The compact luxury segment is dominated by German brands, with their history of building sporty sedans. However, Lexus and Acura have emerged as strong alternatives with their offerings, the IS and TLX, respectively. Both brands have introduced refreshed versions of their best-selling sedans for the next year. The 2021 Lexus IS features a refreshed look, updated underpinnings, and additional options and packages. On the other hand, the 2021 Acura TLX sports a completely new platform, a new turbocharged engine, and a modern interior. With these alternatives aiming to attract shoppers who are not interested in German brands, we have compared these two cars to determine which one is the best.
The 2021 Lexus IS retains its classic design, with subtle details giving it a more modern and appealing look. The controversial spindle grille remains, but with some tweaks to the mesh and size. It also features slimmer triple-beam headlights, thinner side vents, sculpted details on the body, and new taillights. The F Sport version gets trim-specific 19-inch wheels, unique front and rear bumper treatments, and an optional carbon fiber wing. Overall, the latest IS has a compact, aggressive design that stands out in a segment known for similar styling.
The 2021 Acura TLX has grown in size compared to its predecessor, measuring in at a near-mid-size length of 194.6 inches. The design cues have been improved, with a diamond pentagon grille, slimmer headlights, sculpted body sides, and a tapered rear end. With the A-Spec package, the TLX gets unique 19-inch wheels and chrome and black accents on the body. While the TLX has a more improved design, the Lexus IS offers a more aggressive and unique look.
The interior of the Lexus IS has seen only minor improvements, with a new 10.3-inch screen and some ash wood trim pieces. However, the IS has always had a comfortable and clean interior. The overall layout envelops the driver, creating a genuine cockpit-like feel, and features high-quality materials like leather and aluminum. The F Sport seats are updated and provide great bolstering and comfort.
On the other hand, the Acura TLX has made a significant improvement in its interior compared to the previous model. The A-Spec version features red Milano leather seats with excellent bolstering, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with red stitching, and high-quality aluminum buttons and fixtures. However, the seating position in relation to the positioning of the steering wheel, center console, and door panels feels unbalanced. In terms of comfort and seating position, the Lexus IS has the advantage.
The Lexus IS is available with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine or an optional 3.5-liter V6. However, both engines remain the same as the previous model, with the V6 producing 311 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The IS is solid dynamically, with flat and smooth cornering and great steering feel. The optional Dynamic Handling package adds features like adaptive dampers and a limited-slip differential, improving the performance.
The Acura TLX, despite not having a V6 like the Lexus, feels punchier with its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine. It produces 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, offering better low-end torque and mid-range power than the IS. The TLX is sportier and more fun to drive, with sharp steering and a firmer suspension that provides great feedback. In terms of performance, the TLX A-Spec has the edge.
The 2021 Lexus IS comes with the same infotainment controller as before, paired with a newer 10.3-inch touchscreen. It also features standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. However, the trackpad controller can be challenging to use and scroll. The TLX also has a touchpad controller for its infotainment system, but it works better than the Lexus’s trackpad. The TLX has a 10.2-inch screen with a clean and easy-to-navigate interface, along with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. In terms of technology, the Acura TLX has a more competent setup.
Both the Lexus IS and Acura TLX come with a range of standard safety features. The Lexus IS features the company’s latest Safety System Plus 2.5, which includes automatic emergency braking, high-beam assist, and adaptive cruise control. The Acura TLX comes with AcuraWatch, which includes automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and traffic sign recognition. Both safety systems are equally good and effective.
The 2021 Lexus IS starts at $39,000, but the fully-loaded 350 F Sport RWD version pictured here costs $55,220 with added options. On the other hand, the 2021 Acura TLX starts at $37,500. Even with additional options like the Technology Package, A-Spec package, and Super-Handling all-wheel-drive system, the TLX comes in at $47,775, making it nearly $7,500 more affordable than the IS with similar equipment.
In the luxury segment, Lexus and Acura have always played second fiddle to German brands. While both the 2021 Lexus IS and Acura TLX have their place in the segment, the TLX stands out as the winner in this comparison. With fresh styling, modern tech, better pricing, and improvements in performance and handling, the TLX feels like a fully fleshed out, sporty luxury sedan. While neither car is perfect, the TLX offers a more compelling package overall.