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IS + SC = Lexus IS C

CNET Car Tech takes a spin in the new Lexus IS 250 C and 350 C.

Lexus IS 350 C w/F Sport accessories
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

With the poorly selling SC 430 on the chopping block, Lexus found itself in need of a sexy luxury convertible to generate some excitement around the brand.

The IS sedan is about the same size as the SC and much better-looking. In IS 350 trim, it also extracts more horsepower from its 3.5-liter V-6 than the SC can from its 4.3-liter V-8. So, rather than update the aging SC, Lexus transplanted an updated version of its three-panel aluminum folding roof onto the IS sedan and, with a little massaging, the IS C was born.

The IS C goes from hardtop to topless in 20 seconds, which is 5 seconds faster than the SC 430.

Lexus IS 250 C rear
The IS' back end has been overhauled to accommodate the new folding roof. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

With the exception of the new roof and two fewer doors, the IS C looks identical to the sedan. Upon closer inspection, we can see that the aesthetics have been tweaked to better fit the IS C's sporty open-air attitude. In fact, we're told that the IS and the IS C share almost no sheet metal. Of course, this is most notable around back, where the IS' tail lamps have been reworked and its rump raised to accommodate the retractable hardtop.

On paper, IS C still seats four passengers. In reality, passengers will find that the rear seats have been shifted forward by 5 inches, compromising leg room.

In the cabin, an optional Mark Levinson audio system sounds fantastic, thanks to a tweaked version of Automatic Sound Leveling that not only adjusts volume for vehicle speed, but also adjusts the equalizer to compensate for the loss of bass that comes with open-air listening. Perhaps it was our ears playing tricks on us, but the IS C's stereo actually sounds better when the vehicle is rolling than it does at a stop, which is quite an impressive feat.

IS C technology package
The navigation package may look the same, but it has been updated with more features and snappier response. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The rest of the cabin tech package has also been massaged and updated over the rather dated system in the IS sedan, although you wouldn't know it by looking. Externally, the only change that we noted was the inclusion of a USB/iPod connection as a standard part of the Technology Package (rather than a dealer installed option) and moving that input into the center console where it joins the analog auxiliary input.

However, after spending time with the IS C, we learned that Lexus' new natural voice command system is now a part of the IS' tech package. Users are able to speak informal commands such as "Turn up the heat." or "Ring Antuan at work." and the system is able to understand what is theory. In practice, we weren't able to get the system to respond to any of our informal commands and eventually settled on using the more rigid, preprogrammed commands to which we were accustomed. Perhaps we were too informal with our commands for the Lexus, or maybe our voice was just annoying to the IS C's computer, but most likely this preproduction vehicle still has some kinks that need working out.

A2DP Bluetooth audio streaming has joined hands-free calling as part of the Tech Package, although the system requires two separate pairings for the two wireless protocols. However, because most users will only ever have to pair a device once, this is only a minor annoyance.

Additionally, the navigation system's routing to be snappier, thanks to a switch to a hard-drive-based system. Much like the 2010 RX 450h we tested earlier this year, the hard drive doesn't seem to offer the ability to rip songs to the hard drive.

On the road, the IS C models felt remarkably similar to their IS Sedan analogs. Both IS C models gain 15 percent more chassis stiffness over their fixed-roofed siblings yet still manage to feel less solid. Additionally that chassis stiffness comes with what feels like a bit of weight gain.

The moderate increase in mass made the smaller-displacement IS 250 C feel slightly more sluggish during straight line acceleration. According to the numbers, it's only half a second slower to 60 than the sedan, but from behind the wheel the 250 C feels like its being overworked.

On the other hand, the beefier IS 350 C handles the increased heft with ease and, oddly, feels more balanced than the 250 C. Regardless of power train, the IS C is much better suited for Boulevard cruising than back road blitzing.

Overall, our first impressions of the IS C were positive. We like the direction that Lexus is taking with the cabin tech, incremental as it may be. We also like how the convertible maintains the spirit of the sedan, while appealing to a completely different kind of driver.