2010 Lexus IS 350 Convertible Review
By Chris Haak
Early December in the northeastern US is not an ideal time in which to evaluate a convertible – at least the all-important top-down aspects of that type of car. Fortunately, I had some top-down seat time in the exact same Starfire Pearl (white) IS-C back in September. So, unlike other convertibles that I’ve had the opportunity to review such as the BMW 128i, Infiniti G37, and Mazda MX-5 Miata, I was not about to slather sunblock on my fair-skinned person five out of the seven December days I had the car in my possession, simply because I’d freeze to death in doing so. In spite of this, I did survive a 10-mile, 52-degree trip with the top down (not wearing an overcoat, just a sport coat, and with the heater and seat warmers both on full blast). I was shivering when I finally decided to close the roof, and was amazed at how the world suddenly calmed down.
Driving the IS 350C with the top closed, however, reminds one very much of the experience that one encounters in driving the IS-C’s sedan counterpart. It had been about a year and a half since I last drove an IS 350 sedan, but all of the things I liked about the sedan – powerful engine, smart six-speed automatic transmission, top-notch (though cramped) interior – are also present in the convertible version.
With the convertible, there’s less of some things relative to the sedan – namely, passenger space in the back seat, the number of doors, and luggage space – and more of some things – namely weight added to allow for a power folding retractable hardtop and the necessary chassis stiffening. In fact, the convertible adds almost 400 pounds to the sedan’s svelte-in-today’s-world 3,527 pounds; it tips the scales at 3,912 pounds. Perhaps the calibration of the seat of my pants needs to be adjusted, though, because in the version that I reviewed with the big 3.5 liter direct-injection V6, the extra weight was not noticeable from an acceleration standpoint.
In fact, the one advantage of the weight gain of a convertible is that the chassis stiffening tends to be done below the car’s center of gravity, which has the effect of lowering the car’s center of gravity, to the slight benefit of handling capabilities. Also, the roof not being above the car (when open) and instead in the trunk also helps move more of the car’s mass closer to the road surface.
Another positive about all of that weight (and let’s be fair, it’s nearly impossible to find a true lightweight convertible that has four seatbelts) is that it’s the byproduct of a stiffening regimen that, with the top closed, isolates the interior extremely well from the outside world. The car is quiet and refined inside, with no more wind noise, water leaks, or ambient noise perceptible than in any other car, including the IS350 sedan. The roof’s lining is fabric-covered, and its operation is completely electrical with no latch-flipping or tonneau-covering required.
Relative to its direct competitor, the Infiniti G37 Convertible, the top’s opening and closing dance is a far more elegant, refined affair. While the Infiniti literally shakes the car as parts get to the end of their travel, the Lexus damps their motion, so that the folding roof slows and then stops instead of abruptly stopping. The only frustration that I had in top operation was that it requires that the luggage divider be in place before folding the roof. This, of course, protects both the luggage and the roof, but the divider has to be installed perfectly for the top to work. It took a few attempts to successfully install the divider to the car’s satisfaction. Were I using the owner’s manual, it would have been easier, and were I the car’s owner, I’m sure its installation would have been second nature very quickly.
Though the top’s mechanism is a refined piece, the trunklid that Lexus employed to cover not only the giant hardtop roof, but also – you know – the car’s actual trunk does not quite seem to mesh with the rest of the car from a design standpoint. It looks like a parasite sitting on the car’s rump, and serves to add a decent amount of visual heft to the car’s derriere. I believe that part of the problem may be the location of the cutline; it’s long, it has a wide gap, and it’s prominently displayed on the car’s rear three-quarter view. It’s especially easy to see in a white car; note the photo above. The IS C has the same 107.5 inch wheelbase that the sedan does, but is 2.4 inches longer, with much of the car’s length between the rear edge of the doors and the tail lights.
