First Test: 2021 Lexus IS300 AWD Doesn’t Drive a Day Over Seven
If Lexus had its way, you wouldn’t think too hard about the 2021 Lexus IS300 AWD. The automaker’s media push surrounding the latest changes to its perennial compact sport sedan would have you believe a new schnozz, rump, touchscreen, and behind-the-scenes upgrades to its chassis constitutes an all-new ground-up redesign and not a simple midcycle refresh. In a way, Lexus is correct—this isn’t a midcycle refresh. Or rather, it shouldn’t be; that shiny new 2021 Lexus IS gleaming on dealer lots might wear a significant nip/tuck, but this year marks the second-gen IS’ seventh year of production—the time for a true midcycle refresh was three years ago.
Seven years. Usually, all-new models begin to show their age around the three- or four-year mark; at five or six model years, we start to moan and groan, no matter how much we liked the car when the design was wrapper-fresh. Annoying? Well, we certainly find our shares of peas under Nappa leather seat cushions, but unless extensive market research and strong sales dictate it ain’t broke—like Subaru’s latest copy-paste generation jump for the current Forester and Outback—consumers start to notice as you inch closer to the decade mark.
Of course, most consumers are not as picky as us car dorks. There is usually no Goldilocks moment in the buying—or leasing—process, and though some might notice some outdated portions of the interior, the average buyer likely won’t recognize the IS’ age-related quirks that bug us the most. They won’t care about the revamped chassis and shockingly old powertrains. For most, the new IS’ biggest selling point is the revised infotainment system that—joy of joys—is now operated via touchscreen.
Ancient Powertrains, Modern Performance
But goodness, those powertrains—they need to book an appointment with the great bench dyno in the sky, having stuck around in some cases since the late 2000s. The 2021 IS300 AWD we tested carries one of the weirder and more archaic options available within the IS family; a 3.5-liter V-6 routs power through a six-speed automatic transmission and into an all-wheel-drive system. It’s the same engine that powers the IS350 that sits a rung up from the IS300 range, only it’s significantly detuned from the IS350’s 311 hp and 280 lb-ft, putting out a lower 260 hp and 236 lb-ft in an attempt to match the standard rear-wheel-drive IS300’s 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4’s 241 hp and 258 lb-ft.
Weird, right? Lexus apparently found it most cost effective to simply cut power on the 3.5-liter rather than to modify the AWD system to match the 2.0-liter. It gets even weirder; cutting 51 hp and 34 lb-ft did little to slow the IS300 AWD’s performance from the more powerful eight-speed IS350. The IS300 AWD buzzed from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds on its way to a quarter-mile finish in 14.3 seconds, matching the rear-wheel-drive 2021 IS350 F Sport to 60 mph and losing the dragstrip sprint by 0.1 second. Wait, what?
A Tale of Two Transmissions
A close study of the acceleration charts calls into question the degree of “detuning” that really happened on our test car’s engine. The all-wheel-drive traction off the line gives the IS300 a clear advantage below 20 mph, but the fact that the IS 350 isn’t able to clearly pull ahead until about 70 mph despite gearing that’s about 9 to 11 percent shorter in the first three gears, and a weight-to-power advantage of 2.8 pounds per horsepower (12.2 versus 15.0) suggests those engine output figures are seriously “conservative.” If they all run as strong as this one, there’s no significant penalty to pay if you pick the lower-spec AWD IS—at least, if you don’t have a line of credit to support the purchase and subsequent care and feeding of the forthcoming V-8-powered IS500.
Old engine, but modern(ish) performance. That 5.7-second sprint and the quarter-mile time are just a few tenths slower than both the equivalent BMW 330i xDrive and the rear-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz C300. More surprising still—all of those segment mates pack torque-rich turbocharged four-cylinders and sharper automatic transmissions.
Quick enough, but the V-6’s power delivery is predictably peakier than the aforementioned turbo-fours, requiring high revs when wringing it out down a country road. The six-speed isn’t a quick shot, but shifts are smooth during day-to-day driving and not recalcitrant when abused in manual shifting mode, operated by either the shifter or the wheel-mounted paddles.
Some Chassis Chatter
Although it left the powertrains unchanged, Lexus fettled the IS’ chassis to bring it more in line with the far more modern platforms that underpin its competitors. No mean feat, as you can directly trace the roots of the IS300’s Toyota New N platform back to 2005. So, to shake off 18 years of dust, Lexus stiffened the IS’ body structure, adding extra reinforcement to the radiator side supports, more weld points for the front-side-member, and reworked portions of the C-pillars and roof.
