Rating: 8.0
Bottom Line:
The Lexus IS C’s rectractable hardtop offers the fun of open-air driving with coupelike isolation in rain, cold and snow. However, most retractable hardtops do that, so the IS C will appeal to buyers who put a premium on price and Lexus cachet more than ultimate performance. The IS C isn’t as structurally rigid as the BMW or as elegant as the Infiniti, but it isn’t far behind. If you’re considering an IS C, we’d recommend the IS 350C because the IS 250C just doesn’t have the power we expect in a modern luxury car.
  • Open-air fun
  • Poor-weather comfort
  • Quiet ride
  • Weak base engine
  • Clunky-looking top
  • Tight rear seat

Since its U.S. debut for the 2001 model year, the Lexus IS has been playing catch-up to the elusive BMW 3-Series, both in terms of performance and sales.

In 2008 Toyota's luxury brand pulled a page out of BMW's 3-Series game plan and introduced the IS F, a high-performance model to go toe-to-toe with the BMW M3. This year they did it again with the all-new IS C, a 4-passenger sedan with a fully automated retractable hardtop.

Though the IS C is priced significantly below its German competitor, does it have what it takes in the performance department to challenge the Bavarian convertible for supremacy in the retractable hardtop arena? Let's find out.

Model Lineup
The 2010 Lexus IS C mirrors the IS sedan lineup, with IS 250C and IS 350C trims. Both are equipped the same; the only difference is in powertrains. Standard equipment includes leather upholstery, automatic climate control, a power tilt/telescoping steering column, an 8-speaker AM/FM stereo with 6-disc CD changer, XM Satellite Radio, a USB port, an auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth connectivity, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a universal garage-door opener, fog lamps, and P225/45R17 front and P245/45R17 rear tires on aluminum wheels.

Safety features are plentiful, including dual front airbags, head- and torso-protecting front side airbags, a tire-pressure monitor, hill-start assist, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control.

Options start with the Luxury Package, which comes with semi-aniline leather seats, HID headlights with Adaptive Front Lighting, memory for the front seats, heated and ventilated front seats, wood interior trim and one-touch power sliding front seats for rear seat access. Other options consist of a Mark Levinson surround-sound audio system with 12 speakers and 300 watts of power; a navigation system with voice command and a rearview camera; Intuitive Park Assist; Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control; 18-inch wheels and run-flat tires. The IS C is also offered with an assortment of Lexus' F-Sport dealer accessories, including 19-inch wheels, sport suspension, a cold-air intake, a cat-back exhaust, a sport shift kit and a high-performance clutch.

Under the Hood
Like the IS sedan, IS C comes with a choice of two V6 engines. The IS 250C model comes with a 2.5-liter V6 that produces 204 horsepower and 185 lb-ft of torque. It is mated to a 6-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic with manual shift capability and steering-wheel paddles. The IS 350C gets a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. It comes only with the 6-speed automatic transmission.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway for the 2.5-liter V6 with the automatic and 18/26 mpg for the 2.5 with the manual. Ratings for the 3.5-liter V6 are 18/25 mpg.

Inner Space
The IS C has a typical high-quality Lexus interior, with padded touch points, soft-touch surfaces, electroluminescent gauges, and metallic or attractive bird's-eye maple trim. Operating the convertible top requires only the touch of a button, and it folds up or down in 20 seconds. The rear head restraints can intrude on rear visibility, especially with the top up, but the automaker provides a button so the driver can fold them down.

Lexus has designed both the automatic climate control and audio systems to self-adjust based on the position of the top. With the top down, the audio system will get louder and the climate control system will adjust airflow and temperature to compensate for the outside air. We found that the available Mark Levinson system sounds great with the top up, but doesn't have enough power to blast your ears at highway speeds with the top down.

Front-seat passengers will be comfortable thanks to supportive seats, and a tilt/telescoping steering column makes it easy to achieve that ideal seating position, at least for the average person. However, like other Lexus and Toyota products, limited headroom and seats that don't travel back far enough will make tall occupants uncomfortable. Two levels of leather are offered; one nicer than the next. Lexus also offers an odd blue-and-alabaster (read: white) two-tone upholstery option that is not very attractive.

The rear seat will accommodate two adults, provided the front seat passengers are no taller than about 5 feet 10 inches. Getting back there requires the usual coupe/convertible gymnastics with the top up, but it's made easier with the Luxury Package, thanks to a single-touch rear access button that slides the front seats forward and back. Rear headroom is adequate for average-sized adults, but toe room under the seats is tight and the passengers sit at an angle due to intrusive side panels.

The IS C's trunk has a decent 10.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the top up, but that is reduced to a minuscule 2.36 cubic feet with the top down. There is also an adjustable cargo divider in the trunk that must be moved to the rearmost position to allow the top to come down.

On the Road
To give the IS C the rigidity buyers expect in a sporty convertible, Lexus added underbody bracing, a thicker rocker-panel structure, a thicker tube dash support, and beams under the rear seat. The result is a car that is fairly solid, though less rigid than the sedan. We did detect some cowl shake over bumps, but it's not bad, and the IS C is far better controlled than the floppy Toyota Solara convertible. The IS C is not as rock-solid as the BMW 3-Series convertible, and therefore isn't as responsive to driver inputs.

But the IS C is sporty. The steering feels direct and responsive, though we noticed a bit too much play on center. The car stays fairly flat in turns and has plenty of grip, especially with the F-Sport 19-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport tires. We put the IS C to the test on the twisty Ortega Highway in Southern California and found it to be fun to drive, though we could sometimes feel its 3,800 pounds fighting the requests we made through the steering wheel. Braking proved to be easy to modulate and worry free.

Rust Belt customers will be happy to learn that the IS C provides a smooth ride worthy of a Lexus. If your local streets are chock full of potholes, though, you may want to avoid the F-Sport 19-inch wheels and sport suspension.

Given the choice, we would certainly opt for the 3.5-liter V6. It provides enough power for any need. Passing is a breeze, as evidenced by a 5.8 second zero to 60 mph time, according to Lexus. The 2.5-liter V6, however, is outmatched in today's market. Its 204 horsepower is fine for everyday cruising, but passing requires some space and planning. Lexus quotes a zero-to-60 mph time of 8.4 seconds. You'll be hard-pressed to find any other entry-level luxury car that slow.

The 2.5-liter V6 comes with a smooth-shifting but rubbery 6-speed manual transmission or a responsive 6-speed automatic with easy-to-use paddle shifters. Unfortunately for driving enthusiasts, the 3.5-liter V6 gets only the automatic.

Right for You?
If you want a four-season convertible, the Lexus IS C will be fun in the summer and comfortable in the winter. The price of admission for other luxury retractable hardtops is considerably higher, so the IS C's competitive advantage is price. Don't opt for the IS C if you expect it to perform like a BMW, though. It doesn't handle as well, and engine-for-engine, advantage goes to the 3-Series.

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.