In normal times, journalists are introduced to new models either at auto shows or on press trips. These aren’t normal times, so the next-generation 2021 Lexus IS was debuted not as scheduled at the New York International Auto Show in April, but online June 15.
Americans are used to the IS, which debuted almost 20 years ago as a reliable compact luxury sedan. And now, without changing dramatically, it’s getting sportier. The 2021 IS, on sale in late fall, is slightly wider and longer than the existing car, but with the same 110.2-inch wheelbase. The wheels are now 18 inches in standard form, and 19-inch wheels (a BBS style is optional on the F Sport model) are available.
“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,” Chief Engineer Naoki Kobayashi said in a statement. He added that the company aimed for “high-quality riding comfort while offering a high level of vehicle control.”
Car writers love these qualities, and we’re likely to gush over the IS’s driving dynamics. But it’s arriving at a time when Americans have started to turn from the whole idea of the sports sedan, instead wanting the same qualities in a boxy SUV. IThe IS emerges not from the pens at the Calty Design Research Center in California but via the engineers at Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. That special space features a test track based on Germany’s Nürburgring.
The Japanese team worked to make the new IS more rigid, which not only reduces unwanted noise and vibration, but helps with steering and handling. A reduction in weight is equally useful, and the engineers took seemingly small steps like switching to lighter weight hub bolts—saving two pounds!—and also shedding weight in the coil springs, a-arms (now made of forged aluminum), and suspension stabilizer bar.
The powertrains are retained from earlier IS models, but updated. Buyers of the IS 300 get the two-liter, turbocharged and intercooled 241-horsepower four (with 258 foot pounds of torque). Opt upward to the IS 300 AWD and the engine is a 260-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with 260 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. And in the IS 350, with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, there’s another version of the 3.5-liter V6, but with 311 horsepower and 280 pound feet.
And then there’s the F Sport, a version of the IS 350. It gets the full sporty visual package, including special front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and visual cues. If you really want to go for it, you’ll order the Dynamic Handling Package, which includes Adaptive Variable Suspension, a limited slip differential (in rear-wheel drive versions) and those BBS wheels (each one lighter by four pounds).
Pricing hasn’t been finalized, but it is estimated that the car will start around US$40,000 (IS 300), rise to US$44,000 (IS 350), and top off with the IS 350 F Sport at US$48,000, according to Car and Driver. The standard touchscreen in the IS is eight inches, but a 10.3-inch version is available on cars with the 17-speaker, 1,800-watt Mark Levinson audio package, with or without navigation. Apple CarPlay and Android Audio connectivity are standard. Connect via the latter and you have access to the Alexa digital assistant. Of course, there’s a full suite of safety technology.
Since some consumers are still gun-shy about entering showrooms, Lexus unveiled the Lexus AR Play app, an exercise in augmented reality to check out the IS on a smartphone or a tablet. Without leaving your sanctuary, you can do virtual walk-arounds, check out the car with eight colors, open and close the doors and trunk, and look at 3-D cutaways. Approaches like this are part of the new normal, too.