2011 Lexus IS 350C Expert Review:Autoblog
When Toyota launched Lexus in 1989, it had one goal in mind: Beat the Germans at the luxury game. And for a while, at least, they did exactly that. The LS400 didn't change everything, but it manifested a shift in the luxury paradigm. However, the LS400 was at the top of the heap, competing against the mighty S-Class from Mercedes-Benz and the 7 Series from BMW (Audi and Cadillac were both in their basket case phases and not really competing with anyone). Towards the bottom of the luxury pile sat the Lexus ES 250. Despite being the nicest Camry ever built, it was most definitely Glass Joe to the BMW 3 Series' Mike Tyson in the entry level luxury/performance punch out.
After more than a decade, Lexus eventually realized that no matter how refined it made the front-wheel-drive, Camry-based ES lineup, it simply couldn't compete with the sportiness inherent to the rear-wheel-driven 3 Series. As such, it introduced the sporty IS 300 in 2001. While the IS featured some killer features – chronograph style gauges, pop-up navigation screen, manual transmission, a wagon body style and sporty dynamics – its rear seat was so tiny it got classified as a subcompact. Despite some fans, it just wasn't in the same league as the 3 Series, and as you might expect, sales remained lackluster in the U.S.
Finally, in 2006 Lexus launched the current generation IS. Available with a 2.5-liter (IS 250) or 3.5-liter (IS 350) V6, the second-generation IS became the first Lexus product that could credibly compete with BMW's dominant 3 Series, as well as the surging Infiniti G35. Then came the hopped-up IS-F, with a 5.0-liter V8 that cranked out 416 horsepower, two ponies more than the 414-hp V8 motor in the M3. Lexus need not make any excuses for the brute IS-F. While Lexus continues to shy away from the full-fledged 3 Series battle royal by not bringing out a two-door or a wagon, it has released a hardtop convertible variant called the IS 350C. We got our hands on a nearly murdered-out variant, the IS 350C F-Sport. Our thoughts and impressions are available after the jump.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
As a rule, we're typically not fans of compromised cars. As a second rule, hard top convertibles tend to be compromised. The folding metal top adds weight, complexity, kills luggage space and generally makes the car look awkward, if not outright hunchbacked. When unfolded (admittedly it is a treat to watch such metal tops unfurl), the roof is not as stiff as a true coupe, nor is the cabin as quiet. Granted, there are vehicles like the Mazda Miata Hard Top Convertible that manages to skirt most of these issues, but the folding metal is still a 70-pound weight penalty, which in Miata terms is beaucoup heavy. It should come as no surprise, then, that the IS 350C F-Sport is fairly well compromised, straight from the drawing board. However, the upside is... it's a convertible. We have a real weak spot for droptops. That said we're pretty certain that barring the LF-A, this is the loudest Lexus ever made. Problem is, loud isn't exactly part of the brand's DNA.
That said, it's a decent looking car. With the top up, the folding roof's extra trunk space hump does make the car appear slightly deformed, but no worse than a Volvo C70 or Ferrari California. What it does manage to do is make the rear wheels look tiny – not a good thing when you shelled out $2,196 for those fancy F-Sport alloys and tires. That said, the gunmetal wheels are gorgeous, one of the best looking sets we've seen on a production vehicle – especially when set off by the bright blue F-Sport brake calipers. Be advised, however, that you're talking about $5,575 for the brake upgrade, and all-in you're looking at $12,190 for the complete set of F-Sport mods. While some of the additions are merely cosmetic (e.g. carbon fiber engine cover and shift knob), unlike Audi's S-Line, most are actually performance enhancing (e.g. shorter springs and fatter sway bars).
Inside, it's a totally different story. It's not terrible, but it is like entering a time machine set to the middle of last decade. Since the IS line debuted in 2007, we've met the updated Infiniti G, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Cadillac CTS and Audi A4, all of which feature vastly more modern interiors. The BMW E90 3 Series has been around since 2005, but it, too, went through a mid-cycle refresh in 2008 that upgraded its interior. In the Lexus, the switchgear feels old, the buttons are a bit tacky and the seats are just sort of there, not particularly noteworthy in any way. Again, nothing is particularly bad, but it just feels out of date – with one exception.