The suspension and weight reduction were a particular point of focus, with new coil springs that are 20 percent lighter than the standard setup on the prior IS, along with new A-arms forged from aluminum that are 18 percent lighter than the prior set of steel A-arms. Beyond the lightened hardware, a set of Toyota’s much-hyped swing-valve shocks are slotted into the IS, improving ride comfort and rebound control.
The result is a wizened sport sedan that’s surprisingly good to spank down a canyon—or around our figure-eight test loop. In the hands of our capable hotshot and road test editor Chris Walton, the IS300 AWD cut through the aforementioned figure -eight in 25.9 seconds at an average of 0.70 g, which whups that BMW 330i xDrive by 0.7 second and 0.04 g. The surprises don’t stop there; against a 2020 Alfa Romeo Giulia Q4 that we tested last year, the supposedly dowdy Lexus bests the driver’s favorite Italian by 0.8 second and 0.04 g. Line up the Lexus, Bimmer, and Alfa on the skidpad, and the IS300 AWD’s 0.88-g average falls to the Bimmer’s 0.91-g average but stomps the Alfa Romeo’s 0.84-g average. All this without the hotter IS350 F-Sport’s optional adjustable dampers, Torsen limited-slip rear diff, and summer tires. Piloti, meet mouth.
The Lexus IS300 AWD is (Good) Road Worthy
Dynamically, we have little to complain about, other than some nebulous brake feel. “Really comes off the corner very well, and with the all-wheel drive, you can just flatfoot it,” Walton notes. “The pedal is a bit squishy, so it’s hard to know how far off the brake pedal you need to be while trail-braking. The steering weight is nice, and the balance on the skidpad is tremendous.”
Out on the viciously squiggled roads that snake through the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, the IS300 AWD continued to surprise. Brake fade is the enemy of many a car up on Malibu roads, and it’s not just from excessive braking; most stability and traction control systems on the market today are brake actuated and overenthusiastic, meaning even without brake input from the driver, the calipers are working overtime to keep you shiny side up. Of course, this means the more you push, the more it wicks away your stopping power—even if you’re not being rambunctious.
The result is a soft pedal and some concerning pedal travel. On roads as challenging and tight as those found between California canyons, this happens to even some of the IS’ stouter competitors—but not the IS300 AWD. With traction control turned off but stability kept on, the IS’ brakes were not significantly worse for wear after a few laps of our road test loops. Although the best 60-0-mph stopping distance we recorded at the test track was a mostly average 117 feet, the brakes remained unroasted by the time we called it quits on our road test.
Overall, the IS is a pleasantly neutral sport sedan. Steering is artificial but well weighted enough, and the front end is surprisingly grippy despite the all-wheel-drive setup. Turn-in is quick-ish, and poise from the revised suspension is noticeable; it’s no IS F, but for an occasional blast up to the family’s mountain cabin, the IS300 AWD at least won’t leave you bored out of your mind.
New Lexus IS300—Better Interior, Same Weird Packaging
So, it has the sport sedan creds, but we’re less enthused about interior packaging. We can forgive the dated center console with the weird, pseudo-gated shiftgate and touch-capacitive slide controls for the air conditioning temperature. Lexus’ obnoxious touchpad-operated infotainment gets a reluctant pass as well thanks to the choice of two different-sized touchscreens that both include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The IS AWD’s driveline hump continues to be unforgivable, and for some, likely a deal breaker. Jutting out from the side of the center transmission tunnel is a large, rounded hump that houses the power-takeoff for the all-wheel-drive system. It intrudes into the driver’s footwell; for this 5-foot-11 author, my right calf rested lightly on the lump, so we expect it will force taller drivers to angle their legs to the left slightly. Not good.
Tech and toy accoutrement is well enough for those in the front, with two USB ports under the armrest, an optional Mark Levinson sound system, and optional heated and ventilated seats, though the lack of available wireless charging is noted. If you’re in the back, leg- and headroom are passable, but you’re riding steerage for the most part; aside from two center vents, there are no door pockets, heated seats, USB ports, or—get this—cupholders. Yup, not even in the fold-down center armrest. Curiously, a rear-window sunshade can be extended and retracted by the driver so, uh, enjoy?
If you couldn’t guess, color us pleasantly surprised by the 2021 Lexus IS300 AWD. It’s undeniably still the old IS we’ve known since 2014, but it’s nicer to drive, better to operate, pleasant to look at, and as equipped at $47,975, not a bad buy. Just make sure your rear passengers don’t bring Big Gulps with them on road trips.
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