When Toyota launched Lexus in 1989, it had one goal in mind: Beat the Germans at the luxury game. And for a while, at least, they did exactly that. The LS400 didn't change everything, but it manifested a shift in the luxury paradigm. However, the LS400 was at the top of the heap, competing against the mighty S-Class from Mercedes-Benz and the 7 Series from BMW (Audi and Cadillac were both in their basket case phases and not really competing with anyone). Towards the bottom of the luxury pile sat the Lexus ES 250. Despite being the nicest Camry ever built, it was most definitely Glass Joe to the BMW 3 Series' Mike Tyson in the entry level luxury/performance punch out.
After more than a decade, Lexus eventually realized that no matter how refined it made the front-wheel-drive, Camry-based ES lineup, it simply couldn't compete with the sportiness inherent to the rear-wheel-driven 3 Series. As such, it introduced the sporty IS 300 in 2001. While the IS featured some killer features – chronograph style gauges, pop-up navigation screen, manual transmission, a wagon body style and sporty dynamics – its rear seat was so tiny it got classified as a subcompact. Despite some fans, it just wasn't in the same league as the 3 Series, and as you might expect, sales remained lackluster in the U.S.
Finally, in 2006 Lexus launched the current generation IS. Available with a 2.5-liter (IS 250) or 3.5-liter (IS 350) V6, the second-generation IS became the first Lexus product that could credibly compete with BMW's dominant 3 Series, as well as the surging Infiniti G35. Then came the hopped-up IS-F, with a 5.0-liter V8 that cranked out 416 horsepower, two ponies more than the 414-hp V8 motor in the M3. Lexus need not make any excuses for the brute IS-F. While Lexus continues to shy away from the full-fledged 3 Series battle royal by not bringing out a two-door or a wagon, it has released a hardtop convertible variant called the IS 350C. We got our hands on a nearly murdered-out variant, the IS 350C F-Sport. Our thoughts and impressions are available after the jump.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
As a rule, we're typically not fans of compromised cars. As a second rule, hard top convertibles tend to be compromised. The folding metal top adds weight, complexity, kills luggage space and generally makes the car look awkward, if not outright hunchbacked. When unfolded (admittedly it is a treat to watch such metal tops unfurl), the roof is not as stiff as a true coupe, nor is the cabin as quiet. Granted, there are vehicles like the Mazda Miata Hard Top Convertible that manages to skirt most of these issues, but the folding metal is still a 70-pound weight penalty, which in Miata terms is beaucoup heavy. It should come as no surprise, then, that the IS 350C F-Sport is fairly well compromised, straight from the drawing board. However, the upside is... it's a convertible. We have a real weak spot for droptops. That said we're pretty certain that barring the LF-A, this is the loudest Lexus ever made. Problem is, loud isn't exactly part of the brand's DNA.
That said, it's a decent looking car. With the top up, the folding roof's extra trunk space hump does make the car appear slightly deformed, but no worse than a Volvo C70 or Ferrari California. What it does manage to do is make the rear wheels look tiny – not a good thing when you shelled out $2,196 for those fancy F-Sport alloys and tires. That said, the gunmetal wheels are gorgeous, one of the best looking sets we've seen on a production vehicle – especially when set off by the bright blue F-Sport brake calipers. Be advised, however, that you're talking about $5,575 for the brake upgrade, and all-in you're looking at $12,190 for the complete set of F-Sport mods. While some of the additions are merely cosmetic (e.g. carbon fiber engine cover and shift knob), unlike Audi's S-Line, most are actually performance enhancing (e.g. shorter springs and fatter sway bars).
Inside, it's a totally different story. It's not terrible, but it is like entering a time machine set to the middle of last decade. Since the IS line debuted in 2007, we've met the updated Infiniti G, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Cadillac CTS and Audi A4, all of which feature vastly more modern interiors. The BMW E90 3 Series has been around since 2005, but it, too, went through a mid-cycle refresh in 2008 that upgraded its interior. In the Lexus, the switchgear feels old, the buttons are a bit tacky and the seats are just sort of there, not particularly noteworthy in any way. Again, nothing is particularly bad, but it just feels out of date – with one exception.
