2002 Lexus SC 430 Road Test

2002 Lexus SC 430 Convertible

(4.3L V8 5-speed Automatic)

Parlez-Vous Attention?

Conventional wisdom states that if you run down the street naked, you're gonna get noticed. But ever since the advent of "Girls Gone Wild — Spring Break Edition," ($19.99 plus tax, S&H), no one notices if you're naked anymore. Unless, of course, you're topless — in the 2002 Lexus SC 430. Everyone will pay attention. You'll feel like a superstar.

Especially if you find yourself cruising down the Strip at midnight during an impromptu trip to Las Vegas one hot July night. Inching, actually, is a more accurate word, as traffic comes to a standstill, while anyone who's anybody drives or is driven to the entrance of the casino. The trick is to relax and enjoy the spectacle of the throngs of suckers — er, humanity — who will willingly part with their hard-earned money (keep on believing that the jackpot belongs to you) so that there can be facsimiles of great cities of the world right there in the middle of the Mojave Desert. There we were, surrounded by Porsches and Mercedes, but the SC 430 was all anyone noticed; gawkers were leaning out their car windows asking questions; pedestrians were stopping and staring; one fearless huckster even stepped up and brazenly asked for a ride.

We didn't comply. But we did defer to the wishes of everyone who wanted to see the top operation; after two cycles of whizzing the convertible top up and down, the light on Tropicana Drive finally turned green, and we were on our way to Paris — where we got just as much attention from the valets.

It was a common reaction. At every restaurant we patronized, our car was situated at the front of the parking lot. In automobile-crazy Los Angeles, where $100,000-plus vehicles barely raise an eyebrow, this is a singular honor. That, and dating Carson Daly.

This is, of course, totally unexpected for a Lexus. Just try to get the attention of the hottie sitting in traffic next to you while driving your ES 300. A radical departure for the normally staid manufacturer, the SC 430 has been dubbed the "jewel of Lexus," and has been penned to appeal to your emotional right-brain side. Designers drew inspiration by lolling about France's Cote d'Azur, studying the architecture, familiarizing themselves with the lifestyle and mingling with overtanned Eurotrash types with names like "Coco."

Judging by the reaction we got from various members of our staff, the SC 430's appearance certainly drew polemical responses, ranging from "awesome" to "ugly as sin," but we all agreed that this is a car that belongs in the pantheon of head-turners. A vehicle over which Robin Leach can ululate.

This is Lexus' first attempt at building a convertible. The 1992-2000 SC 300/400, built on a Toyota Supra platform, had its admirers, although they decreased alarmingly over the years as the platform aged and younger, better luxury coupes sprang up. Lexus wants to shed its image as a stodgy, sensible luxury brand and build cars that those possessing the wherewithal desire, rather than settle for. To that end, it has altered its slogan from "The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection" to "The Passionate Pursuit of Perfection." The SC 430, which shares its underpinnings with the GS 430 sport sedan, yet was designed from the beginning as a convertible, is a giant leap in that direction.

Sometimes, however, in reaching a goal, not all of the parts quite make it. No car company gets a car perfectly correct its first year out of the box, and the SC 430 is no exception. Although when viewed holistically, the Lexus is an utterly delectable vehicle, some aspects still caused us to scratch our heads in bafflement.

Take the completely useless rear seat, for example. No sane person would put anyone he cared about in that little well. Even my 45-pound seven-year old nephew complained that "it's too small back here." For the purposes of edification, we took a ride around the block in the back seat. Torturous. Not only did the wind whip our coiffed mop into a rat's nest, the rear seatback was too upright, and ingress/egress through the tiny opening required the finesse of a Cirque Du Soleil performer. At least we never forgot that we were riding in a Lexus; chrome Lexus emblems are mounted on the rear of the front headrests.

Even without passengers, an annoyance crept up; the middle seatbelt flapped about in the wind, even with the snap tabs holding it in place. Maybe it was intentional; we pretended that it was the sail of a 42-foot yacht, luffing in the sea breeze. The rear seat, then, is useful only for extra stowage, but don't throw your water bottle back there, because it'll fall into the footwell, and you won't be able to squeeze your hand between the seatback and the seat to reach it.

You'll need the extra space. Our test model was equipped with the run-flat tires. We're told that most consumers choose the run-flat option, if not for the peace of mind, then to have at least a bit of trunk space. Equipped with a conventional spare tire, the SC 430's trunk allows 8.8 cubic feet of space, whereas an empty trunk allows for 9.4 cubic feet. Keep in mind that this is with the top up; in topless form, don't count on taking a carry-on much larger than a Ziploc bag full of toiletries.

Ah, the tires. The SC is shod in super low-profile Bridgestone Potenza RE040 245/40ZR18s; its massive 18-inch wheels, the first for any Lexus, fill up the bulging wheelwells with Brando-like presence. Don't worry about not being able to detect a leak from these fat babies, though; the SC is equipped with a tire pressure monitor system. The rim of the handsome aluminum alloy wheels are flush with the sidewalls, however, so mind that curb — those suckers are easy to scrape and expensive to replace.

