Lexus IS 350 C — Fulfilling a wish

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

You have always wanted just one convertible experience in your life, but for a variety of reasons you were never able to make the purchase, but you still have a passion for an open-air machine even as you figure the time for such extravagance has slipped away.

Here’s the truth, it is never too late to fulfill that want and Lexus has just the ticket, a new-for-2010 steel top convertible that for most of the time performs as a luxury coupe with all the Lexus trappings and a Lexus-quiet interior. And for those occasions when you want to indulge in open-air enjoyment, the IS 350 C is ready to comply. Simply hold down the top-open button for around 20 seconds and you will be rewarded with a very solid, refined convertible; and a wish come true.

As Lexus retires its first steel-top convertible, the SC 430 — which hit showrooms as a 2002 model — it has developed a more affordable and more user-friendly vehicle with the capability to hold four adults and a decent amount of cargo with the top up. While the SC was a technological juggernaut when it hit the streets nearly a decade ago, it has grown a bit long in the tooth; and for 2010 carries a starting price of around 70 grand.

The new-for-2010 IS convertible is based on the compact IS sports sedan and carries the IS wedge-shaped styling theme from the front bumper through the front door, as well as the same interior layout and features.

It also carries the same engine configurations, a 2.5-liter V-6 making 204 horsepower in the IS 250 C and a 3.5-liter V-6 making 306 horsepower in the IS 350 C.

For this report we drove the 350, but we spent seat time in a 250 last year. We found the 350 more satisfying, especially when you consider that the Lexus falls into the luxury category. If you desire a manual transmission, it’s available with the 250.

The difference between the 250 and 350 is price, the features list and interior amenities are nearly identical in both vehicles although the 350 has a few items of standard equipment not found on the 250. The IS 250 C starts at $41,485 for the automatic (the manual base is $40,315) and the IS 350 C begins at $44,815 inclusive of destination charges. Our 350 C test vehicle was priced at $53,080 including charges for its 18-inch alloy wheels, a luxury package, park assist, and a navigation package that featured a Mark Levinson 270-watt audio system.

The satisfaction comes in performance. The rear-driven IS 350, mated to six-speed automatic, is rated at between 5.2 and 5.5 seconds depending on what magazine time you prefer. The power is seamless and quiet, and with the top down can be exhilarating.

The Lexus has been knocked in some performance circles as not as adept a handling machine on the twists and turns as, say, the BMW 3-Series. But the criticism is rather shallow because the Lexus is no slouch in back-road performance while at the same time offering an extremely comfortable ride (not necessarily a strong point with the Bimmer) and a incredibly quiet interior.

The IS 250’s 204 horses may be enough for a lot of prospective owners. It is rated at an acceptable 8.4 seconds from 0-to-60, has a less expensive purchase price, and handily wins the gas mileage sweepstakes rated at 21mpg city and 29 mpg highway. The bigger engine settles for 18-city and 25-highway.

Our complaint with the Lexus convertible — and it’s a big one — is with the rear styling. It seems that Lexus designers and engineers did not do enough to conceal the hard top, opting for a bubble butt of rather magnificent proportions. We think they could have done more to conceal the bulbous rear end. Check out the BMW to get an idea of a more sophisticated design. If this bothers you, but you are sold on the IS otherwise, check it out in a dark color, which helps smooth out the look.

And there are other problems: when the top is up the roof design limits visibility to the rear. We recommend the rear-view camera for stress-free backing. Additionally, with the steel top up we occasionally experienced roof rattle depending on road surfaces and there was also some noisy rubbing of the rear right headrest against the top. To Lexus’ credit, it has created a extremely taut car with the top down. The dreaded cowl shake is not found in this one solid piece of open-air machinery.

Trunk space with the top up is excellent with enough room to store a couple sets of golf clubs or several roller-bags. Space shrinks dramatically with the top down because of the sling that the top rests in and the space needed to insure a smooth operation. With the top down the rear seat makes an excellent package tray for stuff, but human cargo will find it near impossible to be comfortable top up or down for more than a few mile ride.

Automotive refinement is not only found in the car’s drivability, but in its quality interior where fit and finish is superb. It certainly doesn’t take more than a few miles behind the wheel to discover what differentiates a non-luxury convertible from the Lexus.

We think Toyota navigation is among the best and the system in the IS did not change our opinion. The maps are readable and the instructions are intuitive. Also, all the switchgear in the 35 C is easily discernible and gauges are easy to read and information in readily available.

But we have a problem with the navigation-equipped Lexus vehicles. The system forces you to go to the screen to hit radio pre-sets and to carry out climate control functions. We wish Lexus would follow the same route as several other luxury car makers and keep highly used radio functions and climate functions separate from the navigation screen.

Lexus has hit the convertible sweet spot putting large doses of Lexus quality into the IS making it a viable option for people who desire sophisticated top down motoring while benefiting from the security a hard top brings. This convertible could be just that one you have always wanted.

Base price: $44,485; as driven, $53,080
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 306 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 277 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.5 inches
Length: 182.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,880 pounds
Turning circle: 33.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 25 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 5.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW 3-Series, Audi A5, Infiniti G37

The Good:
• All-weather steel top
• High-quality interior
• Satisfying performance
• Large trunk with top up

The Bad:
• Radio and climate controls must be accessed through navigation screen

The Ugly:
• Large bubble butt detracts from overall look