By on June 2, 2010

There are certain phrases that, when heard in the proper context, signal that one has truly arrived in life. Phrases like “your table is waiting,” and “would you like a drink before we take off?” clearly belong in this comforting category. Strangely, however, the phrase “welcome to Beverly Hills, here are the keys to your Lexus IS250C,” does not.

The day before leaving for Southern California, the Oregon skies opened up after a brief pause, blanketing Portland with what locals refer to as “liquid sunshine” [Ed: not that kind of liquid sunshine... we still brew beer the old-fashioned way up here]. Needless to say, a day of plying the sun-soaked Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible of any kind should have felt like a deeply hedonistic event. And given the dearth of convertible options left in today’s market, the IS250C’s premium appeal should have only added to the Angelean fantasy. After all, I’m not back in the Oregon gloom trying to come up with new adjectives to apply to the Sebring Convertible. And yet, strangely, my time in the Lexus IS250C has left so light an impression that the moral clarity of a ‘bring ‘vert review seems almost worth the necessary day of automotive misery.

In any case, the 250C is wholly unworthy of the term “misery.” The 250C is a thoroughly solid attempt at unseating BMW’s 3-series hardtop convertible as the standard-issue conveyance of choice for the country club set, and other wealthy folk who see themselves as too sophisticated for a mid-life-crisis-mobile. And with rear-wheel-drive, a folding hard-top and legitimate room for four, it certainly has the on paper qualities needed to attract this desirable demographic.

Unfortunately, something is lost in translation between the handsome Lexus IS sedan and its coupe-convertible cousin. Where BMW’s convertibles are only barely distinguishable from their handsome coupe cousins by virtue of their delicate C-pillars, the IS-C is a hot mess of unfortunately differentiating elements. The solid C-Pillars which, in IS sedan duty bring the car’s visual heft rearward for more classic proportions, are reduced to thin elements rising from a sloping hump under which the origami top retracts. The chopped roof abandons an awkwardly-proportioned rear deck, while lending neither the sleekness of a true coupe nor the visual coherence of the IS sedan. Though infinitely better-executed than the comparison suggests, the 250C ends up looking distressingly similar to a (Lord forgive me) Pontiac G6 Convertible.

Inside, the 250C makes up for any possible similarities to such unlamented fare by surrounding its occupants with high-quality materials and thoughtful details. Cooled, heated, multi-adjustable seats are comfortable yet supportive enough for mild enthusiasm. Tasteful dark wood veneer compliments the sober interior’s high-quality if wholly uncreative looks. As with other IS models, however, materials (notably those on the instrument panel) can break the quality spell when touched. Luckily (or not), the mass of IP buttons and confusing climate-controls mean you’ll be staying away anyway. Overall, the impression is akin to riding first-class on a regional flight: nice, but special only in comparison to its alternatives.

With the 250C’s plastic key fob secured in a safe pocket, cruising the Pacific coast requires only a press of the starter button, and about 20 seconds of thumbing a switch that sends the three-piece top into hiding behind the rear seats. Visibility goes from “wow, a two-door that needs a back-up camera” to “wide open spaces,” although top-up interior space is better than you’d expect. Needless to say, putting the top back up while sitting in the driver’s seat is a surefire claustrophobia trigger, and is usually accompanied by much (unnecessary) head-ducking.

With the top down, the 250C’s looks improve considerably, but the transformation takes a heavy toll on trunk space. Seriously, a Porsche Cayman offers more usable storage space (ask me how I know…). Lexus’s considerable efforts to ensure a relatively comfortable rear seat space were all for naught, as that space will inevitably be taken up by any baggage that is more than a foot wide. When the newspaper reviews say the 250C fits a golf club bag, they mean it… and even then, some golf bags would be a tight fit.

This lack of compromise is made all the more galling by the fact that the Lexus is otherwise a paragon of well-considered compromise. Top up, the 250-C is coupe-quiet, with only a few faraway creaks and some well-controlled cowl shake betraying its drophead status. Top down, only brisk side winds coming off the ocean stand a chance of disturbing occupants, and even then, only backseat passengers will find cause for complaint. The 2.5 liter V6 is smoother than a freshly chemical-peeled face, and works with the six-speed autobox like they’ve were raised together. Even with the top down though, there’s never a stirring note to be heard from the pair. No matter: despite serving as the de facto coupe version of the IS range, this Lexus isn’t in any danger of being mistaken for a party girl.

