Lexus IS VS Holden Calais
- Looks a lot better now
- Improved media system
- Better safety tech
- Still the same engines
- Largely the same interior
- Feeling a little old
- Plenty of cabin space
- Safety gear on-point
- Punchy V6
- Fuel use on the high side
- Four-cylinder turbo petrol unavailable
- Diesel not an option
No it isn’t an all-new car. It might look like it, but the 2021 Lexus IS is actually a heavy facelift of the existing model, which originally went on sale way back in 2013.
There have been significant changes to the look of the new Lexus IS, including a revised front and rear end, and the company has widened the track and made “substantial chassis changes” to make it handle more adeptly, too. Plus there is a whole raft of newly added safety features and in-car technology, despite the cabin being, largely, a carryover affair.
Suffice to say that the new Lexus IS 2021 model - which the brand describes as having been “reimagined” - carries over a few strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor. But does this Japanese luxury sedan still have enough quality traits to compete with the likes of its main rivals - the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Genesis G70 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class?
Let’s find out.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
If Holden had a dollar for every time someone had criticised the new and international flavour of Australia’s formerly home-grown hero, it would surely have more than enough spare cash to blow the dust of that vast South Australian factory and restart local Commodore production immediately.
Hell, there’d probably be enough left over to relaunch the Camira while they were at it. And maybe even knock out a new Gemini or two.
So we’re not going to do that again here. The all-new Commodore, in this case the Calais Tourer, is now here - granted having travelled further than the one it replaces - and so we’ll be playing this review with the straightest of bats.
Because the truth is, if you peel the badging - and thus the swirling emotion - off its elongated rump, then you’ll find this German-built Tourer is, really and truly, a very good thing.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
The new-look Lexus IS takes several steps forward over its predecessor - it’s safer, smarter, sharper to look at and still pretty well priced and equipped.
It is feeling its age inside, and the competition has moved on in terms of engines and EV tech. But even so, if I was buying a 2021 Lexus IS, it would have to be the IS350 F Sport, which is just the most fitting version of this car, though the IS300h Luxury does have plenty to like for the money, too.
A best-of-both-worlds option that should have us questioning our SUV obsession, the Calais Tourer delivers plenty of practicality perks and a higher ride height in a dynamic and car-like package. The equipment levels are spot on, including the comprehensive safety package, and it you act smartly, you'll get a hugely long warranty to boot.
It sure is thirsty, though, and we can't help but think plenty of owners would be happier with a smaller, more-efficient engine.
You either get the Lexus look or you don’t, and I think this latest version is possibly more agreeable than the IS in years gone by.
That’s partly because the brand has finally done away with the odd spider-eyes twin-section headlights and daytime running lights - now there are more traditional headlight clusters, which look a lot more resolved than before.
The front end still features a bold ‘spindle’ grille, which gets different treatment depending on the grade, and the front, to my eye, looks better than before but still very much stuck in its ways.
At the side you’ll notice the giveaway windowline hasn’t changed, despite the chrome trim line having broadened as part of this facelift, but you can tell the haunches have muscled up a bit, with the new IS now 30mm wider overall, and the wheel sizes are 18s or 19s, depending on the grade.
The rear accentuates that width, with an L-shaped lighting signature now spanning the entire re-sculpted boot lid, giving the IS a pretty tidy rear end design.
Overall dimensions for the IS are 4710mm long, making it 30mm longer nose to tail (on an unchanged 2800mm wheelbase), while it now spreads across 1840mm (+30mm) and is 1435mm tall (+5mm).
The exterior changes really are impressive - I think it is a more purposeful but also more pleasant looking car now than it ever has been in this current generation.
The interior? Well, there’s not a whole lot to talk about in terms of design changes, aside from the repositioned and larger media screen - which sits 150mm closer to the driver because it’s now a touchscreen with the latest smartphone mirroring tech. Otherwise it’s a carryover affair, as you can see from the interior pictures.
