When Lexus researched the target demographic for its IS 250C and IS 350C, respondents were asked what they wanted to do with – and in – their convertibles. When the answers came back, Lexus discovered that no matter how much driving and champagne and sun and moonlight were involved, the scenario always included at least two people doing one thing: engaging in NSFW activities. So the new IS convertible was designed to fulfill those dreams, and according to Lexus, this duo of folding tin-tops represents the automaker's wild side. But does Lexus even have a wild side? Make the jump to find out.
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc
Shot with a Nikon D70 and Nikon 18-200 lens
The IS is classed as an entry-level luxury convertible, and as such, it lines up against competitors like the BMW 328i, Volvo C70, upcoming Audi A5 cabrio and the now-departed Mercedes CLK350 convertible. Despite its various and sundry competition, it's clear that the IS C's design couldn't be confused for anything outside of the Lexus stable. The changes made to its rear-end are thorough and create a compelling and markedly different look from its sedan counterpart (the two don't share any body panels). The front and rear fascias have been redesigned with greater angularity: the front intakes dip lower and the "arrowhead" face is more pronounced, while out back, a high-mounted LED brake light notates an arched deck lid, and the trunk and fascia angles are even more acute, with the taillights nearly piercing the license plate area.
The voluminous back end looks more like the C70 than the 328. The convertible has the same width and wheelbase as the sedan, but it's 2.2-inches longer, and aside from housing the retractable roof, that extra bit of metal visually reduces the IS' heightened rump. From the side, the eye makes an easy sweep over the convertible, aided by the sculpted shoulders where the C-pillar meets the trunk, topped by ridges that glide down to the rear. With the top up, you get 10.8 cubic feet of space – enough, we're told, to fit four folks and their golf bags. With the top down, you'll have 2.36 cubic feet to work with, and if you opt for the run-flat tires, a little bit more.
That junk-swallowing trunk is needed to house "the world's fastest opening three-piece metal hardtop." Fifteen motors and 37 sensors put it away and get it back out in 20 seconds. That's the good part. The not-so-good part is that you can't stow the roof while the car is in motion. Most of the time, this won't make much difference, but if you ever need to put the top up at a stoplight – especially if it's a light you're unfamiliar with – then 20 seconds feels like an archaeological era. If the light turns green while you're still doing your thing, your choice is to drive awkwardly with the top half open or to make everyone else wait. Frankly, if this were the choice that had to be made, we would have taken a slower moving top that could operate at modest speeds.
Underneath that raised roof is where the game of inches is played. The doors are nearly a foot longer than those on the sedan and they open wider, making ingress an easy affair. In a reversal of the usual order, there is an inch more headroom up front. However, it's the typical story for those in the rear: only half an inch less headroom then the sedan, but five inches less leg room, eight inches less shoulder room, and ten inches less hip room. It's not as bad as it might sound – if the driver isn't an NBA guard and he's willing to sacrifice a bit of leg room, a person of average height will be fine for a local trip. But the fixed rear center console takes away the option of sliding around to find a little more room.
Naturally, with any new model from Lexus, there's bound to be new luxury bits on top of the regular luxury bits found in the standard IS. The HVAC output and stereo volume auto-adjust based on the top's position and a solar input control provides increased response to the sun when enjoying the environment. If you opt for the Luxury Package, the ten-way adjustable seats include a one-touch tilt and slide function. Tack on the Intuitive Parking Assist system and radar will detect obstacles towards the rear of the convertible that could impede the operation of the roof. Also new for the IS Convertible: the front seats have increased ventilation for cooling, and the heating elements have been included in the seat shoulders – good stuff for when the top is down in chilly weather. Additionally, Bluetooth music players can be paired for wireless operation, the nav uses an auto-fill feature like predictive text, voice commands can be more informal (e.g. "Call Bob at home"), and there's even an option for Hill Start Assist on manual transmission cars.
There are seven available exterior colors, the most notable being the Ultasonic Blue Mica previously exclusive to the IS F. Inside, the options are alabaster and black, and – this is where that wilder side starts to play – an alabaster and blue two-tone interior. Like the sun that will shine upon it, the two-tone affair is the source of serious polarity. If you like it, it's there for you. If you don't, you're back to black or (off) white. But Lexus' wild side isn't limited to its optional tinted leather hides. It's about the entire package, with an emphasis on the driving experience.