For one thing, the 250C is heavy. It’s packed nearly 500 pounds on its transformation from solid sports sedan to Hollywood honey, and can you ever feel it. Literally. Even if you never hoist the IS-C into a corner with unwarranted enthusiasm, you’ll feel a lot of the extra weight each time you open and close its extended doors. And when you do give in to immature instincts, you learn the lesson (specifically, Newton’s laws of motion) quickly. Though the suspension is passably firm, and the steering is surprisingly well-weighted, the IS-C turns slowly and without gusto. And with only 200 horsepower on tap (and, by the seat-of-the-pants measure, much less until you reach 6,400 RPM), the little V6 doesn’t like exiting corners either.

A Lexus that would rather cruise in comfort than tear up a windy road… now you’ve heard it all, right? Once again, the IS250C has a compromise to keep you guessing. With the automatic transmission in “manual” mode, and the dashboard-mounted “sport” button depressed, the Lexus can actually muster enough fun to keep, say, a golf enthusiast engaged for short periods. With better tip-in, and the freedom to shift at will, the V6 spins freely, rising from a muted purr to a slightly tinny thrash. It’s still no corner carver, but when driven purposefully it’s good enough to scare the wife just the right amount on the way to your tee time.

To put it another way, the IS-C’s underpinnings are actually good enough to recommend upgrading to the 300 HP 3.5 liter option. Starting at $44,890, it’s almost exactly the same price as BMW’s stripped 328i Convertible, and loaded with Lexus’s luxury package it’s only a whisker more (and infinitely better-equipped) than a similarly-powered base 335i convertible (although it faces further competition from the Infiniti G Convertible). But this baby version? As tested, with the full luxury package, it still comes in below below $49k… and that’s a stiff price for an underpowered convertible no matter how you cut it.

Maybe it was the too-smooth-for-its-own-good engine. Maybe it was the sea of Maseratis and Astons that roared past the Lexus on the Pacific Coast Highway. Or maybe it was simply that no car can match up to the hedonistic image that Southern California holds for winter-weary Oregonians. Whatever the reason, the IS250C never lived up to the promise of the phrase “a weekend drive down PCH in a Lexus convertible.” For the money, a loaded Volvo C70 offers better looks, better interior flair, and more sense of occasion, without giving up any meaningful RWD benefits. The BMW, though more expensive, is still a BMW. The Lexus is simply too refined, too anodyne and too compromised where it counts, to be worth more than an impulse buy.

Luckily dropping a healthy annual income on a luxury convertible without considering its competitors does make you feel like you’ve arrived. Even if the convertible itself doesn’t.

Budget of Beverly Hills, an independently owned-and-operated franchise of Budget Rent-A-Car gave us a discounted rental rate on the vehicle for this review. And having endured a nightmare experience with other, non-independent Budget shops in the area, we feel obligated to note that, in addition to offering a wide variety of luxury and exotic cars as well as “regular” rentals, Budget of Beverly Hills also provides a very un-Budget-like level of customer service.

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41 Comments on “Review: Lexus IS250C...”


  • avatar
    carguy

    Spot on review. Even if you opt for the 3.5 V6 the extra weight is still very noticeable whenever cornering, accelerating or stopping. For all of it dynamic compromises, Lexus may just as well have made a convertible ES350 from the Solara than bother with RWD.

  • avatar
    xyzzy

    A photo of the rear end with the top up would be useful for showing the awkward dimensions of this car. I was behind one on the road recently and the cabin is way narrower than the lower body, resulting in a really awkward look.

    • 0 avatar

      For my money, the side shot is one of the worst, but the rear is pretty grim with the top up as well [see here]. In general, the visual effect from almost any angle is Valium-dull rather than jarringly awkward… and this aesthetic tedium is subtle enough to not shine through in pictures the way it does in real life.
      Unfortunately, my beautiful and talented photographer was too beautiful and talented to take any truly unflattering photos of the IS-C. Poor thing just doesn’t know any better. In the future, I’ll be sure to ask for all the awkward angles.

  • avatar

    Nothing even remotely interesting here to me. I’d rather have the E-class Cabriolet.

  • avatar
    stars9texashockey

    The only retractable hardtop/convertibles that look decent with their tops up are the BMW 3 (as you said) and possibly the Volvo C70.

  • avatar

    Sure it’s underpowered, but I like that little V6 mill. It’s dreamy.

  • avatar
    jmo

    Why no comment on the ride quality? The biggest disappointment with the IS vs. a Mercedes or BMW is the comparatively poor ride.

