2021 Lexus IS: Clear DNA, Clear Mission
Unveiled late Monday, the next-generation Lexus IS sedan’s identity should be no secret to those familiar with the current model. Toyota Motor Corp’s premium rear-drive sports sedan is a clear descendant of what came before, keeping the previous model’s proportions and many of its lines. Certainly, there’s only so much you can do with a corporate spindle grille.
Now alone in its mission, what with the midsize GS’s recent passing, the new IS doesn’t try anything radical. It’s not a game changer, smashing segment conventions. Rather, it simply tries to do better.
That effort was the responsibility of a team led by Lexus International Chief Engineer Naoki Kobayashi, with the machine gaining its sea legs at the new 3.3-mile test course at Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama. Careful attention was made to increasing body rigidity and reducing movement of unsprung mass — as well as the mass itself.
“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,” Kobayashi said in a statement. “We aimed to make the new IS a Lexus compact sports sedan that provides high-quality riding comfort while offering a high level of vehicle control.”
Additional weld points and structural reinforcements appear throughout the body; below, weight loss efforts reduced the mass of everything from coil springs to hub bolts to anti-roll bar to A-arms. New shock absorbers are said to be more sensitive to minor road imperfections. Available 19-inch BBS wheels found on the top-flight IS 350 F Sport shed 4 pounds apiece compared to the stock 19-inchers (non F Sport models gain standard 18-inchers, up from 17).
Riding atop the same platform as before, the new IS grows just a hair over an inch in length and width while keeping its preexisting wheelbase.
Yes, Lexus has a lot to say about this car’s mission. With the “Lexus Driving Signature” created for this vehicle, “the hope is to continue propelling the brand’s evolution and reinforce its identity in the luxury space,” the automaker stated, adding that the “latest IS represents the first step down a path that has evolved into a uniquely Lexus tarmac testbed that will affect the trajectory of every Lexus product that comes next.”
That’s a mouthful. Digest at your own pace.
But back to the car. As stated before, the car’s lineage is clear, though Lexus designers did rework the body in a way that enhances the car’s stated mission. The redesigned fascia, with its narrow headlamps (triple-beam LEDs are available) and L-shaped LED running lights combine with a spindle grille weighted on the lower end to lend the appearance of a low center of gravity. Those side scoops and lower grille opening funnel air to the brakes and around the wheels for better cooling and reduced drag.
The slightly boosted width went to the car’s hips, adding muscularity over the rear fenders. The strong upward-sweeping lower body lines remain, joined by a more pronounced, lowered accent line, and the taillights no longer reach for the rear wheel well. Thank goodness for that. Viewed from the front quarter angle, the model’s raised, flat-top deck appears somewhat Bangle-esque. Body lines, haunches, and rear deck all combine aft of the B-pillar in a manner that calls to mind the Supra (a SUPRemely unattractive vehicle in this writer’s opinion, but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder).
We’ve covered the taillights before, and all that can be said is that the new full-width array is an improvement.
Powertrain choices will be familiar to current IS aficionados. Base IS 300 buyers get a rear-drive car motivated by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s good for 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission here is an eight-speed automatic. Opt for the all-wheel drive IS 300, and Toyota’s trusty old six-speed auto enters the fray, mated to a 3.5-liter V6. That mill makes 260 hp and 236 lb-ft, splitting power sent to the front and rear to the tune of 30:70.
Unlike before, the F Sport experience can only be had with the top-end IS 350, which brings a more potent 3.5-liter, this one good for 311 hp and 280 lb-ft. Rear-drive IS 350 buyers see the eight-speed, with the six-speed handling matters for AWD buyers. In F Sport guise, the car’s available Dynamic Handling Package adopts an adaptive variable suspension tuned for increased performance, with RWD models seeing a Torsen limited slip differential. There’s also a Sport S+ drive mode that plots a different course for the car’s engine response and transmission shift points.
Of course, going the F Sport route means badging and go-fast add-ons both inside and out. Speaking of the cabin, Lexus positioned the standard 8-inch touchscreen 3 inches closer to the driver for reduced reaching. A 10.3-inch unit is available. Optional Mark Levinson surround sound audio adds two speakers for a total of 17.
Standard on all IS models is a Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 suite of features, bundling together niceties like blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, frontal collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection, emergency steering assist, all-speed dynamic radar cruise control (now capable of accelerating in advance of a signaled lane change), lane departure alert, and intelligent high beams.
Pricing will have to wait until closer to the model’s late fall release.
Dwindling in sales each year since the model’s post-recession high water mark in 2014, the IS faces the same challenge as other sedans: getting noticed, then getting considered. It’s a tough sell these days, what with every automaker, Lexus included, providing a crossover alternative in every size class and price bracket. You won’t get the kind of handling, the kind of experience offered in the IS, however, and Lexus hopes that driving passion still counts for something in today’s world. We’ll see if they’re right.
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