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First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

There’s a lot to love about the F Sport sedan’s midcycle refresh - even without a bump in horsepower.

Sam Du
Nov 17, 2020
Photographer: Cooper Davis

10 takeaways from the "sorta all-new" IS.

  1. Better Proportions. Overall, it's about 1.2-inches longer and wider. Doesn't sound like much but it fits the presence and stature of the IS as a sport luxury grown-man's sedan.
  2. Sweeter Lighting. Keeping up with the times are triple-beam LED headlights that look and work great; however, the relocation of the daytime running lights is what makes a world of difference. In the previous model year, the DRLs were positioned in a slightly awkward position below the headlights. Now they're integrated right above headlight housings - almost look like LED eyebrows if I could compare them to anything. As for the taillights, many OEMs are starting to do this but the UX model was the first Lexus to employ an LED light bar that connects both sides, thus giving the car a wider feel.

006 2021 lexus is350 f sport compare Photo 36/36   |   First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

  1. Sharper Signature Grille. You'll notice the hourglass/spindle style grille remains the same; however, designers have modified it to look a bit more pronounced and also changed out to the mesh to a newer design.
  2. Pushed-Out Side Mirrors. Continuing the idea of making the IS sportier, the side mirrors are door-mounted like the previous year's model but stick out way wider. This is a styling cue taken from some supercars and race cars which, to some critics might look too aggressive, but I can certainly appreciate them.
  3. Standard F Sport. This is where things get a little interesting. All IS 350 models will be F Sport models. Sounds cool and it's because it's positioning the top-of-the-line IS (IS 350) to be the sportiest model available, hence hopefully attracting the young, cool and savvy car buyer. Standard F Sport features include the bolstered front seats (with heaters and cooling fans), heated leather steering wheel (the ergonomics of this wheel felt really nice, too!), and the sharper styling package (different front and rear bumpers, functional brake ducts, grille mesh, gloss black grille surround, lower side rocker fins, lower front lip spoiler and rear valance).

012 2021 lexus is350 f sport refresh new Photo 36/36   |   First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

  1. F Sport Dynamic Handling Package. Now I thought this came standard on the F Sport model, but the "F Sport Dynamic Handling Package" is a $4,200 option. It includes three drive modes that adjust steering response and tuned dampening (thanks to the adaptive variable suspension). Throw in the limited-slip rear differential, staggered 19" forged wheels made by BBS in matte black, accompanied by wider tires for more grip, and you begin to understand why this combination of upgrades allow for a more exciting time behind the wheel. Aesthetically, this package throws in a carbon fiber trunk lip spoiler and different interior trim for style points.

Note: I didn't get a chance to really romp on the IS 350 F Sport in the canyons or at the track, but the updated suspension (lighter control arms, stabilizer bars and coil springs), more rigid chassis and its overall driving dynamics felt very stable and level when I was mobbing around town. I could tell it would be fairly precise in more extreme driving conditions and offer confidence to push it harder.

Side Note: What's actually pretty neat about the new IS is that it was tested on Lexus' new Shimoyama proving ground in Japan before going into production. The facility features a 3.3-mile circuit inspired by the Nurburging, so as you can imagine, it's definitely not just another boring sedan.

020 2021 lexus is350 f sport v6 engine Photo 36/36   |   First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

  1. Same Engine. Here's the bummer about what's under the hood. It's the same 3.5-liter V6 engine with 311hp, 280 lb-ft of torque from previous years. I'll admit, it's still more than enough power for a daily driver, but a far cry from something you'd bring to a racetrack or line up against a friend.

Note: Other 2021 IS models include a 241hp 2.0-liter turbocharged IS 300 (RWD only) and a 261hp 3.0-liter V6 (AWD only). The IS 350 F Sport comes in both RWD and AWD.