    • 0 avatar

      jmo: Like so much about the car, I found it simply unremarkable. Body flex and shake was well-controlled for such a non-performance-oriented convertible, though in that context, the suspension was probably firmer than it probably needed to be. Still, PCH isn’t the smoothest piece of tarmac out there, and the overall impression was of solid refinement… though I suppose Lexus customers have higher standards than I in this regard.
      bigtruckseries: The E-Cabrio starts at nearly $57k…

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Ed,

      I found it simply unremarkable…. the suspension was probably firmer than it probably needed to be.

      That’s what I found in the SC430 as well, and that was a vehicle designed from inception to be a convertible. My time in a IS was also equally underwhelming. I guess I need to drive an ES350 or LS460, as the IS and SC have both seemed unduly harsh and jittery ride-wise.

  • avatar
    NN

    My mother-in-law, god bless her, has only four simple requirements for a car. 1) it be a convertible, 2) it have a usable back seat, 3) it have a copious trunk for more than one set of golf clubs, 4) it not be offensively hideous (removing the Sebring soft top from consideration). She currently drives a 2006 Solara convertible, with the soft top, that meets these requirements. She’s been shopping for a new convertible for two years now, and is beyond frustrated that nobody makes a car that fits these requirements anymore.

    In my opinion, the C70 is the class of the class, but in general the move to all hard-tops in this market has removed the practicality of a usable trunk while the top is down. Somebody’s got to fix this, and please all the mother-in-law’s.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The Lexus is simply too refined, too anodyne and too compromised where it counts, to be worth more than an impulse buy.

    I wouldn’t call it an impulse buy, not when the other two options are equally discretionary and likely much less reliable over the medium- and long-term.

  • avatar

    The Pontiac G6 convertible was better looking.

    I’ve driven this engine in the sedan with the manual transmission. It still feels gutless, and the manual shift feel is subpar as well.

    The base engine should be a 3.0 rather than a 2.5.

    Reliability has been better than average lately, based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey.

    To read about the survey, and sign up to participate in it:

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

  • avatar
    werewolf34

    You can hate it but it will sell.

    Droptop small engine aspirational brand = female target demographic.

    Think of the car as the newest, hippest handbag until the next one comes along

  • avatar
    twotone

    It will not compete with the BMW 3-Series without a real manual transmission.

    Twotone

    • 0 avatar

      twotone: The 250 is available with a manual.
      werewolf34: The IS series (‘verts and sedans) sold about 3,250 units last month, and about 2,900 in the IS-C’s first month of sales (which just so happened to be May of 2009). If the C models are having a big effect, the sedan must be dropping off quite a bit. On the other hand, the IS sedan has been on the market since late 2005. Besides, Summer is coming…

  • avatar
    SomeDude

    To build a good convertible, the base sedan (or hatch, or what have you) should be a good one, to begin with. But, since even the Cobalt SS will beat IS250 out of the water, what can you expect from an IS250-based convertible?

  • avatar
    Davekaybsc

    The tall, slab sided body makes the rear wheels look about 3″ smaller than the fronts. The IS sedan is one of the best looking cars Lexus makes (granted, that’s not saying much) but the convertible version is the ugliest in its class.

    I don’t know how you could take one of these over the sexy A5 Cabrio.

    • 0 avatar
      ConejoZing

      “I don’t know how you could take one of these over the sexy A5 Cabrio.”

      Heh heh. I’ll put it this way. Some people are Lexus people (forget sexy or provocative style or really performance just make sure the electronics work). Some people are BMW people (I want that yuppie badge and I want my RWD mechanical drive and I want this status quo and I want to shove it in your face). Some people are Audi people (Look at me and my different luxury Bauhaus style I’m really sophisticated but I don’t want to be a total snob. I want to be kind of “edgy” and despite a few electrical nags my car has a huge efficient sometimes diesel engine plus quattro).

      There are enough Lexus people out there that would just love to get their hands on a Lexus IS250C. And that’s just fine.

  • avatar
    BMWfan

    You can buy a BMW vert that is 4 or 5 years old for less than half the price that will pi$$ all over the Lexus in the twisties. With the fabric top you can also store two or three sets of clubs in the trunk. I never understood hardtop verts, and I sure would not want to pay when the top fails out of warranty. The E46 vert has classic looks, get one while you still can.

  • avatar
    JimC

    Okeeeee, an expensive Solara that happens to be RWD. Carguy’s comment and NN’s MIL’s four requirements pretty much sum it up.

