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Preview: 2010 Lexus IS C

2010 Lexus IS C (select to view enlarged photo)
2010 Lexus IS C

SEE ALSO:2010 Lexus IS c Road Trip Video

by Carey Russ
The Auto Channel

The sun is shining, and I'm driving on the Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, California, just south of Los Angeles. With the top down, in a Lexus.

If that sounds like a Hollywood dream scenario, the reality is a bit different. In the movie, there would be no traffic, and the road would be perfectly smooth. In the real world, California is ranked right down with Michigan for road quality, and the pavement varies from almost good to torn-up and mangled, thanks to construction. Which also makes the normally heavy traffic even worse. Hey, even the Orange County coast is in the Los Angeles basin, infamous throughout the world for traffic.

But the car handles it well, like it was meant for this. Top up, or down, there's not a squeak or rattle, and no cowl flex. It's not the now-aging SC. I'm in a new IS 350C, "C" meaning convertible. Like the SC, and most upscale droptops today, the IS-C is a hardtop convertible, with an automated folding metal (mostly aluminum, in this case) top.

While based on the existing IS compact sport-luxury sedan, and offered in both 2.5-liter IS 250C and 3.5-liter IS 350C models, the new Lexus convertible coupe is subtly different from its hardtop brethren. It was, literally, designed from the top down, and features reinforced rocker panels, A- and B-pillars and support structures, and modifications and reinforcements to the floor area to compensate for the loss of the structural top. Extra sound-damping materials and redesigned rear suspension mount bushings help keep it Lexus-quiet, top up or top down.

The top is electrically operated, with no hydraulics. A roof-speed brake control system slows the actuating motors as they reach open or closed position, for smoother operation. One switch operates the roof in 20 seconds, with no manual latching or unlatching necessary.

Although the IS C models are instantly recognizable, they share only their hoods with the sedan. Their two doors are longer than the sedan's front doors, for easier access to the rear seat. The grille, headlights and taillights are different. The IS-C body is a couple of inches longer than the sedan's, thanks to a longer rear section to hold the top and top control hardware. This actually improves the car's weight distribution, although the structural reinforcements, top, and top mechanism adds 350 pounds to the IS 250C and 400 to the IS 350C compared to the sedan versions.

The interior, too, is similar to the IS sedan but subtly different. Consider it an evolutionary upgrade, and call it Version 1.1. The C is strictly a four-seater, with two rear buckets that will hold medium-sized adults comfortably. Access is good with the top up, and even better top-down. Trunk space in some hardtop convertibles is non-existent with the top down. The IS-C is not in that category. Top-up there is allegedly (according to the Lexus presentation) room for two full-size golf bags. Top down, if they're used to carry-on air travel, two people will have no difficulties.

Drivetrains are familiar, with a 2.5-liter V6 with 204 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque in the IS 250C and a 3.5-liter, 306-hp V6 with 277 lb-ft in the IS 350C. Both are twincam, four-valve designs with aluminum heads and block, and both use "VVT-i" variable cam phasing on all camshafts, for improved efficiency and power and reduced emissions. Both use direct fuel injection, allowing higher compression ratios to further increase efficiency; as in the sedan, the 350 also has auxiliary port injection for better operation in light- and medium-load conditions. The IS 250C can be specified with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission; the IS 350C has only the automatic. In either car, the automatic has manual-mode paddle shifting. Both versions of the IS-C are rear-wheel drive only. And there are no plans for an IS-F convertible at this time.

While the convertible's suspension has the same fully-independent, double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension as the sedan, bushings, springs, and shocks are all tuned differently to compensate for the differences in weight and weight distribution. And if there is no IS-F drivetrain, there certainly is some IS-F influence -- as with the sedan, an "F" package sport suspension is available.

And that sport package was on the first car I drove, an IS 350C. While the sportier looks, with larger wheels and lower-profile tires and lowered suspension will catch the eye, the real advantage is improved response and handling, with a minimal decrease in the luxury comfort experience. Ride quality is firm, but still more than acceptably comfortable -- even over rutted construction site surfaces. Body roll is much reduced. I didn't get any opportunity to push the car, no surprise given location and traffic. But I have had some track time in an F-package-equipped IS 350 sedan, and highly recommend the upgrade, and not merely for the look. Personal preference.

Another drive later, in a standard IS 350C, showcased the standard suspension tuning. It's softer, a little quieter, and more, well, Lexus-like. No complaint, as it is a Lexus. And, given the extra weight of the convertible, and the more relaxed nature of a top-down, wind-in-the-hair cruiser, that's just about perfect. If it's more "sporty" than "sports", that's its nature, and a bigger market.

While I had no opportunity to drive a 250, I suspect that it should do as well, especially considering that the luxury convertible niche is more about convertible and comfort than high performance. So in either form, the new Lexus IS convertible is an affordable fun-in-the-sun luxury car that makes no compromise in comfort and weatherproofing when the climate turns bad. Twenty seconds, one button, no worries.

The Lexus IS-C is available now. Prices start at $38,490 for the six-speed IS 250C, $39,660 for the IS 250C automatic, and $43,940 for the IS 350C.