2010 Lexus IS Convertible: First Drive

The 2010 Lexus IS C convertible is rolling into dealerships now, and we hope to bring you a full review as early as July, but I got to tool around in a few pre-production models, so here are some early impressions of the brand's first entry-level convertible, which is based on its IS compact sedan.

Car fans who saw the film "Three Kings," set in the first Gulf War, may remember yelling at the screen as soldiers played by Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube argued over whether Lexus had a convertible. (It didn’t in 1991, when the film was set, and it still didn't when the movie came out in 1999.) It was 10 years after that war — and, coincidentally, just months before the U.S. stormed the Gulf again —  that Lexus introduced its SC 430 convertible as an early 2002 model. Replacing the tragically underrated SC coupe, the convertible's claim to fame was being one of the first retractable hardtops of the modern era — that and being priced above $60,000. Like the second Gulf war, the original SC 430 and its high price remain today ($66,805 for the 2009 model), but Lexus says a redesign is finally in the works. In the meantime, the retractable-hardtop IS 250C with a 2.5-liter V-6 opens its doors for a palatable $38,490. An IS 350C adds a 3.5-liter V-6 and stickers at $43,940.

The C model definitely looks like a Lexus, and more or less like an IS sedan, but it's not because of much shared sheet metal. Only the hood is the same, according to Lexus. It has the clean, buttoned-up look we've come to expect when the top is down, albeit with the trunklid equivalent of a domed hood. There's a nice silhouette when the top's raised, though the black seals between panels look large and unseemly against light-colored paints like the silver IS 250C in our photos. For the top to lower or raise, the trunklid first needs to tilt backward, and this requires some clearance behind the car. Volkswagen's Eos convertible had the same issue — one that raises the possibility of damage if you're parked close to another car or obstacle. Fortunately, Lexus offers a clearance-sonar feature that alerts the driver if there's little clearance behind the car, and even prevents the lid from opening if there's simply no room. It's unclear why the feature is optional when rear parking sensors are standard on the IS.

The trunk is quite roomy when the top is up. Like most retractable hardtops, this one's roof panels lower into the trunk, reducing space dramatically. On the upside, the trunk opening is low and wide, so you can access whatever room remains without additional steps or complexity.

The interior is typical of Lexus in terms of design and quality — both good — and the front-seat room is decent, offering slightly more legroom and more than an inch more headroom than the sedan. As is always the case, the backseat — not large within the compact class to begin with — takes a hit in headroom, hip room, shoulder room and particularly legroom. For what it's worth, with the top down and a short passenger sitting in front of me, I went for a ride that was surprisingly comfortable, except for a backrest that was a bit too upright. I felt notably less comfortable once I climbed out and noticed I had Marge Simpson hair. The wind turbulence in the front seats isn't bad at all, and you can improve it further with a rear-mounted wind-screen, but the add-on characteristically blocks off the backseat entirely. There's simply nothing for backseat passengers to do but wear a hat or find a “Simpsons” theme party.

The driving experience is similar to the sedans'. The engines and transmissions are the same, with a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic with the IS 250, but only the automatic with the IS 350. Bummer. The convertibles come only with rear-wheel drive; the IS 250 sedan has all-wheel drive as an option. Presumably, if you want a convertible all-wheel drive is less important, though one could argue that a retractable hardtop makes for a much better four-season car than a soft-top. That said, all-wheel drive adds weight....

With the added weight associated with a convertible, the IS 250C is already pokier than the already modestly powered IS 250 sedan. With the six-speed automatic version I drove, the 250C is quick enough to satisfy most buyers, but it's difficult to call it sporty when the competition includes the likes of BMW's 3 Series and Infiniti's G37. Lexus estimates a 0-60 mph time of 8.4 seconds for the 250C. The IS 350C provides markedly greater hustle from its smooth-revving V-6 — an estimated 5.8 seconds to 60 mph, according to Lexus. The ride quality is firm but comfortable, even in the backseat, and the models I drove were reasonably rigid for convertibles — though one 250C rode firmer and felt looser than a 350C, despite having the same wheels and tires, so we'll have to see what we get when final-production models hit the road.

As for the handling, the front/rear weight distribution is cited as 50/50 for all versions, and that makes for a nice balance, though it's not as easy to overcome the IS 250C's weight or manage its attitude when powering out of turns with the lesser engine. The 350C's greater power makes it more fun, but the lack of a stick shift is as much a downer here as it is in the sedan. Unfortunately, my initial impression of the IS C is that it suffers the same shortcoming as many Lexus models before it: Despite looking good on paper and doing what you expect a sporty car to do, there's something missing. The model that practically overcame this was the original IS 300, but somehow the current IS generation marked a step backward. It's difficult to explain and even to describe because cars don't have emotion, but they do have an ability to evoke emotion, and those that can often do so universally, not just here and there for some drivers but not others.

Lexus will offer F-Sport parts for the IS C, including a sport-shift kit; a performance clutch, brakes and exhaust; sport-tuned suspension components; and ultra-light 19-inch wheels. I don't know if these parts could address what I'm talking about here ... though they look pretty cool. I'll have to drive the new Infiniti G convertible to know for sure, but if it's anything like the G-to-IS sedan comparison, there won't be much of a comparison.

The warriors of "Three Kings" finally got their answer when an Infiniti M30 ragtop blew up in a way the actual model's sales never had, with a run that ended after its second model year. I have no doubt that the IS C will satisfy more buyers; convertible owners tend to be less concerned overall about sporty performance, which is why manual transmissions are even more rare in droptops than in sedans and coupes. Let's hope this one isn't accompanied by more armed conflict just months after its release. If it is, we might need to ask Lexus and Infiniti to get out of the convertible business.

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