Special anti-props are reserved for the navigation system, which is as appetizing as last night's sushi. The
non-touchscreen is small and almost illegible, especially when it comes to street names. Furthermore, it's very difficult to use. We dare any of you to turn off the Points of Interest (POI) icons in less than 60 seconds. We normally won't fault a car too harshly for its navigation system, however, when said nav is part of a $4,015 option package, we absolutely do. But don't take our word for it. J.D. Powers confirmed our summation in their latest navigation survey where the IS finished mid-pack behind the CTS, Infiniti G37 and Mercedes C-Class. Honestly, we're surprised it's not ranked lower. One more interior thing of interest these days: there was no driver's side floor mat.
As for the driving, the song remains the same. Perhaps it's more a mark of how spoiled we've become, but the 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque that the aluminum 3.5-liter V6 churns out feels... lacking. That said, we've driven the IS 350 four-door and found it anything but wanting more power, so we'll chalk up the 350C's anemic feeling to its 3,880 pound curb weight. That's more than three hundred pounds heavier than the IS 350's relatively light 3,527 pounds. Also, the 3,880-pound weight is what the standard, non F-Sport IS 350C weighs.
We'd guess that the beefier brakes, thicker sway bars, heavier dampers, high-performance exhaust and cold air intake add an additional one hundred pounds – at least. That said, the forged wheels are 20 pounds lighter than stock and the intake and exhaust add about a dozen horsepower. Still, for a 320-ish horsepower car (Lexus just said it's 3% more powerful than stock) the IS 350C F-Sport feels sluggish. For $62,216, you would think there would be a way to include the 416-hp 5.0-liter V8 from the macho IS-F – especially considering the fact that the IS-F starts at $58,460 and doesn't offer many options. The real kicker is that you just know there's an IS 350C running around Japan laying down fat strips of rubber with the IS-F's motor.
While forward thrust is not the IS 350C F-Sport's forte, its lateral moves are quite excellent. Again, the F-Sported shocks, springs and sway bars greatly improve the steering feel and side-to-side maneuvers over the regular IS. The fat Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires (225/35/19 front, 285/35/19 rear) also help the IS 350C F-Sport grip like LockJaw pliers. Seriously, for the amount of forward thrust you get, this car is laughably over-tired. Massive grip plus a responsive chassis with better-than-average steering feel equals lots of grins on a good road. One caveat: If you find yourself on a road full of constant switchbacks, you begin to notice the car's weight. And a bit of cowl shake/groan. The folding hardtop F-Sport simply doesn't want to change direction all that quickly. Go figure. That said, the brakes are truly fantastic and capable of hauling the portly Lexus to a standstill in a passenger-startling manner.
And then there's the transmission. Up until this point, everything about the Lexus IS 350C F-Sport has been a mixed bag (except the nav system, which is bad). It's a little funny looking, but we love convertibles. It's kinda slow, but it handles well. The interior's bad, but the brakes are stupendous. However, when it comes to this six-speed dog of a manu-matic cog swapper, there are no ifs, ands or buts. It's just really bad, even in Sport mode. Under normal acceleration, the transmission wants to shift from first to fourth gear almost instantly, and you'll find yourself in sixth gear by 40 mph. That's not sporting, let alone F-Sporting. The faux-paddles might be the worst-case scenario of "hurry up and wait" we've ever experienced pulling on. It feels like a full second transpires before your input gets translated into a different gear. And insult is heaped upon injury when you remember that the IS-F's eight-speed paddle-shifted autobox proves Lexus knows how to build the fastest shifting automatic on earth. They just elected to not stick that transmission, or any form of decent gearbox, in the IS 350C F-Sport.
Which leaves us... we're not sure exactly where. Driving around Los Angeles for a week, it became quite apparent that the IS 350C F-Sport has that all important X-factor that Angelenos find so important. Valets went gaga over it, while our friends' wives loved it even more. As for us, we just couldn't get past the dated interior, the lousy transmission and the money. In case you missed it, $62,216 as tested. We already mentioned Lexus's own IS-F costs less, but you could buy a BMW M3 Coupe and still have four thousand bucks left over. Moreover, this is Corvette Grand Sport Convertible territory. All three of the cars we just mentioned feature more than 400 hp and will light your hair on fire in a straight line. The IS 350C F-Sport meanwhile, just kinda loudly humps around town with its baffling gearbox and pretty wheels. All things considered, we're just not that into her.
Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
When Lexus researched the target demographic for its IS 250C and IS 350C, respondents were asked what they wanted to do with – and in – their convertibles. When the answers came back, Lexus discovered that no matter how much driving and champagne and sun and moonlight were involved, the scenario always included at least two people doing one thing: engaging in NSFW activities. So the new IS convertible was designed to fulfill those dreams, and according to Lexus, this duo of folding tin-tops represents the automaker's wild side. But does Lexus even have a wild side? Make the jump to find out.
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc
Shot with a Nikon D70 and Nikon 18-200 lens
The IS is classed as an entry-level luxury convertible, and as such, it lines up against competitors like the BMW 328i, Volvo C70, upcoming Audi A5 cabrio and the now-departed Mercedes CLK350 convertible. Despite its various and sundry competition, it's clear that the IS C's design couldn't be confused for anything outside of the Lexus stable. The changes made to its rear-end are thorough and create a compelling and markedly different look from its sedan counterpart (the two don't share any body panels). The front and rear fascias have been redesigned with greater angularity: the front intakes dip lower and the "arrowhead" face is more pronounced, while out back, a high-mounted LED brake light notates an arched deck lid, and the trunk and fascia angles are even more acute, with the taillights nearly piercing the license plate area.
The voluminous back end looks more like the C70 than the 328. The convertible has the same width and wheelbase as the sedan, but it's 2.2-inches longer, and aside from housing the retractable roof, that extra bit of metal visually reduces the IS' heightened rump. From the side, the eye makes an easy sweep over the convertible, aided by the sculpted shoulders where the C-pillar meets the trunk, topped by ridges that glide down to the rear. With the top up, you get 10.8 cubic feet of space – enough, we're told, to fit four folks and their golf bags. With the top down, you'll have 2.36 cubic feet to work with, and if you opt for the run-flat tires, a little bit more.
That junk-swallowing trunk is needed to house "the world's fastest opening three-piece metal hardtop." Fifteen motors and 37 sensors put it away and get it back out in 20 seconds. That's the good part. The not-so-good part is that you can't stow the roof while the car is in motion. Most of the time, this won't make much difference, but if you ever need to put the top up at a stoplight – especially if it's a light you're unfamiliar with – then 20 seconds feels like an archaeological era. If the light turns green while you're still doing your thing, your choice is to drive awkwardly with the top half open or to make everyone else wait. Frankly, if this were the choice that had to be made, we would have taken a slower moving top that could operate at modest speeds.
Underneath that raised roof is where the game of inches is played. The doors are nearly a foot longer than those on the sedan and they open wider, making ingress an easy affair. In a reversal of the usual order, there is an inch more headroom up front. However, it's the typical story for those in the rear: only half an inch less headroom then the sedan, but five inches less leg room, eight inches less shoulder room, and ten inches less hip room. It's not as bad as it might sound – if the driver isn't an NBA guard and he's willing to sacrifice a bit of leg room, a person of average height will be fine for a local trip. But the fixed rear center console takes away the option of sliding around to find a little more room.
Naturally, with any new model from Lexus, there's bound to be new luxury bits on top of the regular luxury bits found in the standard IS. The HVAC output and stereo volume auto-adjust based on the top's position and a solar input control provides increased response to the sun when enjoying the environment. If you opt for the Luxury Package, the ten-way adjustable seats include a one-touch tilt and slide function. Tack on the Intuitive Parking Assist system and radar will detect obstacles towards the rear of the convertible that could impede the operation of the roof. Also new for the IS Convertible: the front seats have increased ventilation for cooling, and the heating elements have been included in the seat shoulders – good stuff for when the top is down in chilly weather. Additionally, Bluetooth music players can be paired for wireless operation, the nav uses an auto-fill feature like predictive text, voice commands can be more informal (e.g. "Call Bob at home"), and there's even an option for Hill Start Assist on manual transmission cars.
