2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Spot features article highlights:
- Driving a 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport with the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package revealed some positive features and a few negative ones
- The IS 350 F Sport has a sporty, comfortable interior with a great optional audio system and neat performance and luxury touches, but the touchpad is now essentially useless
- With the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package, the IS 350 AWD is a sporty but still comfy sedan, though the automatic transmission lets it down somewhat
Though its strongest by-words might be ‘reliability’ and ‘comfort,’ Lexus does have a sporty side. And one of the cheapest ways to experience it is getting into the IS 350 F Sport, the brand’s 3 Series competitor. I recently spent some time driving the AWD version of this Lexus sports sedan around snowy Chicago. And while there’s plenty to like about the 2021 IS 350 AWD F Sport, it has some faults worth noting, too.
The 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport has a suitably sporty yet comfortable interior
Let’s start with the good stuff. Before I drove the Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport, I spent a brief period in the BMW M440i Gran Coupe. And while I had no quibbles about the BMW’s interior, for a sports sedan, there weren’t any overtly ‘sporty’ elements. That’s not the case with the Lexus.
My test car had the optional F Sport Dynamic Handling Package, which comes with ash-wood interior trim, among other things. The red-and-black Nuluxe synthetic leather upholstery, though, is a standard feature. And along with the bucket seats, relatively low seating position, sloping roofline, it makes the IS 350 F Sport feel like a sports car. Admittedly, that’s also because the interior is rather snug; you wouldn’t want to seat three passengers in the back. But the seats themselves are supportive, comfortable, and easy to get in and out of.
Meanwhile, the rest of the IS 350 F Sport’s interior befits its as-tested $58,040 sticker price. While there are one or two hard plastics—remember, a base IS 300 starts at just under $40K—they don’t feel cheap or flimsy. And they’re mostly in places you don’t regularly touch anyway. Everything else is soft-touch, Nuluxe, or in the steering wheel’s case, leather and ash wood. You can feel the wood grain, too, which is a classy touch.
Speaking of touchpoints, the Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport keeps piano-black trim to a minimum. It’s in the center console, but the buttons and controls have matte finishes. That way, you won’t leave fingerprints everywhere when you’re trying to, say, adjust the temperature. Also, the shift paddles felt like real metal. And having a padded surface by your knee is rather helpful when the road gets twisty.
Having a touchscreen and touchpad gives the 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport the best of both infotainment worlds
Now, Lexus has repeatedly received grief over its touchpad- and (earlier) mouse-based infotainment system. Fortunately, it finally added touchscreens as part of a massive infotainment overhaul. The 2021 IS 350 AWD F Sport, though, still rocks the touchpad, even though it has a touchscreen, too. However, during my time with the sports sedan, I discovered a benefit to the touchpad. No, I’m not kidding.
Admittedly, in most cases, just using the touchscreen is significantly easier than swiping on the pad. True, the Lexus IS 350 AWD’s system isn’t quite as responsive or intuitive as Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment. But it’s no longer one of the worst on the market. Also, it has physical knobs and clear displays. And if you get the Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package, Lexus swaps out the standard 8.0” screen for a 10.3” one.
However, there’s at least one instance where the touchpad came in handy. That’s when I was driving through a four-way intersection crowded with cops and accident debris. I had to adjust something on the screen but didn’t want to take my eyes off the road in front of me. You know, in case I hit someone or something. But with the touchpad, I could control my infotainment without getting distracted.
The Mark Levinson audio system is worth the upcharge
Although my 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport tester had the $2750 Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package, both are available separately. On its own, the Mark Levinson audio system costs $1080—and it’s worth it.
Lexus’s Mark Levinson audio systems are often considered some of the best in the business and it’s easy to see why. The IS’ version is an 1800-watt surround sound system that bumps the sedan from 10 speakers to 17. And it makes whatever you pipe through it, whether it’s ‘70s funk or the latest EDM, sound brilliant and crisp. To quote Road & Track, “the Mark Levinson audio system will deafen you without a tinge of distortion.”
It turns the interior lights on for you
Luxury isn’t just leather upholstery and massaging seats, though those are part of the image. Rather, luxury is more about quality and sweating the details. And there’s one that stood out to me in the Lexus IS 350 F Sport.
The 2021 IS 350 AWD F Sport comes standard with keyless entry and push-button start/stop, which work as expected. But it also has something I haven’t experienced in another luxury car. When I was walking up to the car one night, I noticed that it turned the lights on in the cabin as I approached. And I know it wasn’t because I accidentally left them on, because the lights turned off as I walked away.