As with the sedan, the IS convertible comes in three flavors: the IS 250C is available with either a six-speed manual or automatic, and IS 350C is packaged exclusively equipped with the self-shifting six-speed. In either model, the automatic comes complete with Sport modes and paddleshifters, and both pack a new – albeit late – feature: the ability to change gears without switching into Sport. Snap the paddles in Drive and you've got full manual control. Don't shift for 15 seconds, and the system reverts back to Drive and resumes control.
A quick refresher on the sedan's dynamics are in order: The six-speed IS 250 four-door covers the fundamentals reasonably well. It's brisk: keep the revs above three grand and you'll hear the sound and feel the urge. It's comforting: the nicely finished cabin has the right controls in the right places. And it handles: the chunky steering wheel offers balanced resistance to inputs, and if you're steady with the controls and pay attention to your line, the IS250 stays admirably flat and composed around corners. It's a 50-50 balance of sport and luxury, with the only issues being a wobbly gearshift (new bushings would fix that) and the snappy brake and clutch (a more involved fix, but two things now synonymous with the brand). It's the kind of sedan that reminds you horsepower isn't everything, as the IS 250 has just 204 hp to motivate its 3,455-pound four-door frame.
Conversely, the motoring story of the IS convertibles versus their four-door stablemate is analogous to those two extra inches in length mentioned earlier: minor details seemed to make outsized differences in the car's behavior.
The IS 250 C maintains all of the static accolades of the sedan, but it left us bereft dynamically with tuning that emphasized luxury over sport. At 3,840 pounds when equipped with a manual gearbox, it weighs almost 400 pounds more than the sedan, and every one of those pounds is devoted to sapping life out of the convertible. Granted, the IS C is 15% stiffer than the four-door and uses a stiffer, revised front and rear suspension, but make no mistake, this convertible is made for the boulevard. From a standstill, 60 mph arrives in an estimated 8.4 seconds – only a half second slower than the sedan (1.7 seconds slower than BMW's 328i manual), but from the driver's seat, it feels far slower than Lexus' claimed five-tenths.
That's probably not all down to the extra weight – both the steering and handling felt like they were set on "shopping." But since that setting composes a healthy portion of the car's active duty, it's not necessarily a bad thing... provided you are more concerned about making the scene than making a tidy line through a corner.
To our enthusiast minds, the 306-hp IS 350C makes a lot more sense. The additional 102 hp and another 66 pounds over the IS 250C makes for a significantly better driving experience. The handling is still more feather pillow than fast sweeper, but all those extra ponies – and the attendant 5.8-second 0-60 mph (1.4 seconds quicker than the 328i auto) – simply smother the soft edges of handling. It goes quicker, rolls a little less, steers a little better, and that makes the IS350 C almost a difference in kind, not just degree, compared to the 250C. You can get things done in this car. And enjoy it a little. And still shop.
If you're among those who want the IS C but don't want to sacrifice anything, know that this is the kind of car that the F-Sport line was made for. Aesthetically, the 19-inch wheels, giant brakes and big blue calipers change the car's look from mere bunny rabbit to something that ought to be called "Thumper." On the 350C, you can leave the engine as is, just add the Bilstein shocks, sway bar kit, and performance exhaust and you'll not only look the business, you'll do it as well.
While Lexus contends that the IS C represents its wilder side, we'd qualify that with: "It depends on what you consider wild." We're talking about the wild side of one of the most historically conservative brands in all of autodome, which means our starting point could be considered further to the right than other brands. If you like your wild on the go, then the IS 350 sedan is practically untamed Africa, the IS 350 C is a great zoo, and the IS 250 C is a petting zoo with a cow, some ducks and a couple of sheep. If you think "wild" means you need to apply sunscreen at stoplights, either IS C fulfills the definition.
Viewed through the lens of brand, if you want a convertible Lexus and you have anywhere from $38,480 to spend on the IS 250 C manual to $43,940 for the IS 350 C (plus $875 for destination), then all you need do is choose a droptop and you'll be happy. And as for those salacious dreams that convertible owners are apparently full of, a quick drive will provide plenty of opportunity to decide whether there's enough soul in this topless model for you. In either case, at least as compared to Lexus' aging SC430, we think that there's more 'wild' in either IS C than there is in a whole year's worth of Animal Planet.
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc