2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Needs More Engine
It's beautiful to look at, sure, but wow does it need an extra 50 horsepower.
Review and photos of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
I'd never thought I'd say this about a modern Lexus sedan 5 years ago, but damn is this a beautiful car. Honestly, I give up. I don't know how in the name of burning rubber and j-turns that the Lexus designers have somehow managed to turn that hideous, Predator-mouthed malaise into something actually pretty. When pulled up next to a BMW M340i even, it makes the German look like a Hertz bargain special. Anyways, past the sweet yet aggressive looks, the IS 350 is a vehicle in want of a more devious nature. It's a fine and competent luxury cruiser as is, but not for those wanting the utmost in excitement. At least it looks exciting.
Yes, it's pretty, as already mentioned. Subtle tweaks here and there have morphed the ugly IS of 5 years ago into a beautiful creation, helped further by the deep Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint and F Sport adornments. Sensual creases from front to rear and a stellar working of the rear hip, creating a flowing, wave-like flat surface that goes from above the rear wheel arch and to the trunk-formed boot spoiler, help produce a vehicle of true allure. It's the best-looking compact executive saloon out there right now; It's that pretty.
The interior might be of an old variety, with few changes, but the quality (mostly) remains throughout. The leather is as soft as anything in its class, and everything feels as if its been built to withstand nuclear blasts. Lexus is known for quality, and this Lexus delivers the goods. On the road, the ride is smooth and supple, soaking up bumps to a delightful effect while remaining positive body control through the steering and chassis. It's quiet, too; This is a properly impressive luxury experience.
Powering the Lexus through the (correct) rear wheels is a tried and true 3.5L V6. Making 311 horsepower, this V6 is turbine-like in delivery, making smooth power without a trace of coarseness. If you didn't hear it, you wouldn't know it's even revving. V6 engines used to be nasty bags of trash, but this is proof you can make one as silky as even a straight-six. When given some prodding, the engine and intake make a rather immersive sound, too.
For a big V6, fuel economy rang in at 30 MPG on the highway, which is decently acceptable, and a more encouraging 25 MPG overall in mixed conditions. Not excellent economy, but also far from poor, and the total average figure will likely be attractive enough to many, considering a Genesis G70 with its twin-turbo V6 could only average 21 in a pior test. For what it's worth, the ballistic BMW M340i remains the fuel economy king.
Unfortunately, there are a number of lows, but luckily, they are all mostly minor. For starters, the single biggest complaint I had with the IS happens to be the engine. What, you thought I liked it? I do, but this car is frankly too slow. 0-60 MPH happens in a disappointing 5.8 seconds, which is a full second slower than an IS 350 was able to manage in 2007. Growing larger and adding on the pounds has diluted the performance from being formerly stellar to now being wholly underwhelming. What it needs is an extra 50 horsepower everywhere. Pulling away normally is fine and all, but putting your foot down and trying to access the midrange ends only in fatigue and sadness. The only way to make real progress in the IS 350 is to rev its bolts off. Take control of the paddles, click the left one more than you think necessary, and then does it start to make real momentum. Revved up, it also makes a quite delicious noise, but you have to work it so hard and even then, it's still not fast enough. A BMW M340i does 0-60 MPH 1.5 seconds faster. 1.5!! I love naturally-aspirated engines and how smooth it is, but it's unfortunately too down on power to really be the exciting sports sedan it so wants to be. A BMW 330i with its little four-cylinder is actually faster even.
While I liked the comfortable ride quality, it also results in a substantial amount of body roll. I expected the IS 350 F Sport to negotiate turns with a cunning attitude, but I found it just too soft for serious driving, even when switched into the obligatory sports modes. There's still lots and lots of grip available, so much so that it's nearly impossible to unstick the rear at even slow speeds with all driver aids off, but I reckoned it ought to be sharper and more engaging when the going gets twisty. The DTM race car looks might be there, but the driving experience isn't quite.
There's an eight-speed automatic transmission to handle shifting duties, and while it's transparent in most cases, I did note a few clunks from it periodically. Whether an odd downshift, or going from reverse to drive while perfectly stopped, clunks are not what I expected. Then again, this is a test/press vehicle that gets abused. Also, as with basically every Lexus, the infotainment/center display operation stinks.
I do like the interior, but there are random parts bin pieces that make up the switchgear and buttons. The cruise control stalk is particularly bad, looking and feeling like an item from 20 years ago. An update here would be appreciated. I also didn't like the large circular air vents on the extreme left and right of the dash, looking completely out of place with the rest of the car's design and aesthetic. The manual switch to turn on the nice rear and top-view cameras was weirdly above the driver's left knee (such a weird placement), and then the switch to turn off stability control has be held too long and can only even be turned off when below 30 MPH. I thought this was supposed to be a sports sedan with these looks? Oh, and where's the dang parking brake? I couldn't find it; I'm left assuming it does not have one, or it works automatically every time.
Not quite all the way there...yet
You see the looks, you spot the F Sport name, you know the space which it competes with, and yet I left unfulfilled. I expected a fun, engaging, and rorty sports sedan, but it's more of a luxury cruiser playing dress-up. It's a damn good dress-up I must admit, but I wanted more from something that looks so promising. Lexus knows how to make a proper sports sedan, the larger GS F was proof of that, but this model is too soft. Maybe the upcoming IS 500 will make amends and address literally every concern, but I think for this model to stay competitive, it needs a hit of more power, and a firmer (less comfortable) driving experience, at least on the F Sport model. For some, it might be perfect. Maybe you want those compelling and aggressive looks but want comfort, too, and don't care about canyon carving. For that consumer, it's perfect. As a sports sedan, however, it's close, but it's not quite near brilliance yet.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
As-tested price: $55,360
Pros: Beautiful, sexy looks; comfortable
Cons: Driving experience needs more verve
Verdict: A gorgeous sedan with intent, but it needs a double espresso.