When Lexus chopped the top off the IS model, it not only added a convertible to its lineup, but made some much-needed updates to the cabin tech. The 2010 Lexus IS 350 C uses a retractable hard top. We like the extra weather protection provided by a hard top over a soft top, but aren't as keen on how the new top changes the car's profile, which looked just fine on the.
This Transformer-like folding top also means a reduction in usable space: when the top is down, the trunk is limited to a narrow band, barely big enough for a single golf bag. Where the standard IS has four doors, the IS C loses the rear doors, although Lexus assists entry to the back seats with power forward buttons on the front seat shoulders.
Using the same power train as the standard IS 350, a 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic, the Lexus IS 350 C feels powerful from the moment you press the engine start button. The electroluminescent gauge needles do a little dance as the engine turns over, tracing the circumference of speedometer and tachometer before settling into their jobs.
Trunk space is sacrificed for the retractable hard top.
That engine produces a peak 306 horsepower at 6,400rpm and 277 pound-feet of torque at 4,800rpm, enough to make 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to Lexus. With variable-valve timing and direct injection, the engine works efficiently at high revolutions per minute, but at lower rpms it actually switches to a set of secondary port injectors to lessen engine noise.
To really get the IS 350 C going, a switch on the dash puts it into power mode, making the accelerator more responsive. That switch also controls a snow mode, reducing torque to the rear wheels to limit wheel spin in slippery conditions. The transmission also has sport and manual modes, making it clear that Lexus intends the IS 350 C as a sports car as well as a summer cruiser.
The power mode substantially changes throttle response.
Testing out the car's sporting characteristics on mountain roads, we found it really wanted to take off initially, the engine putting plenty of power to the rear wheels, convincing us it would be an able BMW 3-series competitor. In sport mode, the transmission did a reasonable job of keeping the engine speed high, although it wasn't too aggressive. In manual mode, gear shifts were not particularly sharp, cursed by the automatic transmission's torque converter. Lexus doesn't make a manual transmission available on the IS 350 C.
Even with the transmission, the car feels like a good sports car up to the first six tenths of hard driving, but, pushing it further, things start to go a little haywire. Diving into a corner at speed, understeer reared its ugly head, and attempts to correct it with more throttle caused the suspension to feel unsettled, leaving the steering vague. Body roll was also very apparent, along with significant suspension travel. Lexus sells a line of performance parts designed for the IS, so some of these handling issues could be corrected with a suspension upgrade, although that would mean a harsher ride.
From the car's interior materials, it's clear it leans a little more toward luxury than sport. Soft plastics over the dashboard have a texture that suggests quality. The leather seats are power adjustable, comfortable, and ventilated, with controls for heating and cooling on the console, a nice extra with a convertible. Buttons on the center stack and steering wheel are all well-designed, and show good fit and finish. With the top up, there is a soft headliner material that feels like felt. Not many cars carry off this extreme feeling of comfort and luxury, even from well-known brands such as Mercedes-Benz.
Cabin materials look and feel good in the IS 350 C.
When Lexus launched the IS in 2005, its cabin tech was cutting-edge for the time, but had then long slipped behind the curve. A few important additions to the cabin tech suite return it close to, but not quite level with, the competition.
The navigation system now stores its maps on a hard drive, and the menu graphics look updated. With its touch screen, it was always a very usable system, letting you make destination inputs on its virtual keyboard. But the system now features live traffic, showing traffic flow and incident information on major roads where available. When route guidance is active, the system will warn about traffic obstructions ahead, but getting it to calculate a detour requires three button pushes. We would prefer either automatic rerouting or the system to surface a detour button as soon as a traffic problem is detected.
Other than the traffic feature, this navigation system is pretty basic, lacking advanced features such as text-to-speech or even 3D maps. The associated voice command system is a workable alternative for entering destinations, and necessary while the car is in motion, as you can enter saved destinations only when the wheels are turning.
This onscreen keyboard is very usable for entering destinations, but gets disabled when the car is in motion.
We were impressed to find that the voice command system extends to a seriously upgraded Bluetooth phone system. First of all, the Bluetooth system now downloads a paired phone's contacts to the car, making them available on the touch screen. Better yet, the voice command lets you dial contacts by name, a system that worked well in our testing.
Stereo Bluetooth streaming is also included as a source for the car's audio system, along with iPod integration, something that had been missing from the IS line previously. Those audio sources are standard, although our car also had the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system, which adds a six CD/DVD changer to the dash. This Mark Levinson upgrade is a 5.1 channel system, and can play video on the car's LCD when it is parked. Other audio sources include satellite radio, MP3 CDs, and a USB port. Only the iPod integration allows music selection by artist, album, and genre.
Dial-by-name is a new and welcome voice command feature for the car's Bluetooth system.
Sound quality from the Mark Levinson system is excellent, well balanced throughout the frequency range, producing clear highs and sufficiently strong bass. There are 12 speakers in all, including a center channel and subwoofer, and we were impressed to see three speaker towers in each front door, with a woofer at the bottom, mids in the center section of the doors, and tweeters up at the A pillars. Even with that array of speakers, the sound is nicely staged, so neither driver nor front seat passenger gets overwhelmed by left or right audio output. At only 270 watts, the amplifier is a little weak--this system won't be setting off car alarms down the street.
The 2010 Lexus IS 350 C is a comfortable convertible cruiser for two, with room for four but no luggage in a pinch. Its sports car pretensions go only so far, though, just holding up for moderately hard driving. Its performance tech is good--a notch above average--earning that position for the strong engine feel with its adjustable modes. The convertible top negatively impacts its design, forcing a banal drop at the back of the cabin, and completely draining trunk space when folded up. But it earns back a few design points for the very usable interface, the clean-looking interior, and the uniquely Lexus grille. For cabin tech, Lexus addressed some of the most important features lacking in its fixed-roof sibling, but it's still not at the front of the class.
|Model||2010 Lexus IS 350 C|
|Powertrain||Direct injection 3.5-liter V-6|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional navigation system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible six disc CD/DVD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, USB drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Optional Mark Levinson 12 speaker 270 watt system|
|Driver aids||Rear view camera, Adaptive headlights|
|Price as tested||$52,580|