LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas - Lexus is no stranger to retractable hardtops, having launched its SC 430 model way back in 2002. Occupying a lofty position on the price scale, and equipped with a most minimal back seat, that SC 430 has attracted a somewhat limited audience.
For the 2010 season, Toyota's luxury division is seeking a different sort of buyer with its new IS retractable hardtop (convertible).
First goal, according to Brian Smith (vice-president of sales and dealer development), was a "great roof." Fabric tops are disappearing lately, replaced by power-operated retractable hardtops. In the case of the IS, the roof retracts in about 20 seconds, disappearing from view. Lexus claims this is the world's fastest-opening three-piece metal hardtop. Both the air conditioner and the audio system self-adjust as needed when the top is lowered.
Seating four occupants, the IS convertible has a choice of two V-6 engines. In the IS 250, a 2.5-liter V-6 develops 204 horsepower at 6400 rpm, yielding an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 21 mpg city/29 mpg highway. Those estimates dip to 18/25 mpg for the IS 350, which contains a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 308 horsepower. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard with the 3.5-liter engine and optional for the 2.5-liter, which gets a standard six-speed manual gearbox.
This convertible was "built from the ground up," said Charles Hubbard, the Lexus dealer education expert at the University of Toyota. Except for the hood, no body panels are shared with IS sedans. Weight distribution is an even 50/50 (front/rear). Lexus says the IS's 0.29 coefficient of drag (a measure of slipperiness through the air) is the best in the convertible class. Alloy wheels hold 17-inch tires, but 18-inch rubber is optional. Run-flat tires also are optional. So are a windscreen and ventilated seats. Intuitive Park Assist is yet another option.
Six airbags are installed, including knee airbags. The 240-watt, 8-speaker audio system includes a 6-CD changer, satellite radio, and audio equalization adjustment for noise. Hubbard notes that "ample" extra reinforcement has been supplied for the body, due to the lack of a permanent metal roof. With the top up, trunk space is a respectable 10.8 cubic feet; top down, it shrinks to a miniature 2.36 cubic feet.
Elegance of form meets excellence in road behavior, along Arkansas highways
Only a few moments behind the wheel are needed to realize that this is luxury convertibe driving. The IS 350C could hardly be more solid, better controlled, or more satisfying. Excellent ride comfort is the rule. Slight bumps are indeed felt, but few are transmitted more than subtly. This retractable takes harsher spots in stride.
Steeering is not excessively assisted, as in some luxury automobiles, which makes for fine road feel. Very little correction is needed on expressways and highways. Handling is definitely of a sporty nature, as the IS 350C goes where it's pointed with no hint of laxity.
Vigorous and refined throttle response from the 3.5-liter V-6 engine means drivers have no worries whatsoever when it's time to pass or merge. Expertly isolated, the V-6 runs very quietly. No road noise is noticed at all, with the top down.
Trunk space is mighty meager with the top down: two small briefcases and a coat fill up most of the space. Rear headrests block a fair amount of the aft view with the top up, but they can be lowered.
Straightforward white-on-black gauges are nicely lit and easy to read. The backseat is far from roomy, but at least there is some leg space, unlike Lexus's SC model. Single-touch rear-seat access works with two buttons, to make it easier to slip back there. The navigation screen isn't particularly big, and mounted somewhat low, but it's easy to read. Though large, the glovebox is tri-partitioned, which reduces space by a bit.
"Convertibles are an emotional purchase," Smith said, alluding to some secret thoughts that prospective buyers might possess. "Consumers really want to unleash a darker side," Smith added. "They wanted to do certain things in the car ... in the open, in the sun." Ads follow up on suggestive themes, under the tagline: "Live a little, a lot."
Half of the buyers are expected to be female, typically around age 50. Sales began at the end of May, and Lexus expects to sell about a thousand per month. Prices start at $38,490 (plus destination charge) for the IS 250C, and $43,940 for the IS 350C. A number of F Sport accessories will be available for IS C models.
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