By on June 16, 2020

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.

[Images: Lexus]

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46 Comments on “2021 Lexus IS: Clear DNA, Clear Mission...”


  • avatar
    TKewley

    A cautious evolution – in the current market, that probably isn’t enough.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Ding ding…

      I don’t see any reason for someone to choose the IS over it’s competitors unless you have a deep love for the 3.5 V6. That 2.0 is almost purposely handicapped to keep it from stepping on the V6 toes.

      • 0 avatar
        jack4x

        I’d trust this to make it to 250,000 miles trouble free over any of its competition.

        In a world of $399 lease specials though, how many buyers care about that?

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          None. If you are shopping in this class and long term reliability isn’t at the tip top of your list of priorities, pretty much any other car in the class is a better option. But if you want to go 250k in a pretty OK ride that is sort of maybe kind of fun, this is your car for sure.

          • 0 avatar
            conundrum

            Yup, this thing will last forever in a semi-molten state, its 1999 chassis now with added reinforcements and bodyside sculpting of the truly useless and ugly variety. Does it actually accomodate real size humans yet and not have the hump in the front floor in the AWD version? If I can be bothered to find out one of these years, I’ll drop into a Lexus showroom.

            Like the FR-S and then the Supra, Toyota issues more PR than the market can stand. With this complete nonentity of an IS, the continual international PR blaring would have people believe some momentous thing has occurred. But nope, a VW Golf R AWD eats this thing for breakfast and has more usable room inside. If you want a trunk, get an S3.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      I liked this car in the last iteration, but the back seat isn’t really suitable for normal sized passengers. I know that’s not its mission, but sort of the point of 4 doors.

      The engine and transmission options are a little underwhelming for the price of entry. Line this up with a V6 Camry and the IS looks even more underwhelming for anyone who plans on carrying passengers. Sure you get AWD and a nicer interior with the IS, but not significantly more power. The Camry gives you immensely more interior room and significantly lower price. I guess I am not the intended audience for this vehicle, but seems like its low on value even by entry-lux vehicle standards.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        They are both sedans. That is pretty much where the similarities between this and a Camry end.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        The Camry and IS350 are as similar as a Jeep Cherokee 2.0T and a Wrangler Unlimited 2.0T.

        In Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap test the IS350 was *13 seconds* faster around VIR than the Camry V6 XSE.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          @Ajla – I was purposely thinking of torque. When I see that GM could get 295 out of their old 2.0T and I see someone else’s 2.0T making less torque than the same manufacturers 3._ V6 I assume you are handicapping your 2.0T to not step on the V6’s proverbial toes.

          I know I I’m an old fart who grew up on push-rod engines but lack of torque is the thing that really bugs me about modern engines.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I personally wouldn’t buy a Lexus with a turbo-4. If I was interested buying something with that sort of engine it would be a BMW or Audi all the way.

            As far as torque in general is concerned, unless you have an NA Subaru or a subcompact CUV, modern engines have been fine in that department for me.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            meh, A V6 is as pedestrian as a turbo 4. Nothing wrong with them, I love modern turbos but they are in the same class with respect to luxury cars. If you are selling me luxury with 6 pistons, they need to be inline…I can get a V6 in a 20 year old Taurus.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            Preferring a turbo-4 to an NA V6 is a reasonable position (even though I don’t share it).

            However, if you prefer the Lexus turbo-4 to what’s on offer from most other brands, or to the Lexus V6 if you absolutely must own a Toyota product, I’d consider that a surprising stance.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            The only fun Toyota motors are V8’s or BMW engines in my book. Thier turbo 4’s and V6’s dont do anything for me and I wouldn’t care one way or another nor would I seek either out.

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            I am intrigued to see what the actual prices are for the 2.0T Supra (with BMW motor). It seems as if BMW is purposely underrating all of their engines.

            When I was a teenager in the early 90s I never thought I’d see the day when I would prefer to own a New Supra of any trim than a New Corvette of any trim.

        • 0 avatar
          thegamper

          If you are buying a car for the lightning lap at VIR, than I can totally see why you would buy one over the other. But nobody does that. I also qualified my response by stating that “for people who intend to carry passengers”. If its just going to be the driver and or a front seat passenger nearly 100% of the time, I agree that the appeal of the IS brightens. For me personally and maybe a large portion of sedan shoppers, I see the ability to carry 4 passengers as sort of job 1. If I am buying a car for my daily lightening lap at VIR, I dont think the IS would be high on my list regardless.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            Part of your argument was that there wasn’t much of a performance gap between the Camry and IS350. I’m saying that is incorrect even if their on paper horsepower is similar.

            Personally, I don’t carry 4 passengers very often so I’d much rather have the increased performance of the IS over the increased interior space of the Camry. YMMV.

            As far as coupes are concerned, The RC350 exists but it costs more than the IS350 and I haven’t seen any evidence it outperforms it so I’d probably still get the sedan.

          • 0 avatar
            Art Vandelay

            If your primary requirement is moving people, why are you looking at a sedan? Get a van or something with rear seat headroom.

  • avatar

    Exterior looks good, but they should have done more to update the interior. It looks dated (the instrument panel).

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    The rear reminds me of Volvo and other than the front, the outside is nice enough. The spindle is much better than what BMW is up to. Whooda thunk.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Good Ol’ Toyota – if you want AWD you get a 6 speed automatic.

    If you aren’t a badge snob I can’t even see why you would choose the IS over the G70.

  • avatar
    ajla

    This is the only naturally-aspirated offering in its class, which for some will be enough right there.

    It’ll likely also have the best long-term reliability, but I’m not sure how many buyers put that high on the list here.

