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The luxury compact sedan market is filled with sporty competitors like the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Some would consider those three the luxury sport sedans the shopping “trifecta” as they all embody what most buyers would look for in such a car. If you’re looking for something sporty, the 3 Series has you covered. And if you’re looking for comfort, then the Mercedes will give you what you need.

But what if you’re looking for something Japanese instead? In that case, the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport provides the comfort you expect from the brand and it looks sporty to boot. But is it really as sporty as it looks?

The Lexus IS 350 F Sport has the right sporty elements

a front three quarters shot of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport | Joe Santos

The term “sporty” typically refers to a car’s ability to accelerate quickly, reach a high top speed, and tackle corners with the agility of a cheetah. And while many sports cars exude these characteristics, it can be tough to make a luxury car do the same, especially if you’re Lexus.

That doesn’t mean that Lexus doesn’t make fast cars, it does, in the form of the LFA and the LC 500. But it doesn’t have the sporty formula quite dialed in with its lower-tiered sedans like the IS 350. Don’t get me wrong, the IS 350 is still a great car in its own right. It’s comfortable enough for the daily drive and with a 311-hp V6, it has plenty of power to play around with. But it leaves me wanting just a little more.

To get a good feel for the car, I put the Lexus IS 350 F Sport through its paces by tackling some canyon roads outside the Denver, Colo., area. The car handled well around the corners, especially in “Sport” mode, which stiffened up the steering feel and sharpened up the shifts. But I felt like the transmission held it back.   

The six-speed automatic transmission is lacking

a side shot of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport | Joe Santos

If you opt for the AWD version of the IS 350, like my test car is, then you’ll get the six-speed automatic transmission to go with it. It’s a good gearbox for everyday driving as it makes good use of the powerband with its ratios and leaves the engine at a comfortable RPM when cruising.

However, if you opt for the rear-drive version, you’ll get the eight-speed direct-shift gearbox, which I’m presuming shifts a lot quicker. That would theoretically be a lot better than the six-speed that the AWD one is equipped with as I found that the transmission seemed to bog down the driving experience with slow up and down shifts.

Curiously enough, according to Lexus, the AWD drive version is 0.1 seconds slower to 60 mph than the RWD version (5.6 vs 5.7 seconds). It could be due to the extra weight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the transmission has something to do with the slightly slower time.

With the F Sport package, there are paddles behind the steering wheel, but they don’t do much to make the drive that much sportier, thanks to the slow shift speeds.

What does the F Sport package have?

a rear three quarter shot of the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport
2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport | Joe Santos

While the term “F Sport” makes the car sound even sportier, it’s mainly the appearance package. Opting for the F Sport trim will give you a stiffer F Sport suspension, but the rest is mainly cosmetic. In addition to some aggressive styling cues like the mesh front grille, the dark 19-inch wheels, and the carbon trunk spoiler, you’ll also get more supportive 10- and 8-way powered front seats.

Ultimately, If you’re looking to make a statement with your luxury compact sedan, then the Lexus IS 350 F Sport is a great way to go. It looks athletic, it drives well at speed, and it definitely looks the part. But if you want something that you can take to a race track or you crave a more visceral driving experience, then you might want to stick with one of those aforementioned European rivals.