021 2021 lexus is350 f sport interior Photo 36/36   |   First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

  1. Nicer Interior. The armrest and center console have been tastefully modified and circular vents are now used, however the biggest change is the updated tech. An 8-inch touchscreen is now standard that's positioned closer to the driver for easier use and vision (5.5-inches closer to be exact). Step up to the Mark Levinson Premium Audio and Navigation package for $2,750, and you get the 10.3-inch monitor and concert-like 1,800 watt, 17-speaker system. I'm a sucker for good beats and loud bass; this option hit the spot for me.
  2. In base form, the IS 350 F Sport starts at $42,900 for the rear-wheel drive model; add $2,000 for the all-wheel drive. The loaner I tested, dressed in Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0, with all the bells and whistles, ticked the register at $55,220.
  3. Final Thoughts. Inside and out, the new IS looks and feels better. It's a worthwhile refresh and if I could give the designers a scorecard, it would be an 8/9 out of 10. As a performance car enthusiast though, while improvements to the suspension and chassis brought forth refinement and confidence, it still lacks the punch I'd hope for. I know it's not an IS F and I know I shouldn't be comparing it to cars like the BMW 340i (382hp 3.0L turbo inline-six; starts at $54,700) and Audi RS 3 (394hp, 2.5L turbo five-cylinder; AWD; starts at $56,200), but the fact of the matter is its engine performance felt dated and didn't get me too excited. With a naturally aspirated motor, the room for modifications was also pretty slim, as we can also look back and see how many tuners developed power-adders for this V6 engine (there weren't many).

002 2021 lexus is350 f sport 2008 black Photo 36/36   |   First Drive: 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport

In the end, the IS 350 F Sport is a vehicle that's dressed to impress, feels like a well-engineered premium Japanese sedan, and offers a little fun if you find yourself on an empty, winding road coming home from work. It'll impress your hot date, work associates and probably mom and dad, too. But if you're looking for a high-performance sedan that'll double as a track car or canyon carver, then you might need to look elsewhere or better yet, you'd have your weekend car parked next to the IS 350 F Sport in the garage.

Note: Special thanks go out to Cooper Davis and David Velasquez. Cooper is the young up-and-coming shooter that helped us out with these photos of the IS 350 F Sport. As for David, he's an active member of the Southern California Lexus community and owns the 2008 IS 350 pictured alongside the 2021 model. His spec list includes a front-end conversion by Espirit Premiere, Air Lift air suspension, SARD Design side skirts and rear, plus the rare Volk Racing GT-F wheels.

RECENT LEXUS STORIES

THAT NEW CAR SMELL

2021 Lexus IS 350 RWD F Sport

THE STICKER $55,220 MSRP ($42,900 base price)

POWER 311hp; 280 lb-ft of torque

ENGINE 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 engine with dual continuously VVT-i

DRIVETRAIN rear wheel drive; eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters; Torsen limited-slip rear differential

FOOTWORK & CHASSIS Adaptive Variable Suspension; Front: double wishbone with coil springs, gas-filled shocks and stabilizer bar; Rear: multi-link with coil springs and gas-filled shocks

BRAKES 13.2" front, 11.7" rear vented rotors

WHEELS & TIRES 19x8.5" front, 19x9.5" rear F Sport forged BBS wheels in matte black; 235/40R19 front, 265/35R19 rear Bridgestone Potenza tires

EXTERIOR F Sport front and rear bumpers, grille surround, carbon fiber rear spoiler, exhaust tips; LED triple beam headlights, daytime running lights and taillights; auto-dimming heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals and puddle lights; power tilt-and-slide moonroof; Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 paint

INTERIOR F Sport bolstered heated and ventilated seats, heated Ash wood-trim steering wheel, perforated leather shift knob; black NuLuxe with Ash trim; aluminum pedals; dual-zone climate control; DC, AUX and USB connections in console box; deodorizing and pollen filter; Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa compatibility; 8" LFA-inspired TFT instrument panel with sliding bezel; Mark Levinson 17-speaker, 1800-watt surround sound system

CURB WEIGHT 3,750 lbs

AT THE PUMP 20/28/23 mpg (city/highway/combined)

By Sam Du
1024 Articles

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