My favorite exterior part on the test car was its optional liquid graphite alloy wheels. Color-wise, they remind me of the competition gray wheels available on the Corvette (not to mention other performance cars under different names), and their attractive design, plus the idea that disc brake dust would be all but invisible on them, had a lot of appeal.
The front seat area is standard Lexus IS fare, but with a twist. Rather than the normal charcoal or tan seats, my test vehicle was equipped with “blue & alabaster two-tone perforated leather seats.” I must admit that I laughed out loud at the gaudiness of the seats the first time I saw this car. I don’t claim to be the paragon of fashion or interior design, but my wife and a female neighbor also thought they were over-the-top. If the car was about eight feet longer and had a bull’s horns mounted to the hood, Boss Hogg would have probably been fond of it. Or perhaps their designer was inspired by nautical themes. I have no idea. I’m sure some liked them, and honestly , it’s not like I was embarrassed to be seen sitting on one of them.
Unusual as they may have looked, the seats were constructed of soft leather and were extremely comfortable – in the front seat. Rear seat space in the IS sedan is tight, and in the convertible, it’s even worse. The best part about rear-seat access is that there are handy buttons on the outboard edge of the front seats to power the seats forward automatically, then return them to their original position. The worst part about them is that they are really only suitable for very small people, unless the front passenger and driver are willing to sacrifice significant portions of their legroom to the cause. The rear seats sport just 25.9 inches of legroom, while the sedan offers a still-small 30.6 inches. To be fair, the G37 Convertible has only 27.2 inches of rear legroom, and is actually smaller than the IS convertible in many measures, such as rear hip room.
The IS Convertible has a thick steering wheel rim, connected to an electrically-boosted rack and pinion steering system. EPS systems are constantly improving, and the IS has one of the better ones. Let’s face it; EPS is the future because of cost, reliability, packaging, and fuel economy benefits, so we might as well get used to it. The IS350 C has larger front rotors than does its slower cousin, the IS250 C (13.15 inch diameter vs. 11.65 inch diameter, respective), and the brakes gave nice pedal feel and progressive, solid stopping power in spirited driving. Although the suspension tuning was softer than my preference, the car managed to hold its own during back road jaunts. Cruising around is this car’s mission, so I might as well not fight it.
The price of my test car was remarkably close to the price of the Infiniti G37 Convertible that I reviewed earlier in the year. The Lexus’ overall MSRP rang in at $51,030, while the G37’s tab came to $51,865. The pricing breakdown is $44,815 base price for an IS350 C (including destination), $720 for the upgraded wheels, $100 for headlamp washers, $3,055 for the luxury package (bi-xenon headlamps, two-tone interior, heated and ventilated front seats, rain sensing wipers, etc.), and $2,340 for the navigation system. According to TrueDelta, the G37 is about $1,000 less expensive than the IS C when normalizing equipment included or not included on each car.
Observed fuel economy was not good. I just can’t seem to keep my right foot out of any pedal connected to an eager, 306-horsepower V6, and mileage suffered accordingly. I saw between 17 and 18 miles per gallon, which is in line with the EPA city rating of 18 mpg. The EPA says that the IS350 C will hum along at 25 mpg on the highway, and I have no reason to doubt that it could if driven conservatively.
Choosing between a G37 Convertible and an IS Convertible is not an easy one. The Lexus offers more refinement and a slightly better interior, while the Infiniti offers a more engaging driving experience (not to mention an available manual transmission that Lexus does not) and arguably better looks. Pricing and interior volume are pretty much a wash. Lexus has perhaps a better quality reputation than does Infiniti, but both the G and IS have excellent repair histories according again to TrueDelta. The IS is a major bargain compared to an Audi A5 Convertible ($5,000 less) and to a BMW 335i Convertible ($9,500 less), but also lacks the Audi’s interior quality (and all wheel drive) and the BMW’s incredible driving experience. If you’re in this market, though, you owe it to yourself to sample all four, and the Lexus and Infiniti at the very least, before signing on the dotted line.
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