While the Z-rated rubber clings to the tarmac like an insecure girlfriend, the relative lack of air detracted from a Lexus-like, frictionless ride. Every bump produced a heart-stopping thwack, and if your commute takes you over railroad tracks, be sure to carry an extra tube of Fixodent. On tight, curvy roads, the tires made their displeasure known, but we didn't let these remonstrations stop us from enjoying the handling aspects of the vehicle.

The SC 430 rides on a double-wishbone suspension front and rear, which allowed this heavy vehicle to thread the cones of our 600-foot slalom in 6.5 seconds at 62.9 mph. At 3,840 pounds, it outweighs the GS 430 by 133 pounds and is only 115 lighter than the full-size LS 430. While Lexus touts the convertible's stiff structure, our team noted that the chassis could use a little more reinforcement, as we detected amounts of cowl shake that revealed rattles and squeaks in the cabin, even with the top down. The suspension also crashed over zits in the road, seemingly getting into its bumpstops, but again, this was exacerbated by the stiff tires. While too much vibration transmits itself to the driver through the steering wheel, the steering itself is direct and linear. The rack could be tuned to catch a hair faster to take full advantage of this rear-wheel-drive vehicle.

As with many Japanese luxo-vehicles, the powerplant doesn't feel up to its promises, perhaps as testament to its smoothness and refinement. Our impressions were substantiated at the track: The 4.3-liter VVT-i V8 engine, with an output of 300 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 325 pound-feet of torque at 3,400 revs, wasn't good for the 5.9-second 0-to-60-mph sprint as promised by Lexus, nor does its quarter-mile run of 15.1 seconds at 95 mph match up to the numbers of the GS 430 or the LS 430. It is ULEV-certified, and its 20-mpg average was impressive, given its size. The convertible's 0-to-60-mph 6.7-second run should be enough for most thrillseekers, and the exhaust note, routed through the twin pipes in the rear, emits a pleasing, decidedly deep-throated rumble. Very unlike a Lexus.

The five-speed automatic transmission lacks the seamless shift quality displayed in the LS 430; it behaved like the one in the GS 430, hesitating slightly before providing a downshift. It always landed in the right gear, mind you, it just preferred thinking about it first rather than intuitively doing it. On the other hand, switching to the power mode of the ECT (Electronically Controlled Transmission) button actually seems to make a difference, as the transmission holds revs longer in each gear for the enjoyment of spirited drivers and takes into account uphill and downhill conditions. Lexus doesn't attach an automanual tranny to its 4.3-liter powerplants, but we feel that it would be advantageous on this car.

Brakes are the glory of every Toyota/Lexus vehicle. The four-wheel discs, ventilated up front, were linear and true, stopping the car from 60 mph in a short 121 feet. A plethora of systems, such as ABS, helped along by Brake Assist (BA) that aids in activating it and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) that senses vehicle load and adjusts stopping force proportionately, added up to a perfect system that was predictable and confidence-inspiring at every stop.

We can safely surmise, however, that the average buyer of the SC 430 won't be longing to take hotlaps in it at the local racetrack. No, this Lexus is more about showing you and others the technical voodoo available for the cash. And there are few spectacles that draw as much attention as a retractable hardtop.

The top. Of course. With a press of a button, the aluminum-alloy roof rises from its dormant state to provide shelter from the vagaries of the environment, courtesy of no fewer than eight motors who stand at attention, waiting for your beck and call. It is truly a marvel, a waltz of levers and axes gliding toward their goal. Once closed, it seals tight, even though the windows are not of the foop! variety. The top could benefit from a one-touch button, though, liberating you to do other things around the cabin for those 25 seconds.

But who'd want to drive with the top up? No, this car was meant for driving on warm summer nights, to escape the tomb-like enclosure of a normal car and take notice, if forcefully, of the environment. As we left behind the garish lights of Sin City and sliced into the unbroken darkness of the desert, we saw constellations that rarely make an appearance in the filmy air of Los Angeles. We smelled the rest stops in need of a more vigilant cleaning crew. We heard — well, we heard music, gloriously rendered music from the nine speakers of the Mark Levinson system, uninterrupted for hours thanks to the SC's in-dash six-disc changer.

Not that the occupants of the car are unduly subjected to the harsh outdoors. The Intuitive Climate Control system takes into account the angle of the sun and the speed of the vehicle to provide extra cool or warm air to the lap area when the top is down. And once the top is up, the air through the vents is filtered. The driver and passenger are cosseted from the wind thanks to the wraparound windshield, low seating positions and rear wind deflector. The high cowl, combined with necessarily thick A-pillars, creates somewhat of an obstructed view, but we're happy to report that rearward visibility with the top up is superior to that of any convertible we've driven.

