The IS 350 F Sport is the top of the line and sportiest of the Lexus IS sedan series. In the 400-miles I drove the latest 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport I’ve come up with one conclusion. It is a comfortable sedan that can also be sporty; it is not a sporty sedan that can also be comfortable. This is not a bad thing, let me explain.
We Want More Power!
When Lexus announced this refresh of the IS for 2021, many, including myself, were not thrilled to see the same drivetrain specs that the IS platform has been using for about a decade now. The IS 350 utilizes a naturally aspirated 3.5L V6 that makes 311 hp and is good for 280 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm. If you enjoy torque down low, go for the cheaper, less powerful turbocharged IS 300, which makes 258 lb.-ft. at just 1,650 rpm.
The 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport has an 8-speed-transmission with paddle shifters, wider tires in the rear than the front (265 rear vs 235 upfront), a limited-slip differential, an “F-Sport” exhaust, cold air intake, and adaptive variable suspension. Everything you’d need for a proper rear-wheel-drive sports car. Unfortunately, the electronic nannies don’t allow you to exploit all of the fun that this car could be.
Less Aggressive Personality Than You’d Expect
However, the IS 350 F Sport has a conservative personality overall. It just doesn’t want to be the loudest, fastest, or most aggressive thing on the street. In almost any sports car, tap the traction control button once at any time and you can get at least a bit sideways in a corner. In the IS you MUST be going 31 MPH or below for the traction control off button to work. If you want to fully disable both traction and vehicle stability control (a must if you are on track or want to get sideways), you have to be fully stopped and hold the button for 10-seconds, better known as eternity. Even after all that, the gauge cluster flashes every 5-10 seconds warning you that traction control is turned off. Yes, even in Sport S and Sport S+ driving modes. Flashing dash lights are always enjoyable (insert eye-roll here)!
There is never a moment of exhilaration from the engine. Power comes in very linearly, with no massive hits of power to push you back into your seat. Lexus did a good job adding some drama by amplifying engine noise in the cabin. Unlike BMW, however, Lexus doesn’t pump engine or exhaust sound in through the speakers. They do, however, have a mechanical system called the “Sport Sound Generator.” This system mixes intake and exhaust noise under the hood and deliberately shoots the noise up towards the firewall to give the cabin a more aggressive sound when under hard acceleration.
Between the 5 driving modes, differences can be felt in throttle response, shift mapping, and steering weight. In the Sport modes, the car won’t use 7th or 8th gear. Shifts aren’t sluggish but are on the slower side relative to my MK6 GTI with Volkswagen’s DSG (dual-clutch) system. The display and gearbox seemed out of sync. The screen would show the new gear instantly i.e “M5” after pulling on the paddle however the RPMs sometimes wouldn’t change for what felt like a second.
The brakes take a heavy foot to slow the car quickly. They are definitely set up for smooth stops in daily driving – so smooth that you could probably hold a spoon in your mouth with a raw egg on it and not worry much about making a mess of things. The brake pedal is a bit vague, you’re either fully on or very gently slowing the car down.
The handling was good but not the most responsive. Again, it could be felt that the IS is made for comfort rather than all-out performance. To me, it’s a car that isn’t really trying to compete or keep up with the likes of BMW’s 330i or M340i. It is more than capable to keep up if invited out on a drive with some friends through the canyons, but don’t plan to track it.
It will, however, make you want to drive long distances. The IS 350 F Sport is a great road trip car that can also be enjoyed for the parts of the trip that include curvy backroads. For a sports car, 20 mpg is good, for a daily driver, I was not impressed.
Comfort Is Key
When you stop thinking of the Lexus IS 350 F Sport as a sports sedan, things get great. The car is extremely comfortable.
This one has the Circuit Red Nuluxe Interior. Most of my friends who saw the car loved it, others hated it, there really was no in-between with such a bright interior. A hint of black in the lower half of the dash would have been nice. Changing out the grill speakers from red to black in the doors would also really pull the car together.
Lexus clearly knows its target demographic, as seen by the 6-disc cd changer which is a rarity on a 2021 model car that includes Android Auto and Apple Carplay.
The layout is well designed with physical switches for everything you need conveniently placed. No fumbling around to turn on the heated steering wheel or ventilated seats.
During my testing, I went for a drive from Santa Monica to San Diego. On the interstate I had the car do most of the driving. The Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) and Radar Cruise Control were impressive. After my poor experience with the similar systems on the 2020 Toyota Rav4, I was a bit apprehensive to use them. The 2021 Lexus system worked on a much higher level and is easy to trust, for the most part. I only had 2 scares where it was very close to, but did not, leave the lane on a curvier part of the route.
The cabin noise is very low with the engine cruising at below 2,500 rpm. The Mark Levinson 1,800 watt sound system, playing music through my iPhone via the wired Apple Carplay (a new addition to the IS for 2021 – it also supports Android Auto) produced impressive sound quality in the cabin. The new touchscreen is also easy to use, and I prefer it to the trackpad of old. The touchscreen does have a very slight lag and due to its width, I had a difficult time reaching the very top right corner to select “now playing” in the Spotify app.
Comfort and practicality are at the top of my list of priorities when looking for a daily driver. Comfort is easily a 10/10 here. I’m 5’8” and fit comfortably in the back seats. Fitting 4-adults isn’t a problem so long as those above 6-feet tall are up front.
The trunk doesn’t have a power lift, so you’ll have to open and close it manually, but it does have plenty of room for 4 carry-on suitcases. I had my carry-on camera bag, 2 tripods, 5 outfits, 2 pairs of shoes, and a duffel bag in the back with plenty of room to spare. If you really need it, the rear seats fold down 60/40 within a matter of seconds.
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport: Conclusions
If I had a magic wand and could change one thing, it would be the car’s conservative personality. I’d love to have Sport S+ mode turn off traction control for me so I could get the rear end out a bit when in a good place to do so.
To be honest, I felt no difference between the Sport S and Sport S+ driving modes. The naming of “Sport S” also makes no sense to me. Supposedly, “regular Sport S” mode changes the engine and transmission an additional spin of the controller to “Sport S+” activates the stiffer suspension and heavier steering weight.
As equipped this IS 350 F Sport has a sticker price of $54,025. That’s up $11,125 from the 2021 IS 350’s $42,900 base price. The big factors here are the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package ($4,200) which includes the: Sport S+ mode, heated steering wheel, adaptive variable suspension, 19-inch BBS wheels, carbon fiber rear spoiler, Torsen limited-slip differential, and the ash interior trim. The navigation package which includes the superb Mark Levinson sound system is an additional $2,750 option. If you don’t plan to drive it hard, the Dynamic Handling pack can be skipped. Since Carplay is standard go for the upgraded sound system without built-in navigation.
Overall, the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport is a great looking car that makes me want to go out on the town more than it makes me want to go out for a drive. If I didn’t enjoy great driving roads often I would definitely consider the IS for a daily driver. There are just better options out there in the sports sedan category when it comes to raw driving performance and fun.
The 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport does look great, is extremely comfortable, has plenty of trunk space, and fits 4 adults. Again, a great comfortable sedan, which can be sporty, but not a sporty sedan.
To find your local dealer and/or build out your own IS 350 F Sport visit Lexus’s website HERE.