There are seven available exterior colors, the most notable being the Ultasonic Blue Mica previously exclusive to the IS F. Inside, the options are alabaster and black, and – this is where that wilder side starts to play – an alabaster and blue two-tone interior. Like the sun that will shine upon it, the two-tone affair is the source of serious polarity. If you like it, it's there for you. If you don't, you're back to black or (off) white. But Lexus' wild side isn't limited to its optional tinted leather hides. It's about the entire package, with an emphasis on the driving experience.
As with the sedan, the IS convertible comes in three flavors: the IS 250C is available with either a six-speed manual or automatic, and IS 350C is packaged exclusively equipped with the self-shifting six-speed. In either model, the automatic comes complete with Sport modes and paddleshifters, and both pack a new – albeit late – feature: the ability to change gears without switching into Sport. Snap the paddles in Drive and you've got full manual control. Don't shift for 15 seconds, and the system reverts back to Drive and resumes control.
A quick refresher on the sedan's dynamics are in order: The six-speed IS 250 four-door covers the fundamentals reasonably well. It's brisk: keep the revs above three grand and you'll hear the sound and feel the urge. It's comforting: the nicely finished cabin has the right controls in the right places. And it handles: the chunky steering wheel offers balanced resistance to inputs, and if you're steady with the controls and pay attention to your line, the IS250 stays admirably flat and composed around corners. It's a 50-50 balance of sport and luxury, with the only issues being a wobbly gearshift (new bushings would fix that) and the snappy brake and clutch (a more involved fix, but two things now synonymous with the brand). It's the kind of sedan that reminds you horsepower isn't everything, as the IS 250 has just 204 hp to motivate its 3,455-pound four-door frame.
Conversely, the motoring story of the IS convertibles versus their four-door stablemate is analogous to those two extra inches in length mentioned earlier: minor details seemed to make outsized differences in the car's behavior.
The IS 250 C maintains all of the static accolades of the sedan, but it left us bereft dynamically with tuning that emphasized luxury over sport. At 3,840 pounds when equipped with a manual gearbox, it weighs almost 400 pounds more than the sedan, and every one of those pounds is devoted to sapping life out of the convertible. Granted, the IS C is 15% stiffer than the four-door and uses a stiffer, revised front and rear suspension, but make no mistake, this convertible is made for the boulevard. From a standstill, 60 mph arrives in an estimated 8.4 seconds – only a half second slower than the sedan (1.7 seconds slower than BMW's 328i manual), but from the driver's seat, it feels far slower than Lexus' claimed five-tenths.
That's probably not all down to the extra weight – both the steering and handling felt like they were set on "shopping." But since that setting composes a healthy portion of the car's active duty, it's not necessarily a bad thing... provided you are more concerned about making the scene than making a tidy line through a corner.
To our enthusiast minds, the 306-hp IS 350C makes a lot more sense. The additional 102 hp and another 66 pounds over the IS 250C makes for a significantly better driving experience. The handling is still more feather pillow than fast sweeper, but all those extra ponies – and the attendant 5.8-second 0-60 mph (1.4 seconds quicker than the 328i auto) – simply smother the soft edges of handling. It goes quicker, rolls a little less, steers a little better, and that makes the IS350 C almost a difference in kind, not just degree, compared to the 250C. You can get things done in this car. And enjoy it a little. And still shop.
If you're among those who want the IS C but don't want to sacrifice anything, know that this is the kind of car that the F-Sport line was made for. Aesthetically, the 19-inch wheels, giant brakes and big blue calipers change the car's look from mere bunny rabbit to something that ought to be called "Thumper." On the 350C, you can leave the engine as is, just add the Bilstein shocks, sway bar kit, and performance exhaust and you'll not only look the business, you'll do it as well.
While Lexus contends that the IS C represents its wilder side, we'd qualify that with: "It depends on what you consider wild." We're talking about the wild side of one of the most historically conservative brands in all of autodome, which means our starting point could be considered further to the right than other brands. If you like your wild on the go, then the IS 350 sedan is practically untamed Africa, the IS 350 C is a great zoo, and the IS 250 C is a petting zoo with a cow, some ducks and a couple of sheep. If you think "wild" means you need to apply sunscreen at stoplights, either IS C fulfills the definition.
