Lexus has successfully marketed the IS as a nimble luxury sports sedan, but it’s the bigger ES (the best-selling Lexus sedan in the US for over fifteen years) that has really captivated Americans with its comfort and practicality.
Those looking to buy a new Lexus sedan will often end up deciding between them. They are both five-passenger sedans with comparable prices. So what exactly are the key differences between them and which model should you buy? Let’s compare them in a side-by-side comparison.
The Lexus ES is a comfort-focused midsize sedan whereas the Lexus IS is a compact sports sedan. The Lexus ES is the more fuel efficient and practical car, but the Lexus IS offers more driving pleasure and comes wrapped in a racy exterior.
The 2021 base model Lexus IS, the rear-wheel drive IS 300, starts at $39,000.
For 2021, the Lexus ES has two base models. The ES 250 AWD and front-wheel drive ES 350, which both start at $39,900.
Both Lexuses offer a wide range of trims which collectively cater to every type of car buyer.
Being a natural sports sedan, the Lexus IS we recommend is the IS 350 F Sport. For those unaware, the Lexus F marque represents Lexus’s high-performance division, and the IS 350 F Sport packs a bigger engine and stiffer suspension.
Despite being more of a comfort sedan than a sports sedan, for 2021 the Lexus ES also gets the F Sport treatment. Furthermore, you can even go for the F Sport ‘Black Line’ special edition which has amplified F sport styling and a black rear spoiler.
The IS is offered as rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The ES drivetrain options are rather confusing, with the ES 250 AWD being all-wheel drive and the ES 350 being front-wheel drive.
Within the US, the Lexus IS is only available with petrol engines. However, the ES is offered in hybrid variants: 300h, 300h Luxury and 300h Ultra Luxury.
The Lexus IS is classed as a compact sedan whereas the Lexus ES is classed as a mid-size sedan. As a result, the ES is bigger than the IS on the outside.
The ES has a 113-inch wheelbase which is 2.8 inches longer than that of the IS. Its body is around 10 inches longer and 2 inches wider.
The Lexus ES provides more overall room for passengers (99.9 cubic feet vs 90.2 cubic feet).
While the IS has a very small advantage in front-passenger headroom and legroom, the rear row is much more cramped than the back of the ES. Passengers in the back only have 32.2 inches of legroom, compared to 39.2 inches you get with the ES.
In fact, the ES offers some of the best rear-row legroom in its class, but surprisingly the IS offers less than its main competitors.
The ES has a significantly larger trunk than the IS. It offers 16.7 cubic feet of cargo volume vs the 10.8 cubic feet offered by the IS.
However, the IS features 60/40 split folding seats which potentially gives it more cargo carrying potential than the ES (which doesn’t have folding seats). This makes it better for loading flatpack furniture or trips to the tip.
Design and Technology
Both cars are distinctly Lexus with bold styling and large front-grilles. The more compact IS lends itself well to its sportier design that features a rear diffuser and various intakes, whereas the ES has a tamer, more reserved design.
LED headlamps, tail lights and daytime running lights come as standard on the IS, but you’ll need to fork out extra for the same luxury on the ES.
More recent Lexus interiors have been the subject of much praise, especially for their unrivaled seat comfort and clever use of space.
Both sedans offer power-adjustable sports seats as standard which carefully hold you in position during sharper turns. The 2021 ES uses a newer remote touch control system for navigating the infotainment screen, but many will arguably prefer the classic control wheel that you get on the IS.
Which car has the superior interior is mostly subjective. The Lexus IS has a sporty, angular interior design that is very similar to the Lexus RC coupe. Meanwhile, the ES goes for a more ‘luxury’ interior that shares more in common with the top-of-the-line Lexus LS sedan.
It’s worth noting that the ES offers more varied interiors thanks to more trim options. You can get features like a wood-trimmed steering wheel and Japanese-sword-inspired Hadori Aluminum accents that can’t be optioned on the IS.