Less an SUV (happily), and more a high-riding wagon, the Calais Tourer borrows a little from the Subaru XV in its exterior design, sporting the same plastic cladding over each wheel arch. Clearly there is a whole heap of shared DNA between the Sportwagon and Tourer, and so it offers similar perks; like its SUV-shaming boot space.
Elsewhere, the Tourer shares the same soft and rounded edges as the rest of the Commodore range, and while it is genuinely quite handsome from most angles, it is at its best viewed front on, where a simple front-end is bookmarked at each corner by a narrow headlight on top, and an encased fog light below. It’s all a touch understated, sure, but it looks sharp in the metal.
Inside, it’s a clean and functional cabin design, with most of the touchscreen functions controlled by a simple row of four horizontal buttons, and with a gloss-black surround encasing the centre console. The thin leather wheel feels lovely under the touch, and the contrasting door trims and soft-touch materials find their way into the backseat, too.
The interior design of the IS, as mentioned, hasn’t changed dramatically, and it is starting to feel old compared to some of its contemporaries.
It’s still a nice place to be, with comfortable front seats with electric adjustment and heating across all grades, and cooling on many variants, too.
The new 10.3-inch touchscreen media system is a nice unit, and means you can essentially do away with the silly trackpad system that still resides near the gear selector, so you may still end up bumping it accidentally. And the fact the IS now has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (though neither are wirelessly connectable) does further its appeal on the multimedia front, as does the standard 10-speaker Pioneer stereo - though the 17-speaker Mark Levinson unit is an absolute blinder!
The centre stack below the media screen retains a CD player, and still has the electromagnetic temperature adjustment sliders as well. That part of the design is dating it just as much as the transmission tunnel console area, which looks a bit out of touch by modern standards, though still incorporates a pair of cup holders and a reasonably large centre console bin with soft armrest padding.
The front doors feature trenches with bottle holders as well, while in the rear doors there is still no drink storage - a carryover annoyance from the pre-facelift model. However, the middle seat in the back doubles as an armrest with pop-out cupholders, and there are rear air vents too.
Speaking of that middle seat, you wouldn’t want to sit in it for long, as it has a raised base and uncomfortable backrest, plus there’s a huge transmission tunnel intrusion eating into leg and foot space.
Outboard passengers also miss out on toe room, which - for my size 12s - is an issue. And it’s hardly the roomiest second row in this class for knee room and headroom, as my 182cm frame was a touch squished behind my own driving position.
Children will be better catered for in the back, and there are two ISOFIX anchorages and three top-tether attachment points for baby seats.
The boot capacity varies on the model you buy. Choose an IS300 or IS350 and you score 480 litres (VDA) of cargo capacity, while the IS300h has a battery pack that robs it of some boot space, with 450L available.
The Tourer serves up identical storage space to its Sportwagon near-enough twin, with 793 litres of storage (to the roof line) with the rear seats in place, and 1665 litres with the rear seat folded down. That’s about 200 litres more than the regular Commodore hatchback.
Where the Tourer does differ from the Sportwagon is in its exterior dimensions, measuring 5004mm in length (versus 4986mm in the Sportwagon) and 1525mm in height (versus 1483mm). Width and wheelbase are identical, though (1871mm and 2829mm), and so the interior space dimensions - like headroom and legroom - are identical no matter which of the estate-style Commodores you opt for.
The key dimension here, though, is ride height, with the Tourer offering 20mm more ground clearance (42mm greater height overall) than the Sportwagon. That, combined with the on-demand all-wheel-drive system, allows for some light off-roading - though you won’t be conquering Everest.
Up front, expect two cupholders hidden under a gloss-black cover, as well as power and USB connections located in a central cubby. The back seat is home to two extra cupholders hidden in a pulldown divider, and there is room in each of the doors for bottles. The back seat is also home to air vents (but no temperature controls) and two USB charge points located just below the vents.
Price and features
The updated 2021 Lexus IS range has seen a number of pricing changes, and a reduction of variants, too. There are now five IS models available, down from seven prior to this update as the Sports Luxury model has been axed, and you can only get the IS350 in F Sport trim now. However, the company has expanded its “Enhancement Pack” strategy across the different variants.
