2010 Lexus IS250 C: First Drive

Luxury convertibles just got a lot more affordable

2010 Lexus IS250 C: First Drive

It’s rather shocking to think that it’s taken Lexus so long to come out with a convertible version based on the IS sedan. And with the success of Lexus’s 3 Series competitor, you’d also think they would have built a coupe by now. Thanks to the new 2010 Lexus IS C, Japan’s premiere luxury brand now has both.

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FAST FACTS

1. The IS C is available as both a 250 model with 204hp or a 350 model with 306hp.

2. The power retractable hardtop folds into three pieces and stows just ahead of the trunk space in 20 seconds.

3. The IS250 C starts at $38,490 and the IS350 C at $43,940.

Offered as both a 250 and 350 model with either 204hp or 306hp, the new IS C is a serious competitor to the BMW 3 Series convertible, which until now has stood unchallenged in this segment. Sure Audi makes a convertible A4, but it’s a soft-top. And while Infiniti is bringing a drop-top version of the G37 to market, it’s not here yet.

The reason the IS C is destined to be so popular is because of what it is and the segment that it’s competing in. There are two primary reasons people buy an entry-level luxury convertible like this. The first is the luxury aspect and the second is the lifestyle aspect.

Lifestyle buyers are looking for a car that says something about them, and for the most part, as far as they are concerned, a Lexus convertible is as good as a BMW convertible.

As for the luxury aspect, Lexus not only delivers in providing wonderfully crafted interiors, but it also has a strong brand image. As for the main competitor, BMW, sure it has a strong (if not a stronger) image, but its interiors aren’t quite as nice and the brand as a whole is focused more on sporty performance. And while performance may be on the short list of criteria for consumers in this realm, it doesn’t rate as highly as luxury.

That said, let’s take a look at the IS C, from the design, to the luxury, to the performance.

DESIGN: RETRACTABLE HARD-TOP LOOKS GOOD UP OR DOWN

From the front, the IS C looks indistinguishable from the sedan. Every other angle is different. In fact the only body panel the C shares with its four-door counterpart is the hood.

With the top up or down the IS C looks as though it was designed to be that way – which is more than we can say for the 3 Series, which is almost awkward with the top up. The convertible IS is actually based on the same platform as the IS sedan, meaning that the wheelbase is exactly the same. That being said, Lexus did a great job at not making the two side doors, which are 11.8-inches longer than the sedan’s front doors, look out of proportion.

The roof structure folds into three pieces and is stored away in the trunk in just 20 seconds – which is faster than the BMW. If only you didn’t have to hold the button for the whole time.

We have to commend the Lexus designers on the roof structure. With the top up visibility, both to the side and rear, is very good. Also, the large bar that joins the two A-pillars at the top of the windshield is high enough that it doesn’t interfere with the driver’s sight, unlike most convertibles where that bar blocks the view of stop-lights.

With the roof down, the rear tonneau cover/trunk completely covers the folded roof pieces, although the gap around the trunk is significantly larger than the rest of the panel spacing on the car.

The rear of the IS C can be easily distinguished by a new taillight design and two bars of LED lights.

On my tester, equipped with the F-Sport lowering springs, Bilstein shocks and light-weight 19-inch wheels, the stance of the car was simply stunning. Stock models aren’t quite so alluring though with rather small 17-inch wheels and a significant amount of wheel gap.

LUXURY: WHISPER QUIET TOP-DOWN DRIVE BUT TOO MUCH COWL SHAKE

On the luxury front, Lexus has equipped the IS C much in the same way as the IS sedan, which is both good and bad. The good news is that the IS has a wonderful luxurious interior, with a great design, high-end materials, lots of features and excellent ergonomics.

Standard equipment on the 250 I tested includes: power tilt and telescopic steering, power locks, power windows with one-touch up/down, climate control, SmartAccess keyless entry with a push-button ignition, cruise control, Bluetooth, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an eight-speaker, six-disc audio system with an auxiliary jack, USB connector and iPod interface.

The down side to the convertible’s interior is that its not all that different from the sedan, which is now four years old and just isn’t as exciting as it used to be.

Out on the road we had mixed feelings about the drive of the IS C. What it certainly exceeded at is providing an incredibly quiet interior. Even with the top down at 60 mph-plus there’s no need to raise your voice.

What we did find fault with was the rigidity of the chassis – which in many ways is par for the course with convertibles. Lexus put a lot of work into stiffening up the chassis of the IS, strengthening much of it and adding extra braces elsewhere, and yet there is still a significant amount of cowl shake. And I’m not just talking about the twisting of the chassis that occurs when you go over a pothole; that is to be expected. The real issue I had was out on country roads when the pavement is less than perfect. With every corner of the car moving up and down, from between those four-points you can really feel the chassis twisting. (And I find it’s important to note that I observed this in one of the stock vehicles, not the F-Sport one).

