- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The 2010 convertible version of Lexus’ least expensive model, the IS sport sedan, is a car Toyota’s upscale division has been hurting for. While the primary competition — Audi, BMW, Infiniti, even Volvo - all have affordable entry-level luxury convertibles, the only way to sun worship in a Lexus has been in the big-bucks SC 430.

That’s all changed.

The 2010 Lexus SC 430 will set you back almost 70 large, but the two convertibles in the 2010 IS-C lineup are a lot more accessible, if you don’t mind working a clutch pedal. You can slide into the smaller-engine Lexus IS 250C for less than $40,000.

Considering its aggressive price point, the IS 250C may be the best all-around Lexus for the money. Even the IS 350C, powered by a larger, 3.5-liter V-6 and starting at $44,815, is a very enticing proposition.

The main reason: Even if you’re not necessarily a convertible fan, Lexus’ new IS convertibles are just about all you need from a luxury sports car in terms of driving excellence, while the cars’ brilliantly designed folding hardtop eliminates the traditional soft-convertible liabilities of reduced cold-weather comfort and decreased security.

The hardtop sedan IS 250 is sometimes criticized for fizzy performance from the somewhat meager 204 horsepower its smartly-sized 2.5-liter V-6 generates, but the power level seems just about right for the more laid-back character of the new convertible version. The IS 250 is billed as a sport sedan, so some drivers expect more than its engine is designed to deliver, but the IS 250C gets down the road smartly enough with the same power, perhaps because you usually feel like you’re traveling pretty briskly when the top is down.

And what a nice top it is. Lexus claims it’s the world’s fastest-opening three-piece hardtop; just 20 seconds of your life are required in raising or lowering the thing. Because electric motors do it all (rather than the combination of motors and hydraulics that usually actuate retractable hardtops), everything works with uncommon precision and quietness.

When the roof is erected, well, that’s the real beauty of hardtop convertibles: it practically isn’t a convertible, everything’s sealed so perfectly. Engineers built in all sorts of sweet details to make the new Lexus’ convertible-ness even more transparent: The rear window is glass, of course, and there’s a heavy-duty defroster embedded. The gorgeous LCD gauges and integrated displays have been revised for better visibility with the top down, and the windshield has extra acoustical insulation. The radio and equalizer automatically adjust for top-down conditions.

We drove both the IS 250C and 350C on a nice warm day, and the interior comfort was excellent. Roof-down wind buffeting is well controlled, and if you raise all four windows, 70-mph conversation is in normal volumes.

If there’s a downside, the line on each of the IS-C’s rear flanks - necessitated to accommodate the wraparound folding trunk lid - mars the car’s otherwise sharp styling. And if you plan to travel far with the top down, pack light (or plan to use the rear-seat area for cargo): There’s just 2.3 cubic feet of trunk space with the top folded.

But you know what? These are ridiculously trivial beefs for the convenience, comfort and driving exuberance this hardtop convertible delivers. What’s more, with the IS 250C and 350C, you get one more major attribute: that undeniable feel of Lexus quality and indestructibility, making the IS-C convertibles a compelling new option in the premium-car market.

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