2002 Lexus SC 430 First Drive

2002 Lexus SC 430 Convertible

(4.3L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Continental-flavored Coupe-vertible

We always felt the Lexus SC was an expensive compromise. Brilliantly engineered and first introduced for the 1992 model year, the luxury-performance car languished on the market after its initial popularity wore off, seemingly forgotten by Lexus, and buyers, as competitors such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo introduced less expensive, roomier, and in some cases, better coupes. Beyond that, consumers shopping competing models could choose between a two-door with a solid roof or a ragtop for open-air motoring on sunny days. The SC came only with a fixed roof.

Beyond price and configuration, what were the primary problems with the SC? In its later years, as competition grew fierce, the Lexus didn't offer cutting-edge technology, expected luxury accoutrements, distinctive styling or class-leading performance. After nearly a decade on the market, during which time precious few updates were made to the increasingly dull SC, the car was allowed to fade quietly into the sunset.

The new SC 430 is far from bland, though not quite palatable to conservative tastes. The normally reserved automaker is taking a risk here and the SC 430, inspired by luxury themes of the French Riviera, is the most radical styling exercise ever to wear a Lexus nameplate. It's not a vehicle for those who like to blend into the background.

Some of us find the controversial shape striking, especially painted in darker hues. They flatter the high rear trunk line that blends into the extremely low roof. In other colors, some of the SC's crisp contour lines disappear and then it just looks odd.

That's with the top up. Like the Mercedes SLK, the SC is a hardtop convertible with a retractable aluminum roof that magically folds into the trunk at the touch of a button. In convertible mode, the 430 looks far more conventional.

The advantages of a collapsible hard roof over a soft top are manifold, according to Lexus. Such a design offers better structural rigidity (Lexus, in fact, claims better chassis rigidity numbers than the Mercedes CLK and the Jaguar XK8), less wind noise and greater safety in the case of a rollover. The disadvantages boil down to one -- stowing the roof eats precious cargo space.

That problem is exacerbated by the standard trunk-mounted temporary spare tire, located aft of the area reserved for the folded roof. With the roof raised, there's enough storage space for a weekend getaway, but with the roof retracted, there's barely room for a toothbrush.

Optional Bridgestone or Goodyear run-flat tires (245/40ZR18s) eliminate the need for the onboard spare (they also come with a built-in tire-pressure monitoring system that checks tire pressure every 15 seconds), greatly improving cargo capacity. Even with the roof collapsed, the run-flats ensure enough trunk room to carry a full-sized golf bag. We can't believe that anyone with this kind of money to spend would fail to consider opting for these optional tires.

Lexus' rationale for offering the standard Dunlops is their allegedly superior grip and ride. Run-flats need stiffer sidewalls and different compounds, resulting in some compromise on these fronts. Lexus spokespeople were especially concerned with the higher-tech tires' greater propensity to squeal when pushed hard through corners. However, those likely to buy the $58,455 SC are unlikely to be doing Mario Andretti impressions on public highways. Indeed, we found precious little difference between the optional Bridgestone run-flats and the supposedly stickier standard-issue Dunlops.

The new SC is plenty sporty no matter what tires you choose, thanks mainly to the performance of the new 4.3-liter V8. This is the same engine used in the LS and GS Sedans, but in SC guise, the double overhead cam powerplant produces 300 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 10 more than the LS 430 and matching the GS 430. Thanks to the powerband-stretching abilities of VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) technology, there's also 320 foot-pounds of torque at 3,400 rpm, good enough to launch the SC to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds says Lexus, nearly half a second faster than the LS 430 and a distinct improvement over the last SC 400 Coupe we tested. The quarter-mile takes 14.4 seconds, according to Lexus, and the top speed is governed to 156 mph. Despite this enviable performance, the SC still manages EPA fuel economy ratings of 18/23 for city and highway, no doubt aided by its 0.31 coefficient of drag (0.30 if you opt for the rear spoiler).