Special anti-props are reserved for the navigation system, which is as appetizing as last night's sushi. The
As for the driving, the song remains the same. Perhaps it's more a mark of how spoiled we've become, but the 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque that the aluminum 3.5-liter V6 churns out feels... lacking. That said, we've driven the IS 350 four-door and found it anything but wanting more power, so we'll chalk up the 350C's anemic feeling to its 3,880 pound curb weight. That's more than three hundred pounds heavier than the IS 350's relatively light 3,527 pounds. Also, the 3,880-pound weight is what the standard, non F-Sport IS 350C weighs.
We'd guess that the beefier brakes, thicker sway bars, heavier dampers, high-performance exhaust and cold air intake add an additional one hundred pounds – at least. That said, the forged wheels are 20 pounds lighter than stock and the intake and exhaust add about a dozen horsepower. Still, for a 320-ish horsepower car (Lexus just said it's 3% more powerful than stock) the IS 350C F-Sport feels sluggish. For $62,216, you would think there would be a way to include the 416-hp 5.0-liter V8 from the macho IS-F – especially considering the fact that the IS-F starts at $58,460 and doesn't offer many options. The real kicker is that you just know there's an IS 350C running around Japan laying down fat strips of rubber with the IS-F's motor.
While forward thrust is not the IS 350C F-Sport's forte, its lateral moves are quite excellent. Again, the F-Sported shocks, springs and sway bars greatly improve the steering feel and side-to-side maneuvers over the regular IS. The fat Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires (225/35/19 front, 285/35/19 rear) also help the IS 350C F-Sport grip like LockJaw pliers. Seriously, for the amount of forward thrust you get, this car is laughably over-tired. Massive grip plus a responsive chassis with better-than-average steering feel equals lots of grins on a good road. One caveat: If you find yourself on a road full of constant switchbacks, you begin to notice the car's weight. And a bit of cowl shake/groan. The folding hardtop F-Sport simply doesn't want to change direction all that quickly. Go figure. That said, the brakes are truly fantastic and capable of hauling the portly Lexus to a standstill in a passenger-startling manner.
And then there's the transmission. Up until this point, everything about the Lexus IS 350C F-Sport has been a mixed bag (except the nav system, which is bad). It's a little funny looking, but we love convertibles. It's kinda slow, but it handles well. The interior's bad, but the brakes are stupendous. However, when it comes to this six-speed dog of a manu-matic cog swapper, there are no ifs, ands or buts. It's just really bad, even in Sport mode. Under normal acceleration, the transmission wants to shift from first to fourth gear almost instantly, and you'll find yourself in sixth gear by 40 mph. That's not sporting, let alone F-Sporting. The faux-paddles might be the worst-case scenario of "hurry up and wait" we've ever experienced pulling on. It feels like a full second transpires before your input gets translated into a different gear. And insult is heaped upon injury when you remember that the IS-F's eight-speed paddle-shifted autobox proves Lexus knows how to build the fastest shifting automatic on earth. They just elected to not stick that transmission, or any form of decent gearbox, in the IS 350C F-Sport.
Which leaves us... we're not sure exactly where. Driving around Los Angeles for a week, it became quite apparent that the IS 350C F-Sport has that all important X-factor that Angelenos find so important. Valets went gaga over it, while our friends' wives loved it even more. As for us, we just couldn't get past the dated interior, the lousy transmission and the money. In case you missed it, $62,216 as tested. We already mentioned Lexus's own IS-F costs less, but you could buy a BMW M3 Coupe and still have four thousand bucks left over. Moreover, this is Corvette Grand Sport Convertible territory. All three of the cars we just mentioned feature more than 400 hp and will light your hair on fire in a straight line. The IS 350C F-Sport meanwhile, just kinda loudly humps around town with its baffling gearbox and pretty wheels. All things considered, we're just not that into her.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.