/Mark Levinson Audio, Triple Beam Headlights, Intuitive Parking Assist

Base Price: $41,000
As-Tested Price: $48,575

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