Opening the range is the IS300 Luxury, which lists at $61,500 (all prices listed are the MSRP - not including on-road costs, and are correct at time of publishing). It has the exact same equipment as the IS300h Luxury model, which is $64,500, and that ‘h’ stands for hybrid, which will be detailed in the engines section.
The Luxury trim is equipped with items such LED headlights and daytime running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, proximity keyless entry with push-button start, a 10.3-inch touchscreen multimedia system with satellite navigation (including live traffic updates) and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech, plus a 10-speaker sound system, eight-way power-adjustable front seats with heating and memory settings for the driver, and dual-zone climate control. There’s also auto headlights with auto high beam, rain sensing wipers, power steering column adjustment, and adaptive cruise control.
Indeed, there’s a raft of safety technology included - more on that below - and there’s also a number of Enhancement Pack options.
Luxury spec models can be equipped with a choice of two Enhancement Packs: the $2000 Enhancement Pack adds a sunroof (or moonroof in Lexus speak); or Enhancement Pack 2 (or EP2 - $5500) further adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, cooled front seats, high-grade leather-accented interior trim, and a power-operated rear sunshade.
The IS F Sport trim line is available across the IS300 ($70,000), IS300h ($73,000) or the V6-powered IS350 ($75,000), and it adds a number of additional features over the Luxury grade.
As you can probably tell, F Sport models get a sportier look, with a body kit, 19-inch alloy wheels, standard fit adaptive suspension, sports front seats with cooling, sports pedals, and five drive modes to choose from (Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Custom). The F Sport grade also includes a digital instrument cluster with an 8.0-inch display, as well as leather-accented trim, and scuff plates.
Buying the F Sport grade allows customers to add further goodies by way of the Enhancement Pack for that grade, which costs $3100 and includes the sunroof, 17-speaker sound system and rear sunshade.
What’s missing? Well there’s no wireless phone charging in any grade, and no USB-C connectivity either. Note: the spare wheel is a space saver in the IS300 and IS350, but there is only a repair kit in the IS300h as there are batteries where the spare wheel would go.
There’s no go-fast IS F model sitting at the top of the tree here, nor is there a plug-in hybrid to compete against the circa-$85K BMW 330e and Mercedes C300e. But the fact the IS models all come in below $75K means it’s a pretty decent value proposition.
The Calais has long formed the most luxurious rung of the Commodore ladder, and the wagon-ish Tourer is without doubt the most practical version. It will set you back $45,990 ($47,990 drive-away) in the guise we’ve tested here, and $53,990 In Calais V specification.
Not to be sneezed at, then. But it does arrive with plenty of stuff to help justify your investment.
Outside, you’ll find 18-inch alloys, a handsfree auto-opening boot, heated mirrors, keyless entry with push-button start, a remote start function, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights with LED DRLs. Inside, expect leather seats that are heated in the front, a leather-wrapped wheel, dual-zone climate control, standard satellite navigation and a wireless charging pad for compatible phones.
On the technology front, an 8.0-inch touchscreen pairs with an eight-speaker stereo, and it’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto equipped. There’s also a genuinely impressive standard safety package, too, but we’ll drill down on that under the Safety sub-heading.
Engine & trans
The engine specs depend on the powertrain you choose. And at a glance there’s no variance between the earlier version of the IS and the 2021 facelift.
That means the IS300 model still runs a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor producing 180kW of power (at 5800rpm) and 350Nm of torque (at 1650-4400rpm). It has an eight-speed automatic transmission, and like all IS models, it is rear-wheel drive (RWD/2WD) - there is no all-wheel drive (AWD/4WD) model here.
Next up the spectrum is the IS300h model, which has a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol motor teamed to an electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery pack. The petrol engine is good for a 133kW (at 6000rpm) and 221Nm (at 4200-5400rpm), and the electric motor produces 105kW/300Nm - but the combined total maximum power output is 164kW, and Lexus doesn’t provide a maximum torque figure. The 300h model runs a CVT automatic transmission.
