Does Lexus have it better the second time around?

by Eric Peters

The only Lexus model not to have sold like spiced rum at a fraternity party has been the company's high-end coupes, the SC400 and SC300. Though considered shapely and suave, the now nine-year-old SC coupe never enjoyed the success imagined for it by its designers.

Rather than cut and run, as Lincoln did when flat sales turned the Mark VIII luxury sport coupe into another unfunded liability, Lexus rolled up its sleeves and committed itself to a total, 180-degree turnaround. The result is the all-new SC430 retractable hardtop coupe, a ground-up effort that shares no components (or stylistic themes) with the old car other than the 2+2 seating arrangement and rear wheel drive. It will go on sale in a few weeks as a 2002 model and goes head to head against the Mercedes CLK-series, the Jaguar XK8 convertible, as well as Ford's forthcoming Thunderbird.

Unlike the old SC, which was offered in both a top-of-the-line V-8 (the $56,305 SC400) and lower cost six-cylinder version (the $43,805 SC300), and which came as a hardtop coupe only, the 2002 SC430 will be offered in just one "loaded" form and priced at $58,455, with the V-8 engine and electrically controlled retractable hardtop feature included as standard equipment. Only three options will be available: a DVD-based satellite navigation system ($2000), a rear decklid spoiler ($440) and 18-inch run-flat tires ($400). That's $61,295 for everything: not a Blue Light Special, but compared to the $74,155 Jaguar XK8 convertible, it almost seems reasonable.

A retracting statement

The retractable hardtop feature is similar to that used by Mercedes on its SLK230 and SLK320 two-seat roadsters. It offers the best of both worlds: with the roof up, the car has the look, interior quiet, security and all-weather tightness of a conventional hardtop coupe; lower the roof, and once it tucks itself away -- a job that takes less than 25 seconds -- you've got a convertible, with all the fun that implies.

Lexus engineers make a point of noting that unlike many convertibles, which were designed as coupes and only later had their roofs cut off to make way for convertible tops, the SC430 was designed from the floorpan up with the retractable hardtop in mind, so structural rigidity is excellent and cowl shake almost nonexistent. It feels very solid, very "together."

Buyer's note: The "middle" Mercedes model that competes most directly with the Lexus SC430 -- the $48,900-$56,500 CLK-series -- does not offer a retractable hardtop. It's either a conventional soft convertible top or hardtop coupe. You can of course go down the Mercedes food chain to the SLK-series ($38,900-$43,000) and get a retractable hardtop, but you'll also get a smaller (two seats only), less prestigious car, with no more than a 215-hp V-6 engine in the SLK320.

Firepower underhood

Lexus also scores points against its two main rivals in the horsepower and acceleration departments. The SC430 uses a slightly freer-breathing (thanks to a better exhaust system) version of the 4.3 liter V-8 that made its debut a few months back in the LS430 luxury sedan. In that application, the 4.3 V-8 delivers 290 hp, but in the SC430, with performance-tuned dual exhaust, it ponies up an even 300 hp and has the oats to haul the almost two-ton coupe to 60 mph in a very quick 5.9 seconds, which is quicker than the 275-hp V-8 Mercedes CLK430 and the 4.0 liter, 290-hp V-8 Jaguar XK8.

The SC430 also runs the quarter mile in 14.4 seconds and can reach an electronically limited top speed of 156-mph. Not so long ago, such sizzling numbers would have qualified for supercar status. For a heavyweight luxury cruiser with an automatic, it's pretty amazing, no matter how you slice the cornbread.

In addition to its formidable performance capability, the SC430's DOHC V-8 engine also meets federal Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) emissions standards, which means it's among the most environmentally benign cars you could own -- its wonderful surfeit of power, high price and opulence notwithstanding. Now you can salve your guilt and scoot in style at the same time.

Among the technological features that separate a car like the SC430 from lesser machines are such things as Lexus' brake assist feature, which can sense if the driver is not applying sufficient pedal pressure to activate the anti-lock system when conditions warrant. It will then intervene and adjust pressure to achieve maximum braking effectiveness. Variable valve timing (VVTi) for the engine, manual/automatic function for the five-speed automatic transmission, and stability control for when things get a tick too hairy in a hairpin, are all likewise included in the SC430's base price.

Whether a buyer chooses the optional 18-inch run-flat tires (more trunk room) or not, the car also comes with a tire pressure monitoring system that lets the driver know if things are getting flaccid underfoot. Given that many people today neglect to periodically check their air pressure (and full-service gas stations are history), this extremely worthwhile feature out to be included on every new car made. The Lexus system can even be programmed for different types of tires, such as snow tires vs. summer tires.

Aural pleasures

Oh yeah, the high-zoot, ultra-deluxe and extra fancy Mark Levinson audio system is likewise part of this impressive package. Mark Levinson home audio systems can cost six figures and Lexus claims the custom Digital Signal Processing, nine-speaker, seven channel, 240-watt audio system absolutely cranks. It sounded pretty good to me, too.

The optional DVD-based navigation system incorporates a nice feature no other automaker has thought to build in to their own systems -- 14 degrees of adjustability to keep the glare at bay, no matter the sun angle.

For the interior, buyers can select either burled walnut or birds-eye maple wood trim with matching tones for the standard seat and door panel leather. Everything is up to Lexus standards, which means superb fit and finish, elegant materials and first-class workmanship.

This is a nice car, with few immediately noticeable things worth complaining about. The rear seats are, of course, for visual effect only; attempting to put people back there is not advisable. But this is true of most other high-end 2+2 coupes and convertibles, too. The SC's back seats are, however, great to have as additional storage space -- something you don't get in a two-seat roadster, such as the Mercedes SLK, Porsche Boxster, or Chevy Corvette. It will be interesting to see how the SC430 stacks up against the Thunderbird when it comes out in a few months.

The slinky styling is a departure from the previous SC, and some may notice hints of the Audi TT that become apparent with the retractable hardtop up. But the hints are subtle and the SC's overall shape is its own -- distinctive and quite attractive, especially in the tail area. The car looks poured and molded, a fast-moving sea beast, almost like a Manta Ray with wheels and lights. It got approving nods from all who saw it during my test drive. It's so well executed, in fact, that the optional trunk-mounted spoiler looks like an afterthought.

It seems a safe bet that the SC430 will find more favor than its altogether decent but perhaps too demure predecessor did in the marketplace. According to Lexus, of the 12,000 cars scheduled to be built for the initial U.S. production run, advance orders for 9000 have already been taken. That's good news for Lexus, but bad news for you if you want an SC430 and haven't already snagged a place in line. Depending on where you live and what your local dealer's allocation is -- it may be a year before you can get your hands on one.

Such is the price for life in the fast lane.

2002 Lexus SC430 coupe

Base price range: $58,455
Engine: 4.3 liter V-8, 300 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear wheel drive
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Length: 177.8 in
Width: 72 in
Height: 53.1 in
Curb Weight: 3840 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 18/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags w/crash sensors, side airbags, seat belt pretensioners, ABS, stability control, traction control, run-flat tires (opt.)
Major standard features: V-8 engine, five-speed automatic, power retractable hardtop, six disc Mark Levinson premium audio system, leather and wood trim, power windows, locks and cruise control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

© 2001 The Car Connection

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