As convenience is an important part of luxury, there are a few features on the IS C that deserve mention. First up is an air conditioning system that knows when the top is down and adjusts to help keep the occupants cool. The audio system works in the same way, adding extra bass to compensate when the top is down.

For times when the rear seats are used, Lexus has included a button on the top of the passenger seatback to activate the power sliding seat either forwards or back. Optional is a one-touch mechanism that folds the seat and moves it forward for even easier rear-seat access.

The Lexus Intuitive Park Assist (IPA) system is also a great add-on as it gives audible warning to alert you to objects behind you. And if the navigation system is ordered, a backup camera is included.

Additionally, Lexus has included Hill-start Assist Control, which holds the car still for a few moments when the driver takes their foot off the brake before applying the throttle. And for the first time this is also be standard on manual transmission models.

As for trunk space, like any hard-top convertible it’s excellent when the top is up but suffers when retracted. As just 10.8 cubic feet you won’t fit a weeks worth of groceries for a family of five, but it will fit a set of golf clubs.

PERFORMANCE LAGGING ON 250 MODEL

As with all convertibles, the tradeoff for all that sun in your face is not only chassis rigidity but also weight. On the IS C, there’s an extra 385 lbs over the sedan.

In standard trim the IS250 sedan as already just an adequate performer, but add almost 400 lbs and even with the fun six-speed manual transmission the 185 ft-lbs of torque doesn’t feel like enough. As a result the 2.5-liter V6 feels taxed and performance is less than thrilling. Lexus rates the car’s 0-60 mph time at 8.4 seconds.

Lifestyle buyers aren’t likely to care much as acceleration is still livable, but performance aficionados should look to the IS 350C. In sedan form the 306hp generated by the larger 3.5-liter V6 is overkill for daily driving, and so even with the addition of 400 lbs the 350 C is a significant serving of fun. Opt for the larger engine and you’ll be treated to a 0-60 mph time of just 5.8 seconds.

Thankfully, to help deal with the added weight Lexus redesigned the suspension somewhat with new shock settings and stiffer springs.

And for those concerned about fuel-economy the IS250 C gets just 18/26 mpg (city/highway) with the manual transmission, and a significantly better 21/29 mpg with the automatic.

FULLY-INTEGRATED SAFETY

A long list of safety features is included on the IS-C with six-airbags, including front, side and knee airbags for the driver and passenger. Standard is the Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management System (VDIM), which brings together all the safety systems, like ABS, Brake Assist, stability control and traction control.

An optional Pre-Collion System can also be ordered with the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which monitors the road ahead and if it detects a crash is imminent with first warn the driver with audio and visual warnings before priming the brakes so they’re ready to work.

THE VERDICT

When it comes to the overall design of the IS C we’re left thinking that while it’s appealing, it doesn’t have a big wow factor. Sure it’s nice looking but it’s not as progressive as the IS was when it first launched. To help solve this you can spice up the looks (and the handling) with some F-Sport goodies and Lexus has also made the IS C available in one of the IS-F’s colors: Ultrasonic Blue Mica.

On the luxury side, it’s hard not to be pleased. We weren’t blown-away, but some of that probably has to do with the fact that all of the models we drove came with the black leather. We’d prefer the lighter alabaster leather, which, along with being more top-down friendly, also gives the cockpit a nice two-tone look with the black dash. On the plus-side there are plenty of comfort and convenience features and with the top down the cabin is perfectly quiet. Still, we’d like to see less cowl shake.

Finally, in terms of performance the IS250 C is definitely what we would call lackluster. Handling is actually quite good, but acceleration on the 250 model is underwhelming.

What always helps to give perspective on a car is the price. At $38,490 to start the IS250 C even undercuts the $40,750 front-drive A4 Cabriolet with the 2.0 TFSI engine. As for the main competitor from BMW, the 328i Convertible, at $44,550, you can get into the IS350 C for less.

At a price like that, Lexus might just be opening up the luxury convertible segment to a whole new group of buyers. In fact, given that the IS250 C successfully fulfills both the luxury and the lifestyle aspects, we’re certain to see a lot of them on the roads in just 12 months time.

PLUS
  • Well-priced
  • Incredibly quiet top-down drive
  • Both a coupe and a convertible and it looks good either way
MINUS
  • Lethargic acceleration
  • Excessive cowl-shake
  • Less-than enthralling design

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