    Assuming they don’t jack up the price (so an IS350 available for $45k-$50k) it shouldn’t do any worse.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    “reduced the mass of everything from coil springs to hub bolts to anti-roll bar to A-arms”

    I am not sure I want weight reduced there.

    What did they say about driving? No MT , no driving

  • avatar
    dwford

    So this is essentially the 3rd generation of IS to be on this platform – something Toyota gets away with better than any other automaker could. I guess this is a holdover until the new Mazda platform comes along.

    I can understand why Lexus did this low effort redesign, the sedan market is dying, and most other automakers are putting out cynical lease special efforts, with the exception of Genesis and Acura.

  • avatar
    icarus_

    Wait, this isn’t a redesign, at all. This is a mild refresh. Looks like a mid model cycle update. For a (pretty good) car that was already long in the tooth.

    “New IS” a pretty misleading of Lexus.

  • avatar
    Rick Astley

    Well this certainly makes the 2021 TLX look like an even better proposition than it did last week…

    As someone 60% through the lease on a Mazda 6 GT (with the 2.5 turbo motor that makes torque) I’ve been monitoring the quasi-luxury/entry luxury sedan market intently for the next vehicle to purchase or lease. The IS was going to take quite a change to get on my list (sorry, I find Lexus vehicles to be dull, soft and boring to drive, yet visually hectic without any sporty pretense) and hasn’t moved the needle at all. Either way, i’ve accepted that finding a proper manual transmission isn’t possible in this segment anymore, sadly.

    • 0 avatar
      Car Ramrod

      You’re looking for the same thing I am, a decent sporty 4 door with a stick, but they’re gone unless you want a G70. For now I’m going with an older BMW and an account for the maintenance costs, so far so good. When that’s over it’ll probably be traumatizing enough that I’ll run for a TLX.

      • 0 avatar
        Rick Astley

        Car Ramrod would never give me up or let me down.

        If the US taxpayer were to assume $7,500 of the purchase price then I could step into a nice Audi wagon, but unfortunately I have to invest my own money for my personal luxury transportation (how un-American).

        Back on topic, this IS looks like a huge sales flop to me. Which means it will out-sell the TLX by a 5:1 ratio by the end of it’s production cycle. Time and time and time and time again Americans have chosen boring, soft, coddling vehicles to shield them from having to pay attention to operating a motor vehicle safely and legally on public roadways.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        So my recent cross shopping came down to 3 finalists…The FIAT 124, a manual Challenger RT, and a 1998 E39 540i 6 speed with 30,000 miles (I believe it is still available ..I was runner up on bring a trailer and the winter bailed but the owner and I couldn’t work out the timing).

        I ended up with the Dodge which if you can get past the 4 door bit works well because it’s decently sized, though I leased it because Mopar. Had the Tremec been offered in the Charger I’d have gotten that. Yes, it is a tough market if manual trans is at the top of your list.

        • 0 avatar
          PrincipalDan

          If FCA product planners suddenly accosted me and demanded that I choose between giving the V8 Charger AWD as an option or manual trans… I’d choose manual trans.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Am I the only one who sees a bangle butt on this thing?

  • avatar
    d27XHy5HG

    The spindle grill is the single most off putting thing about this car. A big swath of black plastic in the front.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    The exterior refresh is OK, the lightened suspension parts and wheels should make it more lively, the V6 has got to go. It’s got perfectly adequate power, but it has absolutely nothing special in how it feels. If Lexus wants this car to be special it needs a V8. Surely they could produce a 350HP 3.5L NA V8 with today’s technology, then they’d have something unique and compelling.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Oh Lordy, mea culpa time. My last round of car buying got down to a new corolla, a used G37 convertible, and a CPO IS250. Costs were about the same and I was taking the subway to work, employer paid. I went with the IS. Comfortable while slogging through DC traffic? Yes. Comfortable long range cruiser? Yes. Toyota dependable and butt-kissing service? Yes and Yes. Would I get another one? Nope. I’ll be an old fart cruising SC-17 in my LC convertible.

  • avatar

    Reading article and comments it feels like I traveled to the past on the time machine. Same old Toyota, same old IS, same old ICE, no matter number of cylinders. So 20th century. Unless they develop new EV platform and offer radically new mobility concepts I am not interested. Meanwhile – drill, baby, drill.

  • avatar
    Nick_515

    TL:DR – automatic 6 speed galore. Hard pass.

  • avatar
    Varezhka

    The front end refresh is a definite improvement over the previous two versions.

    That said, it does feel too little, too late given how much more modern the latest 3-series feels. I’m guessing IS is not in Toyota’s priority list right now given that they haven’t bothered moving the car to the TNGA (GA-N?) like everything else.

    Understandable, but too bad.

  • avatar
    07NodnarB

    I like it. Its a visual improvement over the last generation, but clearly no styling mountains have been moved. Disappointing that the turbo 4 and the f-sport v6 are both kinda under powered (still). Will it be enough to positively effect sales of the model, of course. Is that number still going to be low, of course.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I like the styling. Maybe the grille is growing on me as other manufacturers beak out. Dynamically, I bet it will be tossable, now that is has a mechanical LSD. It seems Toyota chassis guys are on a roll.
    Ultimately , I miss my G37S 4dr. There are unicorns 6mt sedans out there with less than 100k miles, but not reasonably close. For a car that old, I need to test drive it in person. The fly and drive isn’t really a smart thing to do right now.

  • avatar
    MorrisGray

    No Manual, No Interest

  • avatar
    bd2

    While the sheetmetal (at least at the front and side) has improved, the lack of powertrain improvements and lacking many of the tech/features one can find in mainstream models these days will limit the appeal of the “refreshed” IS to the dwindling no. of IS loyalists.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    Isn’t that the same exact interior as before?

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