by Frank A. Aukofer

It could be asserted that the 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport is the epitome of the compact sports sedan, though the description sometimes gets misconstrued as meaning the pinnacle.

It’s not that. In current usage, epitome means the embodiment or something that possesses the features of an entire class. That’s the Lexus IS. It runs fender to fender with four-door sports machines named BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CT4, Audi A4, Genesis G70, Alfa-Romeo Giulia, Kia Stinger and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. 

These are relatively expensive cars that may not be the most comfortable because of suspension systems and tires more oriented to performance in the twisties and maybe cornering on a race track. But they are also waiting in the wings for drivers who value response and handling that deliver tingles of excitement up and down the backbone. 

The Lexus IS F Sport satisfies those needs and desires. At just 15 feet 4 inches long and an empty weight of about 3,680 pounds, it comes loaded for combat with a 311-horsepower V6 engine with 280 lb-ft of torque. Power surges to all four wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode operated by steering-wheel paddles for control-oriented enthusiasts. 

Nineteen-inch lightweight alloy wheels augment an all-independent suspension with a stabilizer bar and coil springs. Up front is a double-wishbone design with a multi-link setup in back. Gas filled shock absorbers complete the system. 

The tested Lexus IS arrived with a base price of $45,925, including the destination charge. Tack on the inevitable options: $3,800 adaptive variable suspension system, navigation with $2,750 Mark Levinson audio, $1,100 motorized glass sunroof, automatic emergency braking with $1,400 pedestrian detection and panoramic rear-view monitor, $1,250 triple beam headlights with automatic high beams and a few other installations, and the bottom-line sticker came to $56,820.

That’s about 20 grand more than the current average price of a new car, so if the goal is economical transportation with a good dose of reliability, check out the 2021 Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Kia Forte, Volkswagen Jetta and Subaru Impreza.

But the extra bucks, for those who can afford one of the performance/luxury machines like the Lexus IS F Sport, deliver driving enjoyment that goes beyond simply shuttling back and forth to the shopping center. 

This is a car that invites driving for its own sake. Nothing to do during the pandemic? Jump in for a drive in the traffic-free countryside where there are interesting corners to conquer, enjoy the acceleration when the light changes, bask in the feedback through the steering, and when braking feel some of the excitement of a pilot landing an FA-18 warplane on an aircraft carrier.

An axiom in the automobile business is that everything is a tradeoff. Want great handling? Give up some ride comfort. Want to go fast? Don’t worry about fuel economy. Under controlled tests that don’t involve rapid acceleration, the Lexus IS F Sport delivers an EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption rating of 19/26/22 mpg. Not bad for a hot car that can accelerate from rest to 60 mph in less than six seconds.

There are six driver selectable drive modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, Sport S, Sport S Plus and Custom. They adjust at what rpms the six-speed automatic shifts, as well as well as steering speed and effort, and shock absorber stiffness.

Comprehensive safety measures, including the automatic emergency braking and dynamic radar cruise control, are part of the standard equipment.

As taut as it behaves around curves, the F Sport also is tight. Though it has seatbelts for five, only four passengers will find comfortable accommodations — and getting there involves a bit of squirming. This is not a conveyance for large people. 

Some twisting and turning is required to access both the front and rear seats. Four average sized people in good shape will have no problems and, once inside, will be reasonably comfortable. The center-rear seat, no surprise, is almost impossible with a high, hard cushion and intrusion of a big floor hump. 

One negative surprise: Imitating some European luxury cars, the F Sport’s sun visors do not slide on their support rods to adequately block sun from the side. That was thought to be a thing of the past on all Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Also, the C-hinges in the small trunk are not isolated and could damage luggage.

But hey, you don’t buy an F Sport for its cargo-carrying capabilities.

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6; 311 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode and all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 4 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 90/11 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,680 pounds (est).
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/26/22 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $45,925.
  • Price as tested: $56,820.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

Photos (c) Lexus