Viewed through the lens of brand, if you want a convertible Lexus and you have anywhere from $38,480 to spend on the IS 250 C manual to $43,940 for the IS 350 C (plus $875 for destination), then all you need do is choose a droptop and you'll be happy. And as for those salacious dreams that convertible owners are apparently full of, a quick drive will provide plenty of opportunity to decide whether there's enough soul in this topless model for you. In either case, at least as compared to Lexus' aging SC430, we think that there's more 'wild' in either IS C than there is in a whole year's worth of Animal Planet.
Photos copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc
New Car Test Drive
Lineup of sports sedans, coupes and convertibles expands further.
The Lexus IS lineup of sports sedans, coupes and convertibles expands for 2011 with more performance and more all-wheel drive availability. The Lexus IS models, available in three body styles, are designed to offer style and performance comparable to that of the BMW 3 Series but at lower prices.
2011 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350 are available with a new F Sport Package. The 2011 Lexus IS 350 now offers all-wheel drive, which continues to be available for the IS 250. And Lexus IS sedans get subtle styling revisions for 2011. The F-Sport Package ($2,440) for IS 250 RWD and IS 350 RWD includes the F-Sport suspension, sport pedals, aluminum scuff plates, special 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18 tires (summer or all-season), front and rear spoilers, sport grille, sport steering wheel and shift knob, sport seat with microfiber inserts, heated front seats.
The Lexus IS models are built on a rear-wheel-drive platform, the correct choice for sporty handling. Trim, sleek and relatively light, these cars offer paddle-shift transmissions, good brakes and strong acceleration performance. Boasting 306 horsepower, the Lexus IS 350 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds.
The IS F is a special high-performance coupe powered by a 416-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, allowing it to compete with the BMW M3. Boasting a top speed of 170 mph, the IS F is fast by any measure. The 2011 Lexus IS F benefits from suspension changes.
The IS 250 and IS 350 come in sedan and convertible versions. The sedan is comfortable for two and can seat five, but it is not a family car like the Lexus ES 350. The back seat is not commodious, with rear legroom at a premium, though there is a car seat anchor for the little one.
The Lexus IS 250 C and IS 350 C are true convertibles, converting from hardtop coupe to top-down roadster with the press of a button. With the top up, they look like coupes. With the top down, they look like convertibles.
For 2011, new HID headlamps with LED daytime running lamps are standard on the IS 350 and optional on the IS 250. In addition, a new front grille and bumper highlight the 2011 Lexus IS sedans, while at the rear, there's a new taillamp cover and revised tailpipe design. The IS models also feature new standard 17-inch and optional 18-inch wheels.
The new F Sport Package for 2011 IS 250 and IS 350 rear-wheel-drive models uses the new suspension tuning of the IS F, and 18-inch alloy wheels with a dark super-chrome finish. The F Sport package includes a front lip spoiler and rear deck spoiler, a matching dark chrome front grille insert, F Sport badging, and the addition of Ultrasonic Blue Mica to the exterior colors. For the interior, unique front seats feature a special microfiber insert and leather side bolsters to provide grip for the driver and passenger during cornering, and F Sport badging to the steering wheel.
All 2011 Lexus models have a standard new brake override system that automatically reduces power when the gas and brake pedals are applied at the same time.
2011 Lexus IS models come standard with leather upholstery; dual-zone climate control; SmartAccess keyless entry with pushbutton engine start; and a satellite-ready 194-watt, 13-speaker stereo with 6CD changer and MP3 auxiliary audio input jack.
The IS 250 comes with a 2.5-liter V6 engine and a 6-speed manual gearbox ($32,145) or 6-speed automatic ($33,315). The IS 250 AWD ($35,775) features all-wheel drive and comes standard with the automatic transmission. The AWD model also gets special perforated leather upholstery and Bird's-eye maple trim.
The IS 350 ($38,570) comes with a 3.5-liter V6 and 6-speed automatic. More sophisticated braking and electronic stability systems augment its additional performance. The 2011 IS 350 AWD ($41,030) adds all-wheel drive.
