The first tip that the new Lexus SC 430 is designed to be more of an upscale cruiser than a sports car is its retractable hardtop, which adds weight unwanted by a true sports car. Leave it to ultra-refined Lexus to offer its first convertible with more than just a fabric top.

Still, the SC 430 is no flabby touring car. Rather, this early 2002 model is generally fun to drive because it has the superb 300-horsepower V8 from the Lexus LS 430 flagship sedan and fairly athletic moves—thanks partly to wide 40-series tires mounted on huge 18-inch wheels.

Steering is precise, and powerful anti-lock brakes have an emergency-stop power-assist feature. The sophisticated suspension provides a supple ride—and traction control and anti-skid systems help keep the SC 430 on the road under extreme driving conditions

Very Fast
The SC 430 sprints to 60 mph in about 6.0 seconds and has an electronically limited 156-mph top speed. But, at a hefty 3,840 pounds, this early 2002 model is too heavy to provide the driving kicks of a genuine sports car.

Much of that weight comes not only from the hardtop, but also from an extraordinary amount of comfort, convenience and safety equipment that the $58,455 SC 430's projected older, affluent buyers demand.

No Manual Transmission
Moreover, no manual transmission is offered for the SC 430. It comes only with a slick five-speed automatic. The new Lexus also isn't a two-seater, which is the seating layout expected from most sports cars. It has two back seats, although they're only suited for small children or items such as designer duffle bags. However, those seats are beautifully upholstered because Lexus wants the SC 430 to be a showcase car.

Small Trunk
The small, awkwardly shaped trunk holds hardly any cargo with the top lowered and only enough for quick weekend getaways with the top up. Moreover, the temporary spare tire sits squarely in the way at the trunk opening unless $400 run-flat tires are ordered. And those tires have stiffer sidewalls that result in a less comfortable ride.

However, the retractable hardtop is immensely desirable in snow-belt and large metro areas where crime is more of a problem—and to folks who want quieter top-up cruising than provided by a convertible with only a fabric top.

The costly, complex, retractable hardtop is hardly a new idea, because mixing the pleasure of top-down driving with metal top-up security is a strong lure. The 1957-59 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner offered the first such top, but it was notoriously troublesome because technology didn't exist to make it reliable.

Efficient Retractable Top
In contrast, the SC 430 top efficiently lowers or raises in about 25 seconds at the touch of a button, and doesn't look as if it will cause headaches—although the owner's manual shows how to raise it if its power-assist fails. There isn't much top-down body quiver from the tightly constructed SC 430.

The only other auto with a retractable hardtop is the less costly $38,900-$43,900 Mercedes-Benz SLK. But the SC 430 is larger, and more posh and powerful—although its weight and power hold down fuel economy to an estimated 18 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.

As for resale value, the Lexus nameplate shines so brightly that an SC 430 shouldn't be at much of a disadvantage in comparison to the SLK, which is strictly a two-seater that also suffers from a small cargo area.

Controversial Styling
Lexus says "the sights and styles of the French Riviera" inspired SC 430 stylists. It seems as if they had a few stiff drinks while there. For instance, the aluminum top looks too small when raised—as if from a 1950s "chopped top" hot rod or custom show car. The SC 430 looks much better with the top down.

The car's 103.1-inch wheelbase is fairly long. And its short body overhangs and pronounced wheel arches give it a powerful look. But the "shark fin" taillights take a while to get used to. And the exceptionally long, high, sculpted tail—needed for roof stowage—calls for the optional ($440) rear spoiler to make it look better. But why the quasi-Mercedes grille?

Plenty of Stares
Despite everything, the SC 430 draws plenty of stares, especially when painted its exclusive (and Lexus isn't kidding) Absolutely Red color. Give Lexus, which generally offers conservative styling, credit for being adventuresome with the SC 430.

The lavish but tasteful wood-and-leather interior is something to behold, with a gorgeous steering wheel and retracting wood dash panels that can hide the Mark Levinson sound system and DVD-based navigation system, which has a screen that adjusts 7 degrees up or down to allow optimal visibility regardless of the sun's reflection.

In fact, the few options are the $2,000 navigation system, rear spoiler and run-flat tires.

Decent Up-Front Room
Two 6-footers have decent room up front, although they won't find a surplus of top-up headroom. Controls are large, but those for the sound system should be above the climate controls, since stereo controls are adjusted more often.

The front seats look good but should provide more side support for such a fast car, and gauges are too deeply recessed for a quick read. Also, the power windows are hard to stop between their fully up or down positions.

Seatbelts require an awkward over-the-shoulder move to grasp. And wind noise is noticeable with the top up even at 65 mph, although the cockpit is fairly turbulence-free with it lowered. The sound system automatically compensates for top-down motoring. So does the climate control system.

The made-in-Japan SC 430 is fairly exclusive because plans call for only 12,000 to be sold in this country in 2001, with 10,000 shipped over in subsequent years. It should have no trouble finding buyers.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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