Car Review

2021 Lexus IS 350 review: One week told me the truth about the “perfect” car

Improved, but not quite enough.

I love simple things executed well.

Whether we're talking the perfect medium-rare steak or a beach sunset, there's a tremendous amount of joy to be found in the little things.

I've driven many Lexus vehicles and, though the cars aren't perfect, they get a lot of little things right. That includes the Lexus IS 350, a compact sports sedan extensively reworked for 2021.

The Lexus hourglass grille is controversial, but its proportions are excellent on the IS.Lexus

Take the steering wheel. It's pleasingly compact but chunky in all the right places. Sliding into the driver's seat, it's the first thing you notice, and it makes a great impression. It gives a great feeling when you're driving, too, reminding you that the IS is a sporty and agile car, ready to go when you are.

And the engine, a wonderfully free-revving 3.5L naturally aspirated V6, makes 311 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Engines are a Lexus specialty, and this one is a peach. My IS 350 was rear-wheel-drive, though an AWD version is available. Lexus says the IS 350 runs 0-60 mph in just 5.6 seconds.

From a driving perspective, the IS 350 is excellent. Sure, there are other cars out there with more power or faster 0-60 times, but the IS 350 executes so well on the little things that it makes up for it. Lexus also makes an IS 500 that packs quite a bit more oomph from its 5.0L V8, so if you want more power, it's out there.

The red interior on this IS is outrageous, especially for Lexus.Lexus

I like the feel of the shifter and the seating position, and the color of my test car was a gorgeous blue that the Lexus marketing team named Grecian Water.

The most significant change for 2021 is the addition of a 10.3-inch touchscreen (up from eight inches thanks to the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system for $2,750) sitting high above the center stack. Prior IS models (and nearly every Lexus model from the past half-decade or so) had no touchscreen, instead relying on an awful Lexus trackpad to move a cursor around the screen. The trackpad is still in the IS, but you can thankfully ignore it because of the touchscreen.

The IS supports wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and you should make sure to plug your phone in because the stock infotainment system is old and terrible. Lexus knows it too, and there's a vastly improved system coming in future models.

The wheels on this model are dark and brooding, and give the car a much-desired sporty look.Lexus

Of course, it includes a full safety suite with adaptive cruise and blind-spot monitoring and all the rest. There's also something called Lane Tracing Assist that helps steer the vehicle on the highway, but it's a far cry from some of the more advanced driver assist systems on the market. You can't take your hands off the wheel for more than a second or two, but it's there.

The IS 350 RWD starts at $43,925, but mine was chock full of upgrades and totaled $54,765. I had Intuitive Parking Assist ($1,400) which included rear pedestrian detection and automatic braking if you're about to back into something.

There was the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package ($4,200) with upgraded (and gorgeous) 19-inch matte black BBS wheels, an adaptive variable suspension, a limited-slip diff, and a carbon fiber rear spoiler. Triple-beam LED headlamps ($1,250), a power moonroof ($1,100), and the aforementioned upgraded Mark Levinson audio system ($2,750) also joined the party.

Yep, those wheels right there. They’re fantastic, right?Lexus

But all is not perfect, by any stretch. Though it has many lovely parts, the interior is still woefully outdated. The center stack hasn't changed much since the end of the Obama years, with clunky controls for adjusting the temperature and that horrible trackpad, and there's just a lot of wasted space. In front of the gear shift, for example, is where I wanted to put my phone, but it's angled up slightly and is made of hard plastic, so my phone just slid off as soon as the car moved at all.

The cruise control is the old-style Lexus/Toyota stalk instead of the usual buttons on the wheel, and the dash cluster gets the job done, but it's not nearly as pretty as it should be for the price.

There's joy to be found in the little things.

So the Lexus IS 350 has many perfectly executed elements but is ultimately compromised by some out-of-date tech and design. Lexus has done the best it could with what is basically a significant mid-cycle refresh, and there are improvements to many parts of the car. But the one directly in front of you, the thing you touch and see most of all, is that inadequate center stack.

The giant touchscreen helps a lot, but I feel the next IS (which is a few years away) will be the one I'm excited by.

One Cool Detail: The glorious steering wheel

Lexus

The steering wheel is the driver’s main interaction with the car, and Lexus has an amazing one in the IS. The leather handgrips are perfectly sized and they allow you to steer the car like a chef handles a knife.

The buttons are satisfying to interact with and it is pleasing in every single way. Lexus cars always have fantastic engines and steering wheels, and those are two of the biggest reasons that they’re some of my favorite vehicles.

Never underestimate the importance of a good wheel.

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