2021 Lexus IS: When the Japanese Decide to Teach Perfectionism

It seems they got everything right with the 2021 Lexus IS: the car has a brand-new look, yet it is easy to notice it belongs to the well-known dynasty of Lexus premium mid-size sedans. Yes, it makes you feel like dropping your current IS and going for the new one. Doing this, on the other hand, you will get an already known technical platform. The one that was introduced in 2014, to be more precise. Let’s clarify and summarize, sticking to the facts.
Lexus IS 350 AWD 23 photos
Photo: Lexus media
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Thin, thunder-like shaped, LED daytime running lights, exterior design elements marked by sharp angles, overall shape made up of sculpturally rounded volumes. And a huge front grille with a pronounced 3D visual effect. From time to time, smart guys may associate a car’s design with a masculine or a feminine note. The Lexus IS expresses through all of its visible details: “don’t you ever think of trying something like this!” What we have in front of our eyes here is nothing but a refined expression of dynamic elegance in pure automotive terms. Polished through years and generations.

Somehow different on the inside

The interior design also shows freshness, but in a carefully balanced manner. Everything seems to be it the right place. If circles can be considered a suggestion of perfection, this might be perceived inside the Lexus IS through the big round dial in the center of the instruments panel and tanks to the knobs of the audio system and drive mode selector. There is also a round analog clock between the air vents on the central console. Nice looking design ensemble, that dashboard, with a certain neoclassic touch. Fit and finish is at a high qualitative level.

2021 Lexus IS
Photo: Lexus media
Everything you would expect to find inside a premium sedan is there and easy to find. No gratuitous flattering by overdesigned details, just fine stuff and rather simply showcased. The mentioned approach favors functionality and it can even be considered a kind of collateral luxury factor: it emphasizes the comfort and well-being sensation.

Now, let’s have a look beyond the surface. Despite the spectacular exterior design, an attentive eye may recognize the proportions of the previous IS generation. One more argument showing that the new Lexus IS keeps something from its predecessor: the wheelbase is strictly identical for both of them: 2.80 m (110.23 in). Knowing that Lexus is not one of those brands that would risk to disappoint their customers by choosing compromising ways for a product’s concept, let’s try to fully understand what they have done here.

Perfectionism vs enlargement

Let’s start by reviewing the essential: the IS platform has a longitudinally mounted engine a bit behind the front axle and rear-wheel-drive or AWD transmission. Regarding a sedan, this is the best-known configuration to capitalize on sporty skills. Mercedes and BMW also use it, but they kept discretely growing the size of their technical platforms from generation to generation. The growth of the wheelbase may confirm it. In fact, this way the Germans' model series moved from a segment to another in time: for instance, an actual BMW 3 Series is nowadays bigger not only compared to its predecessor, but also compared to the first 5 Series.

This is probably the most efficient formula to send the client an important, yet rather formal, marketing message: “you will get more car if you're buying the new generation.” Lexus didn't do that lately with the IS series. The Japanese have chosen to pay more attention to the improvement of the main active parts of their technical platform (suspension, steering, brakes, propulsion technology) than to completely change its floor pan in the process. By the way, the self-sustaining structure of the body was also improved concerning its torsional rigidity.

Complementing this, the suspension setup was enhanced. For instance, specialists worked to reduce the mass of the active suspension components. The coil springs of the 2021 IS are 20 percent lighter than those of the outgoing model. New inferior wishbones were designed and they are made of a forged aluminum alloy versus the outgoing steel composition, resulting in an 18 percent weight reduction. Also, engineers employed a new material for the stabilizer bars, allowing them to optimize the functional characteristics while reducing the mass of these parts by 17 percent.

2021 Lexus IS
Photo: Lexus media
Long story short, a cultural similarity can be seen between the making of the new Lexus IS and how the Japanese treated the manufacturing of their famous swords for hundreds of years: they brought those to perfection without necessarily changing their size. Chief Engineer Naoki Kobayashi confirms the idea with his own words: "What we had foremost in mind in developing the new IS was to make it a car that excelled in communicating with the driver regardless of the road conditions or driving situation. We aimed to make the new IS a Lexus sports sedan that provides high-quality riding comfort while offering a high level of vehicle control."

What’s under the hood?

This being said, it is the time to summarize technical novelties brought by the 2021 Lexus IS. The 4-cylinder 2.0-liter turbo engine at the basis of the range develops 241 hp and boosts a maximum torque of 350 Nm (258 lb-ft) between 1,650 and 4,400 rpm. These are already some respectable figures describing the IS 300 RWD version. This engine has a distribution system with Variable Valve Timing intelligent - Wide (VVTi-W), allowing it to switch between the Otto and Atkinson combustion cycles to maximize efficiency. Concerning the transmission, Lexus IS 300 RWD has an eight-speed Sport Direct Shift (SPDS) automatic gearbox.

Looking up in the range, we find the IS 300 AWD, equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 engine. No turbo here, the 260 hp and 320 Nm (236 lb-ft) of torque are the result of a natural aspiration feeding process, which explains the smoother torque characteristic, with a lower peak than in the case of the IS 300 RWD. In driving terms, a more refined engine response is to be expected from the IS 300 AWD, while the IS 300 RWD should demonstrate an incisive behavior. And yes, take care not to be confused: even if the “300” can be found in the names of both, the engines of these two IS versions are radically different.

Also, there is an essential difference regarding the gearbox, because the IS 300 AWD has a six-speed automatic transmission. And, of course, it has all-wheel-drive. This is an electronically controlled system, designed to enhance traction and stability by varying the front-to-rear torque distribution. On dry roads, it maintains a 30:70 front-to-rear torque split, for a typical sporty dynamic behavior.

2021 Lexus IS
Photo: Lexus media
Here we get to the top of the range, where both turbo charging and the V6 engine configuration are integrated in the technical side of the Lexus IS 350. We are talking about 311 hp and 380 Nm (280 lb-ft) of torque in its case. The IS 350 can be acquired in RWD or AWD configurations. The RWD version has an eight-speed automatic Sport Direct Shift (SPDS) gearbox, while the AWD version is fitted with the six-speed automatic transmission. While the IS 350 RWD does 0-60 mph (0-97 kph) in 5.6 seconds, the IS 350 AWD (heavier car) does it in 5.7 seconds.

Price Tags

In the U.S. the basic price for a IS 300 RWD is $42,950, with Lexus asking $43,400 for the IS 300 AWD. This price difference is not relevant for an acquisition, but the driving manners should be, since these two cars are more dissimilar than their name suggests. Of course, with the top version comes a top price: the 2021 IS 350 AWD is valued starting from $53,300. In Europe, Germany to be more exact, the IS starts at 38,500 Euros.

2021 Lexus IS
Photo: Lexus media
By the end of February 2021, the Japanese also introduced the Lexus IS 500 F SPORT Performance, having a big aspirated V8 engine under the hood (472 hp at 7,100 rpm and 395 lb-ft of peak torque at 4,800 rpm, 0-to-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds). Lexus IS 500 uses the same the same eight-speed Sport Direct Shift automatic transmission found in the IS 300 and IS 350 RWD versions. However, this automobile leaves behind the refined gran turismo note of the other IS models for a predominant sportscar character. The price wasn't announced at its debut, but a base value of around $65,000 is to be expected.
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