Here’s something you need to know about the 2010 Lexus IS350C convertible: my mother loves it. She stole the keys from me and drove it to work one day, and I’ll be damned, her middle-aged female co-workers went joyriding in it, like back in high school: they crammed into the Matador Red Mica convertible and sped off to Dairy Queen, waving their arms in the air. They had taken a photo of their shenanigans and blown it up to poster size, where it made its way to the lobby and presumably into two or three Christmas cards. You’d think Richard Gere had shown up that day, the way my mother went on about it.
“You’re going to have to buy me one of these!” one suggested to her husband that afternoon.
“Yeah, maybe when I hit the ($52,605) jackpot,” he retorted.
To some people, the hardtop convertible is an exercise in cynicism: the heavy top kills the trunk space, cutting off the top makes it wobbly, you’re better off buying a coupe of some sort. But to others, the Lexus is an event: perhaps a reflection of the Lexus’s middle-aged, upper-class target audience, for those who aren’t bothered with 0-60 times and think autocross is slang for some new street drug. Autocrossing certainly isn’t something you’d want to attempt with this car. And you know what? That’s fine with me.
The 350 in the IS350C’s trendy alphanumeric name indicates the aluminum 3.5-liter V6 engine, hiding somewhere under all that equally trendy plastic sheathing. With variable-valve timing and direct injection it is good for 306 horsepower and 277 lb/ft of torque—figures that feel adequate, if not overpowering. I timed its 0-60mph at 5.9 seconds, a tick below the manufacturer’s clearly far more scientific official time of 5.8, even with three other people cramming its four perforated leather seats. Power delivery is smooth until around 5500 RPM, when the six-speed transmission kicks down and roars into life; while the car came with the requisite paddle shifters as expected in a token nod to “sportiness,” they were slow to react and utterly gimmicky.
As a result, don’t expect to live out your Montoya fantasies in this car, chiefly because of its 3880-lb curb weight—a 500-lb increase over the sedan. This heft gives it little semblance of speed, staying planted up and past legal highway speeds: squeeze the pedal firmly enough, watch the needle climb all the way to its 6600-RPM limiter (in Sport mode, anyway), and blammo!, you’re at 100mph without even realizing it. The Lexus feels most comfortable at this speed, with the top down on an empty, moonlit stretch of interstate, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club quietly crooning away through all eight of its speakers. Top speed is an electrically governed 141mph, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the car felt just as solid there as well, top down or not.
From a standstill, the throttle is surprisingly jumpy for a car of such caliber—if your foot is heavy, every stoplight launch turns into a hole shot. It’s possible to break the rear end out in a cacophony of tire squeal until the traction control blinks—hold down the button to turn it “off,” but you can never entirely get rid of the damn thing. It’s a Lexus, remember? The steering is nicely weighted, but it never lets you forget that the car is almost two tons heavy—the famous Lexus ride is set back by a little cowl shake and a few creaks emanating from the rear, no doubt because of its hack-and-slash convertible conversion. I couldn’t imagine driving the Lexus’s kid brother, the IS250C, with almost 100 less horsepower and the same amount of weight, as gutless as a butcher’s window.
Nor would I be willing to hustle the Lexus around corners: like the accordion, it’s a pursuit a gentleman can do, but doesn’t. Best to relax, take a breather, cruise at semi-legal speeds, and take in the beautifully-trimmed interior.
What you notice first when climbing in is the steering wheel, which rises upwards and tilts downward into full-attack driving position with a whirr. LEDs abound: LEDs in the footwells, LEDs in the glovebox, LEDs in the trunk, LEDs in the center console where you stash your iPod (taking up valuable cupholder space, annoyingly), LEDs lighting up the “LEXUS” embossed doorsills (part of the $6,840 Premium Package), LEDs above the rearview mirror that illuminate the shifter, presumably in case the driver forgot where he put it. It’s a handsome, if slightly dull, interior, trimmed in soft tan leather and dark grey Bird’s-Eye Maple wood trim that was thankfully kept to a minimum: nothing screams “HEY, LOOK AT THIS LUGG-JURY” than slabs of shiny, processed trees. Sorry, Jaguar owners, the IS is far more modern than that.
Taking up center stage is a touch screen featuring Lexus’s Enform system, which included satellite radio, voice activation, automatic climate control, live traffic updates, XM Sports and Stocks, an angry red button alarmingly labeled “SOS” (for Lexus’s accident-response Safety Connect feature), Bluetooth. I didn’t play with any of these features, mainly because my phone dates back to the Clinton administration. But I did play with the iPod connection, which was intuitive, albeit slow: it hijacks your iPod and wrests control away to the screen, which then forces you to scroll down your list of artists—slowly. Painfully slow and unresponsive also describes the GPS navigation and the act of punching in addresses, which is blocked from the driver if the car is so much as rolling forward to a stop. Did Lexus expect that its drivers didn’t have passengers at their behest? Maybe Lexus drivers don’t have friends? The GPS did show the location of passing airplanes, presumably in case you needed a wish right now.