The big horsepower offering here is the IS350, which runs a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine, producing 232kW of power (at 6600rpm) and 380Nm of torque (at 4800-4900rpm). It runs an eight-speed auto.
All models have paddle-shifters, while the two non-hybrid models have seen tweaks to the transmission software that is said to “estimate driver intentions” for better enjoyment.
A really rather good 3.6-litre V6 engine Is parked under the bonnet, feeding 235kW at 6800rpm and 381Nm at 5200rpm to all four wheels as required, thanks to an on-demand all-wheel-drive system. The suspension is tuned specifically for its high-riding antics, too.
The 3.6-litre engine means a braked towing capacity of 2100kg, and an unbraked max of 750kg.
There’s still no diesel model, no plug-in hybrid and no full electric (EV) model - which means that while Lexus was at the forefront of electrification with its so-called “self-charging” hybrids, it is falling behind the times. You can get plug-in versions of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, and the Tesla Model 3 plays in this space in full-electric guise.
As for the fuel-sipping hero of this trio of powertrains, the IS300h is said to use 5.1 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle fuel test. In reality, our test car’s dashboard showed 6.1L/100km across a mix of driving.
The IS300 with its turbocharged 2.0L engine is next best for fuel use, claiming 8.2L/100km. On our short launch drive of that model, we saw 9.6L/100km on the dashboard.
And the full-fat IS350 V6 petrol claims consumption of 9.5L/100km, while on test we saw 13.4L/100km.
The emissions for the three models are 191g/km (IS300), 217g/km (IS350) and 116g/km (IS300h). All three are Euro 6B compliant.
Fuel tank capacity is 66 litres for all models, meaning your mileage range for the hybrid model could be considerably longer.
Not so good, I’m afraid. The offical number is on the high-side at 9.1 litres per 100 kilometres on the claimed/combined cycle (though that's less than the equivalent Subaru Outback), but we were averaging a smidge under 14.0L/100km after what was admittedly quite a lot of city driving. Still, that’s high.
Emissions are pegged at 212g/km or C02, and the Tourer’s 61-litre tank will accept cheaper 91RON fuel, or an E10 blend.
With the engine at the front and drive to the back, it has the ingredients for a pure driver’s car, and Lexus made a bit of a big deal about the new-look IS being more focused thanks to chassis adjustments and track width improvements - and it does feel a pretty nimble and tied-down car in the twisty stuff.
It is competent at stitching together a series of corners, and the F Sport models are particularly adept. The adaptive suspension in those models includes both anti-dive and anti-squat tech, which is designed to make the car feel solid and flat on the road - and it does, thankfully without feeling twitchy or uncomfortable, with good suspension compliance even in the most aggressive Sport S+ drive mode.
The 19-inch wheels on F Sport models are fitted with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber (235/40 front, 265/35 rear) and there’s plenty of tarmac tenacity.
The grip from Luxury-spec models on 18s could be better, with those Bridgestone Turanza tyres (235/45 all around) proving not quite the most enthralling.
Indeed, the IS300h Luxury I drove felt very different in character to the F Sport IS300 and 350 models. It was surprising how much more of a plush-focused model the Luxury grade feels, and likewise it wasn’t as impressive in dynamic driving due to the tyre grip and less-enthusiastic drive mode system. The non-adaptive suspension is a touch more jittery too, and while it’s not to the point of discomfort, you might expect better for a car on 18s.
Across all models the steering is accurate and direct enough, with predictable response and decent feel to the driver’s hands for this electric power steering setup. The F Sport models have even further retuned steering for “an even sportier drive experience”, though I found at times it could feel a little numb for rapid changes of direction.
As for engines, the IS350 is still the pick. It has the best zest, and feels the most fitting powertrain for this model. It sounds good, too. The auto transmission is pretty clever, there's easily enough pulling power, and it's probably going to be the last of the non-turbo V6s in Lexus's line-up when this cars life-cycle is up.