The climate controls, and indeed all the controls of the center stack, are reasonably laid out and easy to use. Our test car was equipped with the supple ecru nappa leather covering the seats, door panel inserts and the console cover that reminded us how leather is supposed to look and feel. Keep in mind, however, that as with any light-colored interior, it tends to get dingy if you don't properly maintain it. And the acre of trees sacrificed for the interior is shown in the Bird's Eye Maple that graces the dash, the dual-tiered center console and the clever pop-out doors and lends an overall cohesiveness to the interior. The stereo is encased in a tactilely pleasing brushed metal face. The handsome wood and leather steering wheel tilts, telescopes and is equipped with stereo controls. While we couldn't visually detect any fault with the fit and finish, the aforementioned rattles and squeaks detracted from a serene experience that is usually the hallmark of Lexus cars.

The seats are heavily bolstered to hold you in place. While most drivers were able to find a comfortable position with the driver seat's 10-way power adjustment and articulating headrests, others complained that long stints behind the wheel produced a dull backache, even with the lumbar adjustment. We know of an owner who complained that a sciatic nerve was aggravated because of the driver seat. The heating feature allows for top-down driving in chilly weather.

Our test vehicle was equipped with the DVD-based navigation system, a feature that Lexus has down pat; not only does it compute at super speeds, its touchscreen interface is user-friendly, and its large 7-inch screen and tilt feature that adjusts so the screen's protected from the glare of the sun make it one of the best systems in all of navigation-land. Also notable is a calendar system into which you can program Poochie's birthday.

The SC is replete with such details as a doorsill plate that glows with the brand logo when the door is open. The night is illuminated by xenon headlamps; press the headlamp washer button (only with the top up) if they get dirty. Side mirrors have a reverse-tilt feature, and they are electrochromic and heated. Safety systems include traction control (TRAC) and a stability control system (VSC) that corrects understeer and oversteer. The SC is equipped with dual front airbags but where are the automatically deploying roll hoops on this premium-brand vehicle?

We're still trying to convince our bosses that conducting a super luxury convertible comparison test with the CLK 430, Jaguar XK8 and the soon-to-be-released SL500 is absolutely necessary. For now, though, in terms of sheer head-turning thrills, the Lexus SC 430 has them all beat, and we're still experiencing withdrawal symptoms of not being stared at when we drive down the road.

Stereo Evaluation

Score: 9.5

Components: The Mark Levinson stereo system in the Lexus SC 430 is made of the finest ingredients. The company with a man's name is a branch of the same family tree as Harman Kardon, JBL and Infinity, homes of high-quality components that aren't afraid to perform.

There are 11 speakers carefully placed throughout the cabin. Since high frequencies require exact aim, two superb 3/4-inch titanium dome tweeters get pole position at the base of the A-pillars. Nearby, 2.5-inch mid-range drivers are placed high in each door panel. Two 6-by-9 woofers in the bottom of the doors get large, but non-intrusive, enclosures. No person could sit in the back "seats," but there are a couple of 4-inch combo speakers back there. Using the trunk as an enclosure is an 8-inch true subwoofer dedicated to the lowest of tones (60 Hz and lower).

An extremely clean and powerful amp provides the muscle. It uses seven custom channels to make 240 constant watts at a claimed .01 percent total harmonic distortion — about 1/10 the amount heard in most factory systems.

The in-dash six-CD changer is slow, and the head unit is mounted low in the console, but it's attractive and the controls are well laid out. In addition, there are steering wheel-mounted buttons for most functions including cool F1-like volume paddles.

Performance: A lot of thought went into this audio system, and it shows. There is no center channel because the tweeters and mid-range speakers are able to create a detailed soundstage across the entire dash with fill provided by the components in back.

Each instrument in Frank Zappa's wacky orchestra has a distinct origin and "feel." The clarinets come from their own corner of the stage and have a wooden touch, flutes are clean and the organus maximus is … well … it sounds good, too.

Every type of music gets accurate reproduction. The Orb's dozens of tracks filled with electronic blips and warbles on 1997's Orblivion are finally able to break free and clear of each other. Live cellos resonate while standing apart from the rest of the orchestra. Electric guitars are loud, but there is no distortion added to the recordings. Vocals are so realistic and warm, you may get goose bumps or think there is a stowaway aboard.

Able to concentrate on the notes most factory stereos ignore, the subwoofer revealed new extensions of bass lines on familiar recordings. Unfortunately, the car's interior cannot handle the 8-inch wonder being pushed to its deepest limits. The speaker never gives, but the wind deflector does. The plexiglass between the rear headrests, (and possibly the roof), can develop a terrible rattle at top volume with the top closed. This is not too bad with the top down, but whenever the muscular 6-by-9 woofers in the doors work hard, the fancy wood trim nearby starts to hum, putting a damper on the show.

Best Feature: Speaker placement.

Worst Feature: Lack of interior integrity.

Conclusion: Unlike many "powerful" systems, the Mark Levinson advertises a rating of 240 superclean watts rather than its peak output, which is probably in the neighborhood of 500 watts. Unfortunately, the