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Lexus SC430 (2002)

SEE ALSO: Lexus Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

The original Lexus SC400 coupe made quite an impact when it was introduced a decade ago. It had a long, and very successful, production run, but times change. So say hello to the second- generation Lexus coupe, the 2002 SC430. And say goodbye to any notion of Lexus as stodgily conservative.

The second-generation coupe is also the first-generation Lexus convertible, thanks to a nifty folding metal roof. Press a button, wait a few seconds, and enjoy sunshine or a snug, weatherproof top. With a 300-horsepower V8 and sport-tuned suspension, it is much more of a sports car than the original SC400, with no loss of Lexus luxury. It comes standard with almost all possible luxury and comfort equipment, including a very high-quality Mark Levinson audio system. The only options are run-flat tires, a DVD-based navigation system, and a rear spoiler.

I've just finished a week with a fully-equipped new SC430. "Impressive" hardly describes it. Stunning looks make it the center of attention. It's quick and capable, and offers true luxury comfort for two in the manner of the best luxury sports cars. Best of all, the folding hardtop makes it as snug as any coupe in inclement weather, with all of the joy of a convertible on warm, sunny days.

APPEARANCE: A Delahaye for the 21st Century? C'est possible.... To develop the SC430's styling, members of the Toyota/Lexus European design center spent plenty of time on the French Riviera, all the better to soak up the ambiance and style of luxury. Their ordeal paid off with unusual styling. The SC430's voluptuously- rounded body has a strong feeling of products of classic French automotive coachbuilders of the 1930s through the early 1950s. Straight lines are few and far between, with curves everywhere. With bright chrome grillwork and triangular multi-element headlights, the SC430 has a unique face. The passenger cabin is placed toward the rear of the car, although not extremely so. That, and the longer hood, shorter, higher rear deck, and high rear fender line give it rounded interpretation of the classic sports car wedge-shaped profile. The high, inset shoulder line adds character. Rear styling is even more interesting than the front, and the optional simple, straight spoiler contrasts well with the body styling and actually enhances rather than spoils the design. The SC430 is successful as a coupe or as a roadster, and draws plenty of attention from all sorts of people.

COMFORT: The SC430 is a Lexus, and is appointed Lexus's high standards. The internationally-inspired interior design makes excellent use of leather, high-quality fabric, and wood. Several color and material combinations are offered. My test car had dark, anti- glare material on the top of the instrument panel and doors, cream- colored leather, and beautifully-figured bird's-eye maple trim on the dash, console, doors, and steering wheel. The instruments are not the projected "Optitron" type used in some other Lexuses, but are clearly visible and easily read. The screen for the optional navigation system is hidden behind a door in the instrument panel, protected from the sun when not in use. Front occupants are coddled in comfortable bucket seats, but the rear bench is best thought of as a place for golf clubs or luggage. The power folding metal top operates with ease and simplicity, but it does take up most of what would otherwise be a trunk. The SC430's interior is a hat-friendly zone with the top down, with just enough wind for the convertible experience but no buffeting. With the optional run-flat tires, two carry-on bags can be stored in the trunk; with a spare in place, send the luggage ahead. The standard equipment audiophile-quality Mark Levinson sound system is truly awesome.

SAFETY: The 2002 Lexus SC430 has front and rear crumple zones, dual side door beams, dual-stage front and front side airbags, the "Vehicle Skid Control" system which integrates antilock brakes, brake assist, traction control, and electronic brake distribution.

ROADABILITY: Don't look for a soft, cushy ride here. Ultra-low profile P245/40 ZR18 tires have little sidewall flex because there is little sidewall to flex, and the SC430's optional Bridgestone RE040s are a run-flat design, with stiffer-than-usual sidewalls. The four- wheel independent double wishbone suspension is calibrated for sports car handling. This makes for precise steering response, but don't expect the isolation found in some Lexus sedans. The ride is very firm, and the SC handles very well for a comfort-oriented luxury coupe. Or roadster.

PERFORMANCE: In most situations, the SC430's namesake light alloy 4.3-liter twincam, 32-valve V8 is seriously underemployed. In "D", fittingly for a luxury powerplant, it quietly loafs along, even at highway speeds. The five-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission chooses gears well for normal driving, and shifts quickly and efficiently. But if you drop it down a gear or two, or put it in second for a twisty sports-car road, and let the engine rev, and there will be no doubt that there is 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque on tap. The engine's "VVT-i" variable valve timing give it a wide, useful spread of power for a relaxed feel even when motoring quickly.

CONCLUSIONS: The 2002 Lexus SC430 sets new standards for luxury sports coupes, or roadsters.

2002 Lexus SC430

Base Price              $ 58,455
Price As Tested         $ 61,590
Engine Type             dual overhead cam, 32-valve V8
Engine Size             4.3 liters / 4.3 cu. in.
Horsepower              300 @ 5600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          325 @ 3400 rpm
Transmission            5-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length      103.1 in. / 177.8 in.
Curb Weight             3,840 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   12.8
Fuel Capacity           19.8 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium, 91 octane
Tires                   P245/40 ZR18 Bridgestone Potenza RE040 (opt)
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc,
                          antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  four-wheel independent double wishbone
Drivetrain              front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      18 / 23 / 19
0 to 60 mph                 5.9  sec (mfg)
1/4 mile (E.T.)            14.4 sec

Run-flat tires                  $   400
Navigation system with compass  $ 2,000
Rear spoiler                    $   440
Destination charge              $   295