Finishing Graduate School in Style

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2011 Lexus IS 250C

On April 16, I made my final classroom appearance as a graduate student. That day, I spent 45-minutes parsing out issues in the performing arts regarding performances that challenge an audience’s perceptions of culture and identity. All I did was talk about the Capstone for 25 minutes, click the clicker to my PowerPoint presentation and facilitated a discussion for the remaining time. I also had to be engaged for the other five fellow Capstone travelers by reviewing their papers and participating in their discussions.

I am very glad this is all behind me.

To celebrate the end of this journey, I felt somewhat compelled to finish this off in style. But, how? Certainly the only way I know to finishing anything off in style is with an automobile. The plan was simple: Arrive at the Capstone relaxed (but, nervous), ready to tackle on the day (but, wondering what I was missing in the paper or the presentation script) and hope I don’t screw up.

What I did not expect was the vehicle itself. It certainly looked the part for an arrival onto campus and an exit into the sunset. But, honestly, I thought that arriving onto my Capstone in a 2011 Lexus IS 250C would appear to be (and, please excuse the pun) over the top.

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Before I get into the rest of the IS 250C, I have a couple of confessions to make. First off, this is the first Lexus I ever driven. After a dozen or so Toyotas and Scions under my belt, the honor to drive a Lexus truly calls for a special occasion. Not to diminish previous runs in Infinitis, Cadillacs. Lincolns, Volvos and an oft Mercedes, but after witnessing Lexus from day one I already had an inkling that I am about to take the wheel of something truly special. After all, Lexus created the benchmark for all premium/luxury brands to follow in terms of the sales and the after-sale experience since they opened their doors in 1989.

The second confession may come as a surprise from this Southern California native: This is the first convertible I have ever driven.

Why have I never driven a car with a removable top? It’s a long story, but the point being that I never quite felt comfortable driving with an infinite amount of headroom. Not to mention managing the intrusion of the upper frame of the windshield if my eyes are supposed to be fixed onto the road and forward. In some convertibles, my field of vision would be cut off right at eye level. I have a tall torso, after all…

As it happened, a Lexus convertible became part of my final moments of graduate school. It was a bit more than I asked for, but…I better discuss the Lexus, first, before I question my own psychosis.

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To begin, a bit of history about the IS. In 2001, the IS was first conceived as Lexus' (and Toyota's) answer to the BMW 3-Series. It was a hardcore enthusiast's sedan in contrast to the LS, ES and SC that shared showroom space with the smaller model. You may recall the wagonesque model that was offered alongside the original IS sedan – the SportCross.

This iteration of the IS started off with sporty four-door sedans as before, but it spawned a monster variant aimed right at another BMW benchmark: The M3. The IS F is nothing to sneeze at with its performance and technology – 416 horsepower on tap. Not exactly the one you’d take to the last day of graduate school – unless you completely bombed the Capstone and needed a quick getaway from campus.

The IS C is different. It is re-imagined from the bottom edge of the windshield backwards – though there are some slight visual differences up front compared to its sedan sister. It has only two doors with a power-operated folding metal roof that slides underneath the trunk lid. That alone changes the character of the IS, which is still pleasing to the eye overall. With the roof down, it has quite a luxurious air about it – even more so than the BMW 3-Series convertible. With the roof up, it is a nice personal coupe to protect one from anything the unpredictable mid-April Minnesota climate can serve up. Either way, the IS C looks the part and does so with grace, poise and style.

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Inside, I got everything I prefer to have in a luxury car: Satellite navigation, XM radio, XM NavTraffic and NavWeather, a Bluetooth that syncs perfectly (with my end-of-grad-school gift to myself: A Blackberry Curve 3G), the Lexus Enform telematics system (and there is an app for that for your smartphone), a high-end audiophile system and comfortable and supportive leather seats. The Mark Levinson audio system sounds quite nice and the Bluetooth is very easy to sync and use. Behind the wheel, I felt comfortable and in tune with the cabin. The instrumentation was the right size and lit up quite nicely both day and night. I must admit that I had no trouble navigating any of the switches – most of them happen to be very familiar to me after years of driving Toyotas and Scions. Though, I like that Lexus made things more luxurious in their fonts around the instrumentation – a reminder you are indeed driving a Lexus.

During my time with the IS 250C, I was able to utilize the Lexus Enform telematics system – which is a comprehensive piece of kit to have in a vehicle. One such instance was my using Destination Assist to pinpoint a restaurant I forgot the location of. It works brilliantly as the Lexus representative sent the location to the navigation system for it to map out your route to your chosen destination. I know that a few other telematics systems have this, but being it's the first time I ever used such a system – it's absolutely brilliant!

For passenger accommodations, there is a back seat. It's good to have one, but they're truly not built for adults around my size. Not to mention there's absolutely no legroom behind me. That is not to say that I can fit a third person – as long as both number two and number three happen to be much smaller than I.

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Under the hood is the smallest engine offered by Lexus that is not tacked on with their Hybrid Drive system: A 2.5-liter V6 with dual overhead camshafts, four valves-per-cylinder, variable timing and so forth. You get 204 horses under the hood, which may not seem like a lot of power considering six-cylinder mills these days. However, when you press the throttle, it responds with the right amount of revs through each gear. Simply, there is no lag or hesitation in the lower gears and will spread the entire power band with effortless abandon right until it settles into the sixth ratio – and rewards you with a nice freeway cruising experience. It is a very happy engine, indeed.

