Driving around in a convertible with the top down is one of the great motoring pleasures. The wind in your hair and the sky overhead, the sights and the smells that surround you all make for a delightful, relaxing experience. But even out here in Southern California where I live, there are times when you want a roof over your head. That's when you encounter the Convertible Compromise. The Lexus IS 350 C manages the Convertible Compromise with a quick-action retractable hard top, transforming the IS from open-air gondola to climate-controlled cocoon in under 30 seconds. With a list price of $45,340 ($53,922 as tested), the 2011 Lexus IS 350 C comes with Lexus' 4-year/50,000-mile basic warranty, a 6-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway.
The IS convertible is based on the IS sedan, sharing a wheelbase (107.5"), powertrain and many other parts and sheet metal. The IS C only has two doors, not four like the sedan. Evaluating a convertible's looks is a two-part exercise, judging how the vehicle looks with the top up, and how it looks with the top down. Top up, the IS C looks sleeker and slightly sportier than the sedan. The clever top consists of three big pieces: the front half of the roof; the back half of the roof; and the back glass with the C-pillars. As a result, there are few visible seams when the top is in place. If you didn't know that you were looking at a convertible, you might not realize it.
[youtubevid id="qiNTXEHLs3w"]The transition from top up to top down is a fantastic show, albeit a brief one. Forget the latches and sleeper sofa mechanisms of old. It takes just 21 seconds to retract the IS hardtop using one switch on the dashboard. The trunk lifts away, the roof folds back and in half, the back glass and C-pillars retract and then the trunk slips back in place, buttoning everything up tight. It's a far cry from a soft top, and leaves a clean, elegant convertible. Small integrated roll hoops stick up from the tonneau cover behind the rear headrests, but they don't detract from the lines of the IS.
The big disadvantage of a retractable hardtop is that all that hardware has to be stored somewhere. A convertible soft top gathers above the trunk lid. The hard top lives in the trunk, taking up most of the cargo space. The IS C doesn't have a lot to spare in the first place. With the top up, there's just 10.8 cubic feet of space in the trunk. Top down, that gets squeezed to 2.36 cubic feet. Lexus has devised a simple trunk divider system to make it simple to keep the space needed for the top clear, and the top will not retract unless the divider is in place.
Luckily, the IS C second row of seating is more useful as a place to toss excess luggage than it is as a perch for passengers. With just 25.9" of legroom (versus 30.6" in the rear of the IS sedan), few adults will want to spend much time back there.
Another big disadvantage of a retractable hardtop, and of convertibles in general, is weight. At 3,880 lbs, the IS 350 C weighs 353 lbs more than the IS 350 RWD sedan. That's enough weight to notice, and enough to affect performance, adding 0.2 seconds to the scoot from 0-60 (5.8 seconds) and pushing the quarter-mile time to 14.1 seconds. Lexus is justifiably proud to point out that IS 350 C's weight is distributed evenly (50/50) over the front and rear wheels, a desirable balance for its front engine/rear drive configuration. No all-wheel drive option is offered on the convertible, as it is on the sedan, nor is there a manual transmission option for the IS 350. The smaller-engined IS 250 C can be ordered with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.
Under the hood of the IS 350 C, there's the typical plastic engine shroud, beneath which lurks a potent (306 hp/277 lb-ft of torque) 3.5-liter V6. I'm very fond of this engine. It makes a great sound, and has a very decisive grunt under power. Lexus jams this powerplant into a variety of its vehicles, and it gives the IS enough get-up-and-go to make driving fun, even if it doesn't inspire track fantasies.
Yet another big disadvantage of convertibles is a loss of body rigidity. This relates to the weight gain disadvantage, as the engineers must attempt to compensate for the loss of structure (the roof) by reinforcing the lower parts of the body. The IS C suffers from body flex, which is most noticeable on rough surfaces. The body twists and shakes in response to inputs from the road, enough that the ride gets slightly uncomfortable and annoying. I wonder how this vibration would affect an IS C in the long run, loosening fasteners and widening gaps. With the top up, the effect of road conditions is much less. The hard top must add structural integrity to the vehicle when it is in place. If you're considering buying an IS C, make sure that you test drive it, top down, on a road with rough surfaces and potholes, and see if the ride bothers you. You might not be as sensitive as I am.
Soft-top convertibles have come a long way, with multi-layer construction and more secure latches, but a hard top convertible like the IS C is nearly as secure, quiet and convenient as a conventional fixed roof vehicle. A hard top convertible will not be subject to the same weathering and fading that a soft top would. The mechanism on a hard top is less fiddly than on a soft top. The convenience and ease of operation of the IS C makes the compromise of the convertible all worthwhile.
Historically, a two-door convertible with a back seat has been called a "cabriolet." A two-door two-seater was a "roadster," and a four-door convertible was a "phaeton," not that there are any produced any more. There are several other excellent hard-top cabriolets in the same general price range as the IS 350 C. The BMW 3-series Cabriolet is the big target, with the Infiniti G and Volvo C70 following behind. Audi's A5, Mercedes-Benz's E-Class and Saab's 9-3 convertibles are equipped with soft tops. The American muscle car cabriolets, the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, are also worth considering for a sportier, less luxury-focused take on the genre. You should also drive the Lexus IS 250 C, which gives up 100 hp to the IS 350 C, but starts at $40,390 ($5,450 less than IS 350 C).
Whichever cabriolet you choose, just make sure that it has heated seats, which will greatly extend your top-down driving season. There's nothing like driving around Los Angeles on a chilly evening with your convertible top down, the heated seats cranked up on high, and watching the stars come out. The Lexus IS 350 C is a great partner for the pleasure of motoring, and does a great job of managing the Convertible Compromise.