The F-Sport Package ($2,440) for IS 250 RWD and IS 350 RWD includes the F-Sport suspension, sport pedals, aluminum scuff plates, special 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/40R18 tires (summer or all-season), front and rear spoilers, sport grille, sport steering wheel and shift knob, sport seat with microfiber inserts, heated front seats.
The IS 250 C and IS 350 C are two-door models that feature a convertible hardtop, The IS 250 C is available with 6-speed manual ($39,890) or 6-speed automatic. The IS 350 C is also available with a choice of manual ($41,060) or automatic ($45,340).
The 2011 IS 350C F Sport Special Edition ($55,120) comes loaded with everything. Only 175 of them will be built. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
The IS F ($59,010) is a special high-performance coupe featuring a powerful V8 engine, 8-speed transmission, speed-rated tires, and sports suspension.
Lexus IS sedans employ tightly drawn, edgy bodywork to create a sophisticated, sporty identity. The convertible IS C and the high-performance IS F models have longer bodies and unique body panels, but all models share the Lexus IS family resemblance.
A wide track and high rear deck give the IS the crouching, forward leaning stance of a sprinter in the blocks. The front tires are one size smaller than the rear tires, which accentuates the road-hungry look. Carefully shaped body contours, a subtle ducktail-curved trunk lid and aerodynamic taillights contribute to a sleek profile with a 0.28 coefficient of drag. High performance, high-efficiency LED taillights, brake lights and license plate lights are molded into the design. The stainless steel exhaust pipes signal performance.
The IS C convertible retains the fundamental features and characteristics of the sedans, but in a two-door, four-passenger configuration. The windshield angle has been revised, and every body panel except the hood required some modification to blend with the folding roof. Visually, with the top down, the ISC looks lower and wider than the sedan.
To make access to the rear more practical, the doors are longer, and they open wider. The rooftop folds up when the driver holds down a button on the dash, using 15 electric motors to convert for open-air driving in 20 seconds.
In any convertible, frame strength is an important safety consideration. The frame of the IS C has been reinforced by use of thicker rocker panel structure, additional steel in the A and B pillars, and a system of V-shaped braces across the underbody. To reduce impingement on trunk space, the IS C body was enlarged by 2.25 inches to help accommodate the top mechanism.
The Lexus IS cabin is oriented around driving. The front seats blend luxury with performance. They are secure and supportive, but not overly firm, and 10-way adjustable. We found they were comfortable even on a daylong drive, at least for our average frames. The seats are mounted on a fairly long seat track to provide 44 inches of front legroom for taller drivers, but at the expense of back-seat accommodations.
Rear-seat access in the sedan is reasonably easy. We found generous hip room, but not much legroom, in the back. The rear seat is rather upright, with two deeply dished seats at either side. The seating for a fifth passenger would be on the center hump. Although there is a headrest and seatbelt set for the middle seat, it's clearly designed for temporary use, or possibly a car seat. We view the IS as a car comfortably built for driver and passenger, plus two more on occasion.
The Lexus IS cabin uses sophisticated lighting and contemporary design to convey a sense of quality and luxury. The interior features intelligently designed displays and controls that are easy to see and use. A focused cockpit area conveys the sporting intentions of the car, while premium interior materials and attention to detail remain consistent to the Lexus identity. Smartly integrated metallic or maple trim helps create an elegant environment.
Controls and gauges are designed to reduce visual clutter, including the bright, clear Optitron gauges. The gauges are brightly lit, located front and center, dominated by a 160-mph speedometer and 8000-rpm tach. The multi-information display located within the speedometer integrates a trip computer that combines six different informational functions in one location, including outside temperature, driving range, average fuel consumption, average fuel consumption since refueling, current fuel consumption, and average speed. The display also includes an oil-maintenance reminder and system warnings. Additional features are added to the multi-information display depending on selected options. When an IS model is equipped with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, the display can show a car icon with the selected following distance. When equipped with Intuitive Park Assist, the display can show a car icon with the location and distance of objects detected near the bumpers.
The IS C is different from the sedan in a number of ways. Like all hard-top convertibles, the IS C roof intrudes on trunk space when folded. With the top up, there is almost 11 cubic feet of trunk space; with the top down, just 2.3 cubic feet, assuming a standard spare tire. That's still enough for two golf bags, though the vinyl cargo cover may cause some consternation to the unschooled. To create more space, run-flat tires are offered as an option, which eliminates the need for a spare tire.