These six speeds are delivered inside of a quiet and effortless automatic gearbox that eventually transmits everything to its rear wheels. Though this drivetrain is extremely happy in this IS convertible, if you must have more power than everyone in the neighborhood, you can opt for the IS 350C with 306HP. One note for those of us in the Northern climes: All-wheel-drive is not available on any of the IS convertibles. If you must have maximum grip, you can slap some winter tires during those months. Plenty of Lexus IS C owners usually opt to do that, as long as the roof is up, of course!

On the road, the best way to describe the driving experience of the IS C is "balanced." The ride is solid and comfortable – just the way I prefer it to be. There is minimal roll on the corners and astute sharpness in the way it handles any condition. However, one must be very cautious when presented with roads that are still full of potholes and deep cracks resulting from the terrible winter we had in Minnesota. Though the suspension setup is very well damped, only the worst road imperfections can send slight shutters through the body – even with the roof closed.

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I found the steering to be sharp and very tight. You can absolutely feel the tires when you twist the wheel – which is how a steering system should act! Rounding the drive package are some very sharp brakes. I love how it the four disc brakes simply respond to your foot when you need to stop – even in sudden braking situations.

When completely evaluating the performance dynamics of the IS convertible, one must understand that these retractable roof models weigh 379 pounds more than a similarly equipped IS four-door sedan. However, that extra weight does not tax the 2.5-liter V6/6-speed automatic set-up at all. In fact, it is very sprightly and jaunty no matter if you have the roof retracted or not.

All of this jauntiness and happiness is fantastic, but there is one important point to be made about the IS 250C: Fuel economy. For this sporty retractable roof convertible, I registered a consumption loop of 24.3 MPG. That’s much better than I expected! Just make sure you pay attention to the sticker inside the fuel filler area before you pump – the one that says "Premium Unleaded Fuel Only." I did comply – to the tune of $4.05-4.25 a gallon in Minneapolis. Simply put: You own a nice luxury car, you pump the better juice into the tank, you save your behind on repairs in the long run!

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The one thing I keep on hearing about convertibles have been their weakness in structural integrity when the top is down. Remember that the IS C only comes with a metal folding roof instead of a fabric one. That alone helps to create a stable environment when the roof is down or up. What about driving it with the roof down? The best way to describe the experience of the infinite sky above you for a first-time convertible driver is simply one word: Exhilarating. Just like the Jeep Wrangler last year, I completely comprehend the attraction to a different kind of motoring than I'm normally used to. There’s an absolute freedom with the top down and infinite headroom. Feeling it for the first time was wondrous – and doing this in this Lexus made it even better.

However, I also like the closed coupe experience as well. I have driven a few sporty cars in my time and loved the fact that it would hold the ground even with a limited field of vision. If you ignore the gaps of where the roof folding mechanism is pieced together, it still provides a great sports-luxury atmosphere. And, the roof mechanism – it's a marvel of fine engineering, if you've never seen one in action. I was captivated by how this symphony of motors and panels were able to take a metal roof and neatly place it behind the rear seat.

There is a small catch if you must drive with the roof down. Where once you had a mass of space in the trunk with the roof up, once the roof is folded down, you only have room for two-to-three gym bags for a weekend’s run somewhere. Any extra bags (or larger rolling cases) would end up in the back seat. Not entirely practical, but at least you understand that a week-long road trip would require some creative packing on you and your traveling companion’s part.

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In North America, the Lexus IS C is the de facto convertible covering all three brands of Toyota. You want a brand new Lexus SC? Forget it. A factory fresh Toyota Camry Solara? They don’t make them anymore, either. Besides, the IS 250C is priced right between the two at under $42,000 (my example was priced out at just above $46,000). That’s a better value than the BMW 328i Convertible. You can get other metal-roofed convertibles for less than the IS C (namely, the Volvo C70, the Volkswagen Eos and the Chrysler 200 Limited), but let’s be honest – you’d rather have peerless after-sales support above all. You want honest luxury, even in a small, rear-drive convertible. You want to be treated with respect and dignity – like anyone else with an advanced degree should. Lexus delivered in all departments with flying colors. I never experienced that high level of customer service from an automotive entity – ever. Is that a ringing enough endorsement for you, dear fickle consumer?

However, I have one serious issue about convertibles, such as the Lexus IS C: Image. As a dude – a native Californian, at that – I should be excited about having a roof that can be retracted into the trunk when basking in the warm sun. That is until I keep hearing and reading about the stereotypes of convertible buyers. As a gay man, I would be insulted if I was seen in a convertible and be pegged as a hair stylist or a career administrative assistant (no disrespect to those of you who are in these occupations – I’m only stating an automotive stereotype here). I would also be challenged as to which gender I truly am inside – and that’s even more insulting.

But, as a man, I am secure enough to state that the IS 250C is such a nice place to be in – a very nice car to arrive in style. It is simply all I needed to propel me across the finish line of my graduate school experience. In all, this Lexus simply superseded all my expectations by being an absolutely fantastic coupe – and convertible – to drive.

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DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

All photos by Randy Stern

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