The IS300's turbo engine was the most disappointing, lacking some urge and constantly feeling bogged down by turbo lag, transmission confusion, or both. It felt underdone in enthusiastic driving, though in dull day-to-day commuting circumstances it came across as more acceptable, though the remapped transmission software was far less impressive in this application than in the IS350.
The IS300h was a lovely, quiet and refined experience all around. It’s the one you should go for if you don’t really care about all that go-fast stuff. The powertrain is proven, it accelerates with nice linear delivery, and at times it’s so hushed I found myself looking down at the instrument cluster to see if the car was in EV mode or if it was using the petrol engine.
Really very good. That 3.6-litre engine (why they haven’t offered the Tourer with the smaller and smarter turbo engine is something of a mystery) might be a touch old-school and a touch thirsty, but it’s a rich and powerful thing, and it gives the Calais-stamped Tourer a perky personality that defies its dimensions.
The Calais Tourer was built in Germany, and fitted with an engine and transmission from the USA, before undergoing local tuning here in Australia (think bespoke steering and suspension tunes calibrated both at the company’s testing facility and after a 200,000km test on Aussie roads), and it’s the last of those Dr Frankenstein ingredients that have had the biggest impact here.
The Tourer’s ride is fantastic, perfectly poised between firm composure and everyday comfort, and - like most good wagons - it will honestly leave you wondering why so many people are clamouring aboard the SUV train when you can all the space with better dynamics in a humble estate.
The nine-speed ‘box is smooth and sharp in its operation, too. But the fuel use is a concern. Sure, we spent the bulk of our time in the city, where stop-start traffic naturally uses more fuel. But then, surely so would most owners?
The facelifted version scores auto emergency braking (AEB) with day and night pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection (from 10km/h to 80km/h) and car detection (10km/h to 180km/h). There’s also all speed adaptive cruise control with low speed following.
The IS also has lane keeping assistance with lane departure warning, lane trace assist, a new system called Intersection Turning Assist which will brake the car if the system judges the traffic gap isn’t big enough, and there’s also road sign recognition.
Plus the IS has blind-spot monitoring on all grades, as well as rear cross-traffic alert with auto braking (below 15km/h).
And beyond that, Lexus has added new Connected Services features, including an SOS call button, automated collision notification if an airbag deploys, and stolen vehicle tracking.
Where is the Lexus IS built? Japan is the answer.
You’ve got to hand it to the Lion for the standard safety package here, which includes the Holden Eye camera system as standard, adding auto emergency braking (AEB), lane keep assist, lane departure warning and forward collision warning. You’ll also find semi-autonomous parking, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors.
The Calais Tourer adds blind-sport monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to that pretty comprehensive package. All of which helps the Commodore range qualify for the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.
Finally, you can add six airbags and two ISOFIX attachment points to the mix.
On paper, Lexus’s ownership offer isn’t quite as enticing as some other luxury car brands - but it has a strong reputation for blissful ownership.
The Lexus Australia warranty period is four years/100,000km, which is better for duration than Audi and BMW (both three years/unlimited km) but not as accommodating as Mercedes-Benz or Genesis, each of which offer five-year/unlimited km warranty.
The company has a three-year capped price servicing plan, with maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km. The first three visits cost $495 each. That’s okay - but Lexus doesn’t offer free servicing like Genesis, and nor does it offer prepaid service plans - for three to five years for a C-Class, and five years for Audi A4/A5, for instance.
There is complimentary roadside assistance for the first three years, too.
That said, the company has its Encore ownership benefits program that allows a number of experiences and deals, and the service team will collect your car and return it, leaving you with a loan car if you need it.
Holden has recently relinquished the initial warranty offering, now including the Commodore in its seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty program, meaning it mixes with the very best in the aftercare business. For now, at least; normally, the Commodore carries the brand's standard three year/100,000km warranty. But be on the lookout for the return of this deal if you miss out this time.
Service intervals are pegged at 12 months or 12,000kms, and the Commodore falls under Holden’s extensive capped-price servicing program, and it will cost between $259 and $359 for each of the first seven annual services.