A little quicker on its feet than its predecessor, this new coupe-vertible is equally sophisticated. A model of refinement, the V8's operation is barely perceptible at idle and butter-smooth as the revs rise. The five-speed automatic transmission is similarly subdued, with shifting points passing almost unnoticed. However, its gear ratios aren't as closely spaced as the sportier automatics offered on focused performance machines. It also seems that Lexus has abandoned the toggles on the steering wheel that manually shift the five-speed automatic transmission. They would have been a welcome addition to the sporty SC 430.

Since the SC's chassis and four-wheel double-wishbone independent suspension is based on the sporty GS 430's underpinnings, it emulates that car's precise steering and handling. There's surprisingly little body roll in turns, something Lexus attributes to the new coupe's low roll center as much as its firm dampers. Whatever the reason, the SC 430 is decidedly sportier than the old SC 400, and Lexus has avoided over boosting the power steering, so the new coupe feels stable through high-speed corners. Despite all this sporting intent, Lexus hasn't forgotten that the majority of SC 430 owners will simply want sporty, not sports car, levels of performance and have balanced the damper calibrations for a surprisingly supple ride.

On the active safety front, the SC's four-wheel ABS disc brakes with EBD (electronic brake distribution) are backed up by a nifty Brake Assist feature that determines if the driver is attempting emergency braking and whether she has applied enough force to engage the antilock brakes. If not, the computer applies more braking power to achieve the minimum stopping distance. Lexus' VSC (vehicle stability control) system and traction control are also standard. If an accident is unavoidable, there are both dual front and seat-mounted side-impact airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and ISO-FIX anchor points in the rear for securing child seats.

Inside the SC 430, Lexus has liberally ladled on luxury amenities, and the cabin is coated with wood and leather. Among the noteworthy features is the magnificent new Mark Levinson audio system. Loud enough to power a Steppenwolf concert and clear enough to satisfy all those legion Bartok fans, the sound system is nothing short of astounding.

The Levinson audio setup replaces the Nakamichi system that previously adorned Lexus dashboards. While the new 240-watt, nine-speaker system is glorious, the reason for the switch is more pragmatic. The Nakamichi unit is reportedly incompatible with Lexus' navigation system and, according to chief engineer Yasushi Nakagawa, Levinson is owned by Harmon-Kardon, which is, in turn, associated with JBL, provider of some of Toyota's other audio systems.

Along with the phenomenal stereo comes a new automatic climate system with a burnished metallic face. The design may be new, but the execution is familiar, with the various controls arranged in Lexus' normally meticulous fashion. Designed to account for both outside air temperature and the speed of the vehicle, this new climate control system will, according to Lexus, allow the SC 430 to be driven al fresco in more widely variant temperatures than competing models.

Three different leather-clad cabin color schemes are available. The saddle-tone version caused some controversy among writers gathered for the SC's press unveiling, but we found it quite pleasing. Nonetheless, we prefer the monochromatic black leather that Lexus executes so well. Stylists spared little expense inside, with even everyday items like the steering wheel getting special attention; a specialty firearms manufacturer in Japan manufactures it.

The only option besides the run-flat tires and the rear spoiler is a DVD-based navigation system. Like other navigation systems, the display is an LCD screen, in this case displaying 256 colors. What's neat about the Lexus system is that you can tilt the screen a total of 14 degrees to keep sunlight from washing out visibility. The system does have a disconcerting quirk, however. In one of its modes, the arrow remains pointed in one direction while the map rotates to indicate changes in direction. On one long off-ramp, the darned thing almost rotated 360 degrees and we defy anyone to make sense of its directional information in this mode.

The interior also contains our major quibble with the SC 430. For some reason, Lexus was determined to make a four-seater out of the car no matter what compromises were required. With the extra space necessary to stow the hardtop, there's virtually no legroom in the essentially useless rear seats, even with the driver's seat positioned quite far forward. It's suitable only for parcels and baby seats. The rear bench also prevents the front passenger seat from fully reclining, should the occupant want to snooze on a long trip. Since those in the SC's snack-bracket are likely to have another car that serves as more practical transportation, the SC would have been better served with more spacious accommodations for two passengers and perhaps a little more cargo capacity as well.

That faux pas is unlikely to diminish the SC 430's appeal, however. Lexus has effectively been out of the sport coupe game for years, and this is the company's first convertible. With the all-new SC 430, it's back in both segments with a vengeance.

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