Lexus made its bones – and piles of money – by beating Mercedes-Benz and other Euro status brands at their own game.
The top-of-the-line LS series sedan, for example, could be bought loaded with everything for about the same price as a not-quite-top-of-the-line Benz E-Class.
And it held its value better, too.
Now comes the new IS-series retractable hardtop coupe. It’s using the same play book: Undercut the Germans on features-for-the-price.
And offer features – such as a standard retractable hardtop – that none of the Japanese competition offers at all.
WHAT IT IS
The IS C is a four-seater retractable hardtop luxury-sport coupe. It’s compact-sized, rear-wheel-drive and comes with either of two V-6 engines – and manual or automatic transmissions.
Base price for the IS250C with 2.5 liter V-6 and manual transmission is $40,390. An IS 350C equipped with a larger, more powerful 3.5 liter V-6 and automatic transmission starts at $45,840.
Primary competitors include the Benz SLK series (which also has a retractable hardtop) and the Infiniti G37 and BMW 3-Series convertibles.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
The IS retractable hardtop coupe is a new sub-model spun off the existing IS series sport sedan. Minor updates for 2011 include LED Daytime Running Lights.
Costs $5,000-$6,000 less to start than a Benz SLK retractable hardtop ($47,650), BMW 328i convertible ($45,500) or Infiniti G37 convertible ($44,350).
Four seats (SLK has just two).
More secure-feeling retractable hardtop (G37 and BMW 3 are soft-tops).
IS 350C is powerful/quick.
Six-speed stick in IS 250C
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
IS 250C’s 204 hp V-6 and mid-low 8 second 0-60 time is disappointingly Prius-esque for this price point – and weak compared with the much more powerful/quicker Benz SLK and Infiniti G37.
Manual transmission not available in 306 hp IS 350C.
$5,000 to upgrade to 306 hp V-6.
Back seats predictably useless.
Recent Toyota recall fiasco may hurt formerly Blue Chip Lexus resale values.
UNDER THE HOOD
The IS 250C comes with a 2.5 liter, 204 hp V-6 and six-speed manual transmission. Optional is a six-speed automatic with sport mode and paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
You can upgrade to a 3.5 liter, 306 hp V-6 in the IS350C. The larger V-6 comes only with an automatic transmission, however.
Both versions of the IS C are rear-wheel-drive.
0-60 with the 2.5 liter engine takes about 8.4-8.5 seconds; with the 3.5 V-6, the time drops to just under six seconds.
For comparison, the Benz SLK300 comes standard with a 228 hp six and gets to 60 mph in about 6.1 seconds; the BMW 328i has a 230 hp six and gets to 60 in about the same time. The bicep-bulging Infiniti G37 convertible comes standard with a 3.7 liter, 325 hp V-6 and gets to 60 mph in about 5.4-5.5 seconds.
Fuel economy with the 2.5 liter engine is 17 city, 26 highway.
The larger 3.5 V-6/automatic actually gets slightly better city mileage (18 mpg) and its highway figure (25 mpg) is only slightly less – solid stuff, given this engine produces 102 more horsepower than the smaller engine and is also significantly larger.
ON THE ROAD
Though the IS 250’s not the quickest thing on wheels, it manages to not feel slow – most of the time.
204 hp is at best so-so in a car that weighs almost two tons but the absence of deep reserves to call upon doesn’t become obviously apparent unless you try outmuscle an SLK300 or G37 when the red light goes green.
In that scenario, it’s hard to hide a two-second-to-60 deficit.
But otherwise, the IS 250 moves out ok – or at least, it feels like it’s moving out ok. Or better than you’d expect, given the numbers. The engine revs happily, the transmission’s ratios are just right to make good use of the available power. You do need to floor it – and hold it – to execute an effiicient passing maneuver – but the car can pull it off without giving the impression it’s being pushed uncomfortably close to its maximums. Tall overdrive gearing gives the car great high-speed legs, too. In sixth, engine RPMs at 75 mph are just over 2,000 and everything is dead calm smooth.
