We have a lot of vehicles that we like. And then the manufacturers manage to tweak and massage, and Boom! You get something really special. We felt that way with the larger-engined Subaru Crosstrek we tested recently. And there was something about the latest Civic Coupe that just felt perfect.
And now we’re ready to add the Lexus IS350 F SPORT to that list. Already a very good sport sedan, the changes for 2021 make it, as they say ….”just right”.
First impressions matter in sport sedans, and the IS350 F SPORT makes us feel all tingly. Slightly wider with a nice fender bulge helps out what was a slightly slabby design. F SPORT is the way to go with the IS – you a unique front bumper that includes a massive grille that we’re starting to get used to, unique grille surround, that work beautifully with the new arrow-shaped LED running lights, and more slender headlamps.
Those wider fenders work with new rocker panels to help house the most notable change – new 19-inch alloy wheels (an IS first!), that really fill out the wheel wells. On our tester, they were special blacked-out BBS rims that add a ton of visual heft – the IS looks crouched over the massive wheels and ready to attack.
The back is sensational too, with unique a lowered and longer rear deck, and new LED taillights that sweep around the rear of the vehicle. It really catches the eye, sitting above the special rear diffuser and below our tester’s tasteful carbon-fiber rear spoiler.
Dressed in a handsome new silver Lexus calls Iridium, are IS350 had real stance and attitude. It could easily be a baby Maserati. Yeah, we really liked it!
Devilishly Good Interior
Well, the first thing that catches your eye in the F SPORT is the new Circuit Red interior. Covering the seats, lower dash, door panels and trim, it’s aggressive, bold, and bright. It’s also not leather – a surprise – but the Nuluxe looks rich, and hey, it’s eco-friendlier, easier to clean, and weighs half as much as leather. We didn’t miss the cowhides.
Leather or no, the F SPORT seats are some of the best in the business, as good as any European sport sedan, with excellent support, and nice long lower cushions. They hit that sweet spot that would make them comfy for long drives, but still hold you snug in aggressive driving. Heated and ventilated, too!
Settle into those thrones, and you’re greeted by a fat leather-wrapped wheel (heated too!) that features ash-tone inserts that are subtle and so tasteful, special F SPORT instruments which change colors by mode, and an 8,000 rpm tach dead center, just where you want it.
Before you go any further, just take a second to look at the gorgeous quality of materials, the sculpting of trim, the little touches of artisan design. It’s the kind of thing that you’ll look at years from now and still enjoy.
Speaking of enjoyment, on the center console is the optional 10.3-inch info-tainment screen that’s as bold and bright as the red interior. Even more important, it’s a touchscreen now. Why important? Well, Lexus continues to use a touchpad behind the shifter, and it continues to be overly responsive to touch – it’s just too finicky to use – but with the new touch-screen that’s also located conveniently closer to the driver, you bypass all that.
And you’ll like what the system has to offer – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto friendly, we loved that our WAZE app was projected on the full widescreen, making it super easy to use. You also have available Wi-Fi, Lexus Enform Suite, and more.
On our tester, that included the optional package with Navigation and the superb 17-speaker, 1800-watt Mark Levinson Premium Surround Audio System.
The IS’ coupe-like lines do come up short in one area – the rear seat is a little snug for adults. Okay for short trips, but taller riders will not be thrilled to be in the back. On the bright side, those rear seats fold down, and with a generous pass through, you have some excellent space for larger items.
Putting the Sport in F SPORT
The drive is what it’s all about here, and Lexus has really gone the distance to improve it. The brand has developed the Lexus Driving Signature which in the case of the IS, intends to make it offer a comfortable ride while still offering intense driver connection.
The engine is the familiar 3.5-liter V6 that pumps out a stout 311 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft of torque. And if you feel it’s a step behind all the turbocharged 4-cylinders in the segment, we say – listen to it. This is a lovely, lovely, engine with a beautiful engine note that sings as it pulls to redline. It sounds lush and exotic, and if it isn’t the fastest car in the segment we don’t care – there is such joy in it.
And with an 8-speed automatic that’s happy to be smooth and civil or aggressive in quick, it’s easy to use all the power that’s available. It’s a thrill to roll onto a freeway on-ramp and run it up to redline, pull back on the paddle shifter, feel that solid punch in your back and motor away. As long as there are engines like this, EV’s will never take over!
Not only a great engine, Lexus really spent the effort to make the IS F SPORT handle. It starts with special attention to body rigidity, increasing the number of welds and optimizing reinforcement structures. That creates an excellent base to further develop the suspension – and you can feel it too. This is vault-like, solidity.
And it also makes a nice place to attach our tester’s optional Dynamic Handling Package, which includes an Adaptive Variable Suspension, those awesome 19-inch BBS alloy wheels, a Torsen limited-slip differential, and Sport S/ Sport S+ Custom settings in Drive Mode Select.
This is where it all comes together for us. For years, Lexus made lovely, supple luxury cars, and it seemed buried so deep in the DNA that sport was always a side salad to the entry. Nice, but not the main dish. Now we’d say it’s a perfect blend for the enthusiast, the ride and handling are superb – well controlled, with excellent feedback through the steering. A driver’s car to be sure.
Well, this is a Lexus. But with the Euro influence being so strong here, it’s interesting that pricing is also very European. Starts low. Options to stratospheric if not done carefully. The 2021 IS 350 F SPORT starts at $42,900. That’s an excellent price. Our tester was loaded up with Power Moonroof ($1,100) Triple Beam LED Headlight ($1,250) Navigation w/Mark Levinson Audio ($2,750) Intuitive Parking Assist with Auto Braking, Rear Pedestrian Detection and Panoramic View Monitor ($1,400) Dynamic Handling Package ($4,200) and Premium Paint Charge ($425). Add in Delivery ($1,025) and we rang the bell at $55,050.
Competition would include the BMW M340i. A fantastic sport sedan, but at $69,750 it’s a huge step up. (You can build a sporty 330i for $48,600, but the turbo 4-cylinder is a step down). Same with the Audi S5 – figure close to $70K for that one.
The 2021 Lexus IS350 F SPORT has it all. Stunning looks, a beautiful and sporty interior, superb driving dynamics, and Lexus quality and we expect superior reliability.
Hey BMW, Lexus just stole your game!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.