Like the career stats of Barry Bonds, this test-drive of the 2010 Lexus IS 350 C comes with a great big asterisk. You see, our test car was pumped full of performance-enhancing features from the Lexus F-Sport catalog, altering virtually every aspect that would affect one's driving impressions of this all-new hardtop convertible.
Indeed, this showcase proved the IS C has fun-to-drive potential when equipped with the right bits and pieces, but is ultimately unrepresentative of the car that will leave the dealer lot 99 percent of the time. As such, this review will focus more on those non-performance aspects the F-Sport accessories didn't affect.
As its name would suggest, the IS 350 C is based on Lexus' compact IS sedan and features a fully automated retractable hardtop. From the front bumper to the driver door, the C appears identical to the sleek, wedgelike sedan. From the driver door back, things get awkward, with a bulbous rear end that's more Chrysler Sebring than BMW 3 Series.
Not only is the styling less than elegant, but the roof design limits visibility more than most hardtop designs. On the upside, the trunk has been specifically designed to accommodate a set of golf clubs (though nothing else) when the roof is lowered, something not possible in any other solid-roofed rival.
F-Sport accessories aside, the 2010 Lexus IS 350 C is an impeccably built luxury convertible that'll make for classy warm-weather transportation. It boasts more refinement than the Infiniti G37 and Volvo C70 hardtop convertibles, while the stylish forthcoming ragtop variant of the Audi A5 only comes with a cloth roof. Yet there's little that sets this Lexus above BMW's more practical, more attractive and more capable 3 Series convertible. Indeed, with or without the asterisk, the IS 350 C isn't quite a hall of famer.
If you want to know what a regular IS 350 C is like, skip to the next section. Otherwise, our test car came loaded with nearly every available item in the Lexus F-Sport catalog, including dark 19-inch forged wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires, upgraded front and rear brakes, high-flow air intake, axle-back stainless-steel exhaust, lowered springs, Bilstein monotube dampers, stiffer antiroll bars, a carbon-fiber engine cover and a sport shift knob.
All of this can be yours for $12,471 and transforms the otherwise soft, sophisticated IS convertible into a genuine driver's car that dynamically matches (except in acceleration) the BMW 3 Series. Of course, both the 328i and 335i cost considerably less.
Prior to its engine and exhaust upgrades, the IS 350's 3.5-liter V6 produces 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. We can't be sure of the sans-upgrades results, but our upgraded IS 350 C clocked a 0-60-mph time of 5.9 seconds. That's quicker than the BMW 328i, slower than the 335i and equal to the Infiniti G37. From 60 to zero, those F-Sport brakes really proved their worth, providing a fade-free stopping distance of 111 feet. Indeed, these pricey brakes are the most appealing F-Sport items, since they are as much a safety feature as a performance one.
In terms of handling, this 2010 Lexus IS 350 C was one of the most compelling and capable Lexuses we've ever tested. Whether around town or on winding mountain roads, it stayed flat and planted through corners. The electric power steering is consistent, if a tad slow, with a light on-center effort that transitions into a heavier feel as you make your way through a turn.
This is actually one attribute that should be consistent with the regular IS. Another is the manual transmission mode, which is confusing to say the least. Slide the shifter into manual mode and the transmission really just locks out 5th and 6th gears as if you're in D4. You'll need to drop the transmission down to a lower gear in order to really be in manual mode. More confusing are the dueling gear indicators — one in the trip computer showing your actual gear and the other right below it in the PRND display showing the maximum gear possible.
Even with its performance suspension and low-profile tires, the 2010 Lexus IS 350 C proved to be a champion highway cruiser with a comfortable ride. Its ability to keep out wind noise despite its movable roof was even more impressive.
Inside, the IS 350 C follows the Lexus and Toyota tradition of catering to those of average height or less. Tall folks will be forced to lounge back gangsta-style since neither the seat height adjuster nor the telescoping steering wheel offers enough adjustment range to accommodate 6-footers. Everyone else will discover seats that are broad and supportive over long distances, though not particularly soft.
The rear seat is less spacious than that of a BMW 3 Series or Volvo C70, but on par with the BMW 1 Series and Infiniti G37. The high beltline also makes sitting back there claustrophobic. A rear-facing child seat will not fit safely, though there was an acceptable amount of space for a front-facing seat. All of this isn't exactly surprising since the IS sedan is a rather small car to begin with.
Hardtop convertibles often provide better top-up visibility than soft-top models, but this isn't the case with the 2010 Lexus IS 350 C. The rising beltline and large rear headrests create a rear viewing aperture that's barely bigger than a toaster; this can make reverse parking maneuvers an adventure. We highly recommend getting our test car's back-up camera (included with the optional navigation system).
The roof itself is powered by 15 motors that work in harmony with 37 sensors to drop the three-piece unit into the trunk in less than 20 seconds. When the roof is lowered, the cabin is pleasant at highway speeds (especially with the side windows raised) and the higher back end helps quell wind flow.
As it is with all retractable hardtops, trunk space is highly dependent on roof position. Raised, there's enough space for a pair of standard roller suitcases and two sets of golf bags. Lowered, there's enough space for a pizza box and precisely one golf bag. This is wonderful for golfers, as the IS C is the only hardtop convertible that manages this feat, but not so good for those who'd rather not host suitcases or even overnight bags on the backseat.
In terms of controls, the IS C is virtually identical to the IS sedan. Stereo, audio and navigation functions are controlled and displayed through physical buttons and a touchscreen. It's a reasonably easy system to understand, but the inability to see audio and/or climate information concurrently with the navigation screen can be frustrating. There are also no physical radio preset buttons.
The iPod integration feature is another problem point, as it automatically starts playing whichever playlist, artist or album is the first of five listed on the screen. As such, it's impossible to passively scan your iPod without stopping the song you're presently listening to.
Design/Fit and Finish
Our tester looked sinister with its black paint and dark forged wheels. This paint scheme managed to hide the IS C's ungainly rear quarters better than lighter shades, but it's hard to get around the awkward proportions.
Inside, the IS C is pure Lexus. A bit dour to be sure, but the quality of materials and fit and finish are excellent. Only the most severely angled curbs or brutal road imperfections will make the roof's three panels creak against each other. Indeed, the IS is one of the tightest-feeling convertibles on the market.
Who should consider this vehicle
In regards to the 2010 Lexus IS 350 C with F-Sport accessories, we're not sure why someone would pay more than a BMW 3 Series just to match a 3 Series dynamically. As for the regular IS 350 C, it should appeal to Lexus and Toyota loyalists who want a little sunshine.
Convertible shoppers interested in Lexus reliability and service should take note, as should golfers. However, because of the IS's practicality and visibility issues, we'd highly recommend the well-rounded BMW 328i instead.