The front seats are firm, but supportive. They’re also heated and cooled, with small fans that would have been more effective if I had driven without pants. I didn’t want to imagine how big the ensuing bill would be if someone was to spill a Big Gulp through its leather perforations.
These powered, programmable seats tilt forward at the touch of a button to allow rear-seat egress; those stuck in the back will find a carefully contoured pair of seats, low and snug like sitting in a baseball glove. Unlike Lexus’s last attempt at a convertible, the ancient SC430 currently languishing in Special Edition Hell, there’s actually room for, say, people with functioning legs of average adult size. The big heavy roof overhead can be a burden: headroom with the top up is a hair over my own 5’5” head. And rear visibility, blocked by the roll hoops and two sets of headrests, is about the size of a loaf of bread and akin to peering through a surgical opening.
Of course, putting the roof down alleviates both problems. Which I tried for the first time in a 7-11 parking lot, impressing the hell out of a gang of Slurpee-chugging high school kids presumably breaking curfew. “Izzat your car?” one girl screamed. “That’s sooo cool!”
Cool, indeed. The top takes 28 seconds to fold down, according to my friend’s stopwatch. And during my week with the Lexus, I never got tired of it—it is a precision array of engineering, a dramatic mechanical ballet that I ended up showing off to every one of my friends (hey, you would too, wouldn’t you?). Impressive to see from the driver’s seat, even more so when viewed from a distance. Which is a luxury left ungranted to the driver, as the dash-mounted rocker switch must be held down until the LCD screen between the gauges triumphantly proclaims, “OPERATION COMPLETE.” What, deprive the driver of everybody else’s fun? For shame, Lexus!
In order to put the top down, however, first a plastic divider must be positioned in the trunk, to cordon off room for the complex folding hardtop. Which leaves an embarrassingly small amount of room; enough for maybe a messenger bag, or, keeping in accordance with its target audience, half a set of golf clubs.
If the Lexus is to be used as a daily driver, imagine taking it grocery shopping: because of the measly amount of space in the back, you would have to put your bags of Cheetos in the backseat. Which exposes them to miscreants and the elements, so you put the top up. The irony, then, is that this creates more room in the trunk, which you then stash your groceries in, which defeats the purpose of putting the top up, etc. This is a problem on any car with a folding metal roof.
The best solution, then, is to ditch the groceries and (as we’ve already established that the rear seats are actually useful) find 3 of your friends to embark in general douchebaggery. We did what anybody with a newly-acquired car, anywhere in the world, does: we drove it to downtown Boston to show it off to girls. Friday night with the top down, blasting Jay-Z through its eight speakers, is the Lexus’s natural habitat. And while we did get a few looks from females, including one in a 1998 Maxima with a license plate that read “SWINKY,” we also got side glances from everyone else: cops, bouncers, gas station attendants, plumbers in Econolines. It’s great fun if, my friend declared, “you’re a 20-something who like stylin’ on ‘em.” What does that mean? I haven’t the faintest idea. All that Jay-Z must have gotten to his head.
Make no mistake: the Lexus is a deeply cool car, one that will cause mothers to swoon and friends to buy you drinks. The regular IS was always a handsome car, with a front end that was clean and well-arranged, without being overly aggressive. And from the A-pillar forward, it’s standard IS fare. But there’s about a mile of bodywork between the rear wheelarches and the top of the trunk, and with the top up its sloping roofline curls backwards like a swimmer’s cap, or the ass-end of a Morris Minor (note: this is the only time a Lexus will be compared with a 1940s British product). Even with the top down it manages to be both squat and short, reminiscent of another fine Toyota product—one on the opposite end of the class spectrum, the Scion tC.
The Infiniti G37 is perhaps its closest competitor, other than the pesky Germans (and maybe a Swede or two). And the G37 certainly pulls off the coupe-to-convertible transition with less lost in translation than the Lexus—visually, at least. Of course, Infiniti has its own standalone coupe, while Lexus does not—but hey, this still shouldn’t stop them from bringing back the SportCross.
The sticker on the Lexus starts at $44,890, and this model—with its aforementioned $6,840 Premium Package, which even includes a cigarette lighter—is smack-dab in the middle of the segment. The cynics will inevitably deride this as Lexus’s attempt at carbon-copying BMW to every minute detail. Others will claim that it’s still cheaper—almost $20k cheaper—than the Botox-discount special known as the SC430, and represents as much of an evolutionary leap over that model as Stephen Hawking does over a three-toed sloth. But the fact of the matter is, Lexus has built a comfortable, classy, relatively good-looking tourer that won’t spill your drink into the wind at 120mph, and will still impress your friends.
Just hide the keys from your mother.
Disclosure: Toyota provided the car, insurance, and a full tank of gas for this review.
[Photo credits: Keqing Song Photography]
Keqing Song is a photographer, zombie hunter extraordinaire, and all-around bad dude with a portfolio that’s definitely worth checking out. I like the guy so much, I’m not even being paid to say this. Though I might sucker him into buying me a beer.