And if you need more speed, you can always upgrade to the much stronger IS 350C – which is quicker than the Benz SLK – and still costs about three grand less.
Same thing vis-a-vis the BMW 3.
Handling-wise, a fairly long wheelbase (107.5 inches) helps the IS feel bigger and more planted than the stubby, very short wheelbase (95.7 inches) SLK.
AT THE CURB
The IS is a little wide through the hips and has some less than perfect angles – to my eye, at least. Styling beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The big draw – objectively – is the retractable hardtop. It provides much more in the way of physical as well as psychological security than a cloth top convertible like the Infiniti G or BMW 3. Less of the outside world gets in; no relatively delicate fabric to stain or tear. And a hardtop means superior body integrity (fewer rattles and squeaks, especially as the car ages) and possibly safety, since there’s a physical structure over your head.
On the downside, the retractable hardtop could be expensive to fix down the road when the warranty’s expired. But so are soft-top convertibles. It’s the price you pay to go topless.
Anyway, the real point here is that Lexus will sell you a snarky retractable hardtop coupe for something on the order of six grand less than the next-closest thing (a Benz SLK).
It also has more seats.
Granted, the IS C’s back two are next-to-useless as far as carrying people goes because there is literally zero leg room (the front seat backs touch the rear seat cushions) but you could scooch the front seats forward enough to get a kid or agile small adult back there. It wouldn’t be comfortable for either party, but it’s a possibility at least.
In the two-seat SLK, it’s an impossibility.
And even if you don’t intend to try to carry people, you can carry stuff back there, which adds a dose of everyday practicality. Lexus even provides an electric tilt-forward/slide button on the top of the front seatbacks to make the process easier.
Trunk space with the roof up is decent, too: nearly 11 cubic feet. That’s more than both the SLK (9.8 cubic feet) and the physically larger G37 (10.3 cubic feet). However, with the roof down (and the retractable top filling up much of the available space) trunk capacity shrinks to a pocket book-sized 2.4 cubic feet.
But you do have those back seats….
Several Lexus models are fussy in terms of their controls (too many, too complicated) but the IS C has a straightforward gauge cluster and minimal dashboard clutter. It’s a car you can just jump into a drive, without needing time to figure out what does what.
I liked that a lot.
Lexus built its sterling reputation on delivering superb fit and finish the equal or better of cars costing much more – which meant better value up front – and superior resale value down the road.
The IS C definitely delivers on the former; its the least expensive luxury-band retractable hardtop coupe on the market – by a not-small margin – and it doesn’t cut corners on other features or equipment to get there.
On the latter – we’ll see.
The recent recall debacle has hurt Toyota/Lexus sales. These woes could translate into future losses, resale value-wise, too. It’s not fair – because the fact is Lexus vehicles are probably as good today as they were last year. It’s just that public perception has as real an effect on reputation as an actual problem or defect. GM is still suffering for the sins it committed in the ’80s and ’90s, even though its current stuff is top drawer. We’ll see how long it takes Toyota/Lexus to recover.
The standard warranty – four years/50,000 miles – along with a six-year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty – is stronger than the Benz SLK and BMW 3’s four-year/50,000 standard/powertrain coverage but not as good as the Infiniti G’s class-leading four year, 60,000 mile basic and six-year, 70,000 mile powertrain coverage.
In addition to all the safety equipment you’d expect to be standard equipment in a $40k car, the IS also offers Adaptive Cruise Control (it slows the car automatically to take into account the ebb and flow of traffic) and comes standard with front seat knee air bags, which can save your legs from being mauled in a head-on crash. A back-up camera is bundled with the GPS navigation system and comes on automatically when the car is put into reverse.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The base car could use more power but it’s hard to argue with the rest of the package – for the price or otherwise.