Basically, this car has proximity courtesy lighting. It’s a little thing, sure, but then, that’s what luxury’s about, right?
The 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport has a touch of the LFA
There’s one more detail I liked about the Lexus IS 350 F Sport, but it’s not a luxurious one. It might be a luxury sedan, but it’s also a sports sedan. And if the red-and-black interior and (optional) carbon-fiber spoiler don’t clue you in, the gauge cluster will. Specifically, the LFA-style main gauge.
Because its spectacular V10 engine revved so quickly, Lexus gave the LFA a digital tachometer. And it put that tachometer on a big metal dial that moves as you cycle through different drive mods and info displays. The IS 350 F Sport has that same dial, which also sports a tachometer that changes styles as you go through the driving mods. And yes, if you want more information, it moves to the side to make room for the display.
Is it a gimmick? Totally. Is it giggle-inducingly cool and, to quote MotorTrend, “a…majestically nifty trick?” Also yes.
Snow plus the F Sport Dynamic Handling Package equals sliding fun in the 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
When Lexus refreshed the IS lineup in 2021, it redesigned the interior and sharpened up the grille, taillights, and headlights. But it also stiffened the chassis, tweaked the suspension, and made the sway bars, control arms, and springs lighter, MT says. And it moved some features into the optional $3800 F Sport Dynamic Handling Package.
Besides the ash-wood-and-leather-trimmed heated steering wheel and carbon-fiber spoiler, this package adds adaptive dampers, BBS wheels, and on RWD models, a limited-slip differential. It also gives the Lexus IS 350 F Sport three extra driving modes: Sport, Sport+, and Custom. These sportier modes stiffen up the suspension, alter the transmission programming, and make the engine more responsive and the steering heavier and quicker. They also remove the fine tachometer lines and make the redline enormous.
Driving-wise, the IS 350 AWD F Sport isn’t quite as sharp as the M440i Gran Coupe. However, don’t mistake it for a floaty land yacht. AWD means it has plenty of grip, and the dedicated Snow Mode’s gentle throttle response is great for, well, snowy days. But if you find a snowy parking lot, twist the dial to Sport Mode, and turn off the safety nets, you can have some serious sliding fun.
In the sportier modes, the Lexus IS 350 F Sport’s steering is well-weighted and accurate without being overly fast. So, even if you do start sliding because you hit a patch of ice on the street, you can easily course correct. And the AWD makes tightening your line with a dab of throttle a cinch. But that’s also thanks to the chassis and suspension, which let you hustle down bendy roads surprisingly quickly without breaking your spine. Even in the sportiest modes, the ride is never harsh, just taut, and compliant.
It’s not the sportiest sedan, but the 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport is assuredly a sports sedan.
It has some uses, but the touchpad should go
As I noted earlier, the Lexus touchpad is helpful in some scenarios. However, they’re more like edge cases than regular situations. And ideally, if you need to pay attention to the road, you shouldn’t be fiddling with your infotainment system.
As such, since it has a touchscreen now, the touchpad in the 2021 Lexus IS 350 F Sport is redundant. Plus, because Lexus designed the center console around it, there’s not a lot of room for other features, R&T notes. For example, while the Toyota Camry offers wireless charging in some models, the IS 350 doesn’t. But if it ditched the touchpad, that would free up real estate for a charging pad or something else.
So, while they’re not entirely useless, if Lexus is embracing touchscreens, the touchpads need to leave.
Lexus should give the next IS 350 AWD F Sport a sportier transmission
Now, neither the IS 350 F Sport nor the IS 500 F Sport Performance is meant to be true IS F replacements. Hence why, as noted earlier, the IS 350 isn’t M440i-sharp—it’s not supposed to be. However, there is something that needs improvement: the transmission.
Instead of the RWD models’ eight-speed automatic, the IS 350 AWD has a six-speed automatic. And when you’re just cruising around town, it’s perfectly fine and smooth. However, even for a sports sedan that’s skewed more towards comfort, it’s simply not sporty enough.
Firstly, the six-speed automatic doesn’t shift appreciably faster when you go into Sport or Sport+ Mode. Secondly, in most vehicles that have them, the paddle shifters improve the transmission’s response time. But it’s not the case with the IS 350 AWD F Sport. Even in Sport+ Mode, there’s a noticeable delay between pulling the paddle and the transmission upshifting. It spoils the fun and makes the paddles arguably pointless.
However, MT found the eight-speed automatic alright. Hopefully, either Lexus finds a way to give AWD models that transmission or fixes the six-speed’s programming.
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