Given that the open-air driving experience can be marred by ambient noise, wind and exposure to heat or cold, special attention has been paid to top-down comfort. Wind noise has been kept to an absolute minimum, and turbulence in the passenger cabin has been reduced by careful study of the mirrors and interior design. Indeed, this makes driving around the neighborhood with the top down most pleasant. The IS C instrument panel is shared with the IS sedan, but the dials are a different color, with more contrast to improve visibility when the top is down.
Based on the roof position and the amount of sunlight, the climate control system compensates for ambient temperature by adjusting air outlet temperature and air flow volume. The audio system is also automatically equalized to maintain the current acoustic field, regardless of outside noise, when the top is opened or closed.
We found the standard audio system sounded great in this quiet cabin, and it was easy to carry on a conversation in a quiet tone of voice.
The Lexus Premium Audio System (standard) features a six-disc, in-dash CD changer, 194 watts of total power and 13 speakers. Automatic Sound Levelizer (ASL) maintains consistent sound levels at varying vehicle speeds. Also included are iPod/USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and an integrated satellite receiver.
The 14-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound audio system, available as a stand-alone option or in conjunction with the optional DVD touch-screen navigation system, features discrete 5.1 multi-channel playback with 7.1-channel speaker architecture. Its 10 amplifier channels provide 300 watts total output at 0.1 percent total harmonic distortion. The Mark Levinson system plays conventional CDs and DVDs, plus MP3/WMA-formatted CDs. DVD movies can be viewed on the optional navigation system's color seven-inch touch screen, though only when the parking brake is engaged.
The Lexus IS is a quick, taut car, but it's easy to drive. Meanwhile, in traffic jams, and crowded roads, any IS can be a serene cocoon. We found that there is hardly any road noise coming through the tires, very little vibration at the wheel and pedal, steering is light and easy, and wind noise is kept to a minimum.
On winding roads, the Lexus IS is nicely balanced. (This is especially true of the IS 350 C, which has a 52/48 weight distribution, front to rear.) The IS models transition from side to side with minimal body roll, and sharp brake/throttle/brake applications don't create appreciable front-end dive. The multi-link rear suspension offers a good ride with ample compliance over the bumps, with a commensurate level of road holding and competence under lateral transitions.
Steering is through an electric power-assisted system. The advantage of electric power steering is that it reduces energy consumption, yielding a 3 percent fuel economy improvement over conventional hydraulic systems. During an afternoon driving inland from the San Diego area, we thought the steering felt connected at higher speeds, with good on-center feedback at low speeds. Steering might not be as positive as that in a BMW 3 Series, but it takes less effort at low speeds, and the difference between the two seems small.
The IS 250 is equipped with a 2.5-liter V6 engine that delivers 204 horsepower at 6400 RPM and 185 pound-feet of peak torque at 4800 rpm. The IS 250 is EPA-rated at 21/29 mpg City/Highway. We found it offers plenty of power for everyday driving.
The IS 250, manual or automatic, is a fun car to drive. We drove an IS 250 with a manual transmission around the challenging Infineon road racing circuit near Sonoma, California. We found the 6-speed manual's shifting completely solid.
We drove an IS 250 C and found ride quality to be nice and relatively comfortable, though not soft, over bumpy neighborhood streets and decaying freeways. The top is very easy to operate. While motoring top-down we noticed our surroundings far more than in a hard top.
The IS 250 AWD, the slowest and heaviest of the IS cars, has a weight penalty of some 220 pounds over the RWD automatic model. That said, the AWD can still do 140 mph and 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, and offer all-weather performance in places that see significant rain and snow. The AWD is the only model that includes heated front seats as standard equipment.
The IS 350 is faster than the IS 250 by a large margin. The IS 350 has a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque, and can hit 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds. Not only does it have more power than the 250, it has bigger brakes and more aggressive rear axle gearing. On the Infineon track, we zoomed past another driver in an IS 250. There is ample torque throughout the rev range, so throttle management is a relaxed process under all but the most critical circumstances. The IS 350 is not a hugely demanding car to drive.