  • avatar
    NickR

    People love anodyne.

  • avatar
    pb35

    Nobody has mentioned the G37 yet? Forget the G6, I’m going Infiniti when she gets her convertible. No question.

    I have no interest in this Lexus.

  • avatar
    csf

    My sister in 45, not married, an executive with Verizon, and already has an Infiniti FX35. She bought this Lexus IS250C in white as a second car 6 months ago. She does not care about how a car accelerates, corners, brakes or handles. She wanted a hardtop convertible which would be luxurious and reliable. She loves the Lexus and chose it over the G37 convertible even though she could have gotten a better deal on the Infiniti. Not everyone cares about performance – the Lexus is ideal for consumers like that.

  • avatar
    Brock_Landers

    quote: The 2.5 liter V6 is smoother than a freshly chemical-peeled face, and works with the six-speed autobox like they’ve were raised together.

    This is very true and also applies for the sedan. 250C in not enthusiasts car, people who are looking for a convertible and like relaxing driving experience, smoothness, quietness and quality will buy this car. Miata or 3-series convertible have their buyers who appreciate different values.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    This car is absolutely meaningless.
    It will be rarer than a blue moon in Europe.
    The only reason to buy it is if you want to be unique, and that´s a very small market.
    Some number of cabriolets for sale on mobile.de:
    Audi A5: 473
    Bmw 3-series: 525
    Volvo C70: 160
    Lexus IS 250: 31

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    It sounds to me like a classic ‘designed by Toyota’. Everything is perfectly in the middle: nothing objectionable, nothing emotional. Toyota management/ engineering compromises; smoothing any sharp edges off before it can be approved. And although this is a criticism on my part, I realise it takes skill and dedication to deliver something so ‘balanced’.

    Maybe it is products like this which are getting Akio Toyoda fired up when he says “We need to make products which our customers can fall in love with”. The IS250C is a luxurious car for people who don’t care much about cars, only appearing luxurious. Sure there’s a market for it, but there’s a much bigger one if it also had something for people who love driving.

  • avatar

    No-one interested in performance will buy a convertible anyway so a MT doesn’t matter. This car is for middle class suburbanite women who something they consider stylish to be seen in.

  • avatar
    Brock_Landers

    Buckshot really? Is European car market different form the States? Major newsflash! How many Escalades do you see for sale in mobile.de and how many Audi Q7′s. What about the same comparison in autotrader.com?

    quote Dicky: Sure there’s a market for it, but there’s a much bigger one if it also had something for people who love driving.

    There are not many new car buyers left in the market who REALLY love and enjoy driving and feel the difference between handling charactereistics of different cars. BUT there are lot of people who like to think so and they think so because of really effective marketing of certain car brands.

  • avatar
    mikenem

    I saw one yesterday. Awkward is a great way to desribe the styling. The G37 drop looks way better. Almost like a Japanese CLK when the top is up.
    But the 3 series styling leads this class IMHO.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Strangely, however, the phrase “welcome to Beverly Hills, here are the keys to your Lexus IS250C,” does not.

    If you want a status symbol, there is the SC. Bill Gates had one.

    It’s not a status symbol, only because it’s too cheap. Even if it can beat the crap out of a Ferrari, if 80% of the population can afford it, it’s not a status symbol.

  • avatar
    Lexingtonian

    Almost test drove one last year. Got in the driver’s seat, adjusted it, and it was more cramped than I was willing to live with for a car of its price, so I didn’t bother driving it.

    I mean, it was cramped compared to a last gen Z4.

    The G37C was much more comfortable, and a hell of a lot of fun to drive. Pity you can fit a 12 pack of Coke in the trunk (and nothing else) with the top down.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Yes what we have here is a car that litterally looks half it’s price and drives much the same way with a cramped interior to boot or in other words another throw away appliance.

  • avatar
    windnsea00

    Budget of LAX is now also independently operated and not under the control of Avis.

  • avatar
    Davekaybsc

    Even better than a last gen BMW 3 series soft top – S4 Cab. Now there’s some fun. Stick a $100 Garmin on the dash and you’ve basically got all of the “advanced technology” the IS has.

  • avatar
    Buckshot

    I looked at autotrader and wow!!!
    You´re a weird bunch.
    Why the Audi hate?
    Why in gods name is Lexus IS more popular than Audi A5???

    Audi A5: 147
    BMW 3 series: 504
    Volvo C70: 241
    Lexus IS: 260


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