1999 Lexus SC 400 Road Test

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1999 Lexus SC 400 Coupe

(4.0L V8 5-speed Automatic)

We Just Don't Get It

Every segment of the automobile industry is fragmenting into smaller and more specific segments. For instance, we used to have trucks and SUVs but now we have trucks, SUVs, mini-SUVs and SUV-truck hybrids like the Lincoln Blackwood (these SUV-truck hybrids have been assigned various marketing-savvy acronyms, but I prefer the term "SUCKS").

The same thing has happened in the car world. Numerous segments have spawned sub-segments, which have inevitably led to still smaller, more specific vehicles. Chrysler's upcoming PT Cruiser, which is sort of a compact minivan/hot rod that classifies as a truck because of its removable seats, is a perfect example.

With all this fragmentation of vehicle design, it's apparent that every car can serve a market niche, no matter how specific and/or limited. At least, this was what we told ourselves while evaluating the Lexus SC 400. With a near-$60,000 price tag, the SC's buyer must exist, we just couldn't figure out who it was.

Is the SC 400 a luxury car? It certainly has the smooth, refined Lexus V8 necessary to establish itself as a high-end transportation device. During our test period the 4.0-liter engine never made a peep and required a quick glance at the tachometer to confirm its operational status. Additional upscale touches, like the two-position driver's seat memory, the concert hall-like Nakamichi sound system, automatic climate control and the sumptuous seat, door panel and dash coverings, suggest that this is indeed a luxury-oriented vehicle.

But as a $58,000 luxury coupe, shouldn't the Lexus have one-touch up and down windows at both doors (as opposed to only the driver's window)? How about some useable interior storage bins to stick your cell phone and Palm Pilot? And where are the steering wheel-mounted buttons for cruise control and audio functions? Hmm, maybe the SC gives up some of these as a tradeoff for...um...performance.

That's it! The SC 400 is a performance coupe! After all, its 290-horsepower engine did manage a 6.6-second zero-to-60 time, which is slower than the less expensive Mercedes-Benz CLK430, but faster than the Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe (which is also cheaper). And its stopping distance of 128 feet from 60 mph is impressive for such a heavy vehicle (3,655 pounds) but, again, it's still not up to CLK standards.

However, if the powerful and refined drivetrain suggest performance, the suspension and steering feel indicate luxobarge to the nth degree. Body roll is particularly disconcerting and manages to kill any true "fun factor" when navigating canyon roads. Feedback through the steering wheel is also on par with your typical large land yacht. Think LS 400-type road manners (which, in a true luxobarge is fine, but in a performance coupe just doesn't work) and you'll get the idea.

At this point in the evaluation process frustration was starting to set in. So it's sort of a luxury car, but it's missing some key luxury items. And it's sort of a performance coupe, but it can't perform well except when traveling in a straight line. Maybe it's just a really expensive personal-luxury coupe. Something like an Acura CL but twice the price. This was starting to look promising! Just like the CL, our SC 400 test unit had no head airbags, side airbags, traction control or Dynamic Stability Control. Of these features, only traction control is optional, and it costs an additional $1,240. Our test unit didn't even have a locking differential, allowing one of its rear tires to spin wildly if the car wasn't pointed straight when goosing the throttle.

Of course, the Acura CL has a rear seat that full-sized adults can actually utilize, at least for short periods of time. Smaller adults and children can spend all day back there without complaint. By contrast, the SC's rear seats are cramped unless the front passengers are quite small and are willing to move the front seats all the way forward, at which point the rear-seat accommodations become useable, but still not comfortable. Rear-seat entry and egress is also a problem due to the front-seat shoulder belts that hang in the narrow opening between the folded front seatback and the B-pillar. The rear seats also can't fold down to increase trunk capacity and, unlike the CL, they don't even offer a pass-through to aid in carrying long objects.

So, it's a personal-luxury coupe that costs twice as much as an Acura CL while offering less people or cargo-carrying ability. Maybe we shouldn't have tried to figure out this car's purpose after all.

The truth is that the SC 400 is an 8-year-old design that simply can't compete in today's market. Tracing the lineage of this car from its 1992 debut, it appears that the most significant update has been the addition of a passenger-side airbag...in 1993. Other changes, like a CFC-free air-conditioning system and the availability of chrome wheels, just aren't enough to keep a product fresh for eight years, especially in today's rapidly changing automotive marketplace.

Like any vehicle, the SC isn't all bad. Its serene highway ride and superb build quality are standard-issue Lexus. Similarly, the interior layout and controls manage to be both attractive and functional (except for the missing steering-wheel controls and diminutive, non-adjustable cupholders). Style-wise, the SC 400 offers a clean shape that has aged gracefully but is certainly lacking the many creases and angles found on more recent designs, though this could be argued as a pro or con, depending on your personal taste.

We found that navigating the car through West L.A. traffic was easy due to the thin roof pillars and excellent visibility. Highway passing was similarly effortless with the transmission downshifting quickly and the coupe bolting forward, propelled by its 290-horsepower V8 with variable-valve technology and a broad torque band. As is typical for Lexus, the SC 400's brakes proved confident and well-modulated, allowing us to make the most of the V8's power without undue risk.

Unfortunately for Lexus, Mercedes' new CLK430 is less expensive while offering superior performance and style. If a pretend rear seat and a luxury nameplate aren't absolutely necessary, you could spend even less and buy a loaded Corvette that would offer far better performance and technological advancement while still providing a healthy amount of luxury.

Don't forget that at this price you can also buy some truly great Lexus rides. The LS 400 and the LX 470, two vehicles in the top of their respective classes, can be had for less than $60,000.

Apparently, we're not the only people who feel this way. In the first seven months of 1999, Chevrolet sold 16,765 Corvettes while Mercedes sold 8,645 CLK320s (couldn't find a figure on CLK430s) and Acura sold 12,262 CLs. In that same period Lexus sold only 1,460 SC 300s and SC 400s combined.

But that means that almost 1,500 people have already bought an SC in 1999. We just don't get it.

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