The automatic transmission is remarkably intuitive about sensing driver throttle demand, so when asked, it holds onto a gear past 5900 rpm, and perhaps more important, downshifts when appropriate. When we took control of the shifting via paddle shifters, the car demanded more attention and a willingness to manage the revs. We don't think we would use the paddle shifters on an everyday basis. On a winding mountain road, we found paddle shifting was fun for a while, but we're not sure it was all that much faster. On a racetrack, the paddle shifters can result in more mistakes, and mistakes are not good for lap times.
The IS 350 F Sport has a different character than the standard IS 350. It isn't difficult to drive, though on the race track it beckoned us to go faster and faster until our skills were challenged to drive the car as fast as it was capable. This is a car that has huge potential, in its cornering and brakes. We enjoyed the paddle-shifting transmission. On the street, ride quality is firm. We found the F Sport suspension annoyingly rough on neighborhood streets. A full cup of coffee would be sloshed all over your hand.
While on the track, we checked to see the role played by the electronic stability control system. We first drove an IS 350 F Sport with the electronic stability control switched on and found that it wasn't too intrusive. In fact, it kept us out of trouble at one moment. Then we turned it off, and let the F Sport drift, to feel its wonderful balance. Lexus said the 2011 suspension changes to the shock absorbers, springs, anti-rollbars and bushings have improved the precision of the handling a lot, keeping the chassis flatter.
Brakes on the IS 350 offer strong, straight stops and inspire confident driving. Light pedal pressure brings lightly progressive slowing but it's possible to invoke immediate stopping power with just a bit more pedal. The system is built around four-wheel disc brakes; the IS 350 gets four-piston front calipers. The tires are one size smaller in the front than the rear, which enhances steering response and the braking power of the front discs.
The IS F with its V8 engine has an electronically limited top speed of 170 mph and is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. The Lexus IS F is one fast car. The IS F comes with Y-rated tires, a stiffer suspension, 8-speed transmission and a full-throttle exhaust note that means business. The IS F is about three inches longer than an IS 350 in order to fit its 416-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 engine under the hood. Even with the V8, the IS F has an EPA rating of 16/23 mpg.
The 2011 Lexus IS F features significant suspension changes. Among them: shock absorbers (new internal springs that limit rebound), spring rates, anti-rollbar stiffness, and control-arm bushings with steel inserts to increase rotational stiffness.
Active safety is much in evidence on the Lexus IS. For emergency stopping, there is four-channel anti-lock braking, plus six different electronic systems assisting with traction, stability, and emergency control. These systems are unified by the comprehensive stability control system Lexus calls VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) that makes electronic intervention much less obtrusive than any of the usual safety systems alone. We didn't get to a spot where we initiated action from the VDIM, but we have tested it in controlled circumstances in other Lexus vehicles, and we know how well it works. In an extreme emergency, VDIM can actually lock individual wheels to force a car through a turn it would never make by driver intervention alone. And it can do it without scrubbing off much speed. VDIM is billed as a safety system, and it is, but it brings such hugely effective handling enhancements we think it could be considered a performance system as well. The system is switchable, but VDIM is so much less obtrusive than stand-alone stability control that there are few occasions when we'd feel the need to switch it off.
The Lexus IS models are fast, fun, sports cars with rear-wheel drive. They offer Lexus-quality workmanship, contemporary design, and a surprisingly diverse array of prices, performance options and luxury appointments. The IS 250 is a sensible coupe, fun to drive. The IS 350 delivers excellent performance. Add the F Sport packages and you'll have a real sports sedan. The V8-powered IS F delivers racecar levels of performance.
John Stewart contributed to this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Lexus IS models near Newport Beach, California; Sam Moses reported from Infineon Raceway at Sonoma, California.
Lexus IS 250 ($32,145), IS 250 automatic ($33,315); IS 250 C ($39,890); IS 250 C automatic ($41,060); IS 250 AWD ($35,775); IS 350 ($38,570); IS 350 C ($45,340); IS 350 AWD ($41,030); IS F ($59,010); IS 350C F Sport Special Edition ($55,120).
Tahara and Kyushu, Japan.
Options As Tested
Lexus IS 350 ($38,570).
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