The ES also gets newer technology with an optional 10.2-inch heads up display and wireless charging which are currently unavailable on the IS. You can also get a huge 12.3-inch multimedia display, whereas the biggest screen on the IS is limited to 10.3 inches.
The IS is available with two engines. A 2.0-liter turbo inline-four engine that produces 241 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque is fitted in the IS 300 while the IS 350 is fitted with a 311 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine.
The I4 engine is slower and takes 6.9s to get from 0-60 mph. The V6 takes just 5.6s.
The ES 350, on the other hand, gets a 302 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine on the front-wheel driver ES 350. This takes the car from 0-60 mph in 6.6s. The relative lack of acceleration compared to the V6 IS is mostly down to the car’s heavier weight.
The new 2021 ES 250 AWD gets a smaller 203 hp four cylinder engine which is slower than the ES 350 but more fuel efficient.
If you instead opt for a hybrid drive ES, the electric motor is paired with a 2.5-liter I4 engine. This hybrid system has a combined 215 horsepower which takes 8.1s to get from 0-60 mph.
For the Lexus IS, the transmission the engine is matched with depends on whether you go for RWD or AWD. RWD variants get an 8-speed Sport Direct-Shift automatic transmission while AWD variants get a six-speed automatic gearbox.
The ES 250 and 350 models get an 8-speed direct-shift automatic transmission. Being a hybrid vehicle, the ES 300h gets an electronic CVT.
Those who want the best possible gas mileage will be drawn to the hybrid Lexus ES 300h, which achieves 43/44 mpg (city/highway) for a combined 44 mpg.
But even among the standard IS and ES models, the ES is the more fuel efficient car.
The ES 350 achieves a combined 26 mpg, whereas the RWD IS 300 and IS 350 achieve 24 mpg and 23 mpg respectively. The AWD IS 300 and IS 350 have a combined 21 mpg.
While the Lexus ES has dominated the comparison so far, the strength of the Lexus IS lies in its much more fun driving dynamics. Let’s not forget that the IS was Lexus’s flagship coupe and convertible before the Lexus RC came into existence in 2015.
There are a number of factors that go into making the IS a spirited driver’s car. Its compact body and lower center of gravity makes it more agile around corners while the lower driving position gives you a real sensation of speed.
Mechanically, the IS is either RWD or AWD which is what you immediately associate with a true performance car. The suspension is also stiffer and the gearbox is more responsive than what you find in the ES. Getting the F Sport further tunes the car for an even sportier ride.
On the flipside, the Lexus ES has a faultless, smooth ride that passengers will appreciate on longer journeys–making it a more sensible choice for family hauling needs.
Although Lexus has loaded both sedans with plenty of basic and advanced safety features, the 2021 Lexus IS is the first Lexus to get the Lexus Safety System+ 2.5. The 2021 Lexus ES still comes with Lexus Safety System+ 2.0.
The Lexus Safety System 2.0+ features lane tracing assist and road sign assist on top of what comes with the original Lexus Safety System: a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, dynamic cruise control and intelligent high beams.
The Lexus Safety System+ 2.5 found on the IS has all of the above as well as Left Turn Intersection Support, Enhanced All-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Enhanced Lane Tracing Assist.
Some features such as blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert are optional extras and not included as standard on base trims for either car.
The Lexus IS and Lexus ES both performed well in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The NHTSA gave both cars the highest possible 5-star overall safety rating. IIHS gave the Lexus ES a Top Safety Pick+ award, while the IS received the highest possible ‘Good’ in all crashworthiness tests.
Through the comparison it becomes obvious why the Lexus ES outsells the IS. It is the practical choice that offers more room for passengers and cargo, while achieving a better gas mileage. The growing demand for hybrid vehicles will most likely mean the ES will further outsell the IS over the coming years.
However, the Lexus IS wasn’t designed for practicality. This is a natural sports sedan that has its own appeal in being a more fun car to drive. It features a more youthful, less cluttered interior that borrows from the Lexus RC. If you don’t foresee yourself carrying extra passengers very often and want the pleasure of driving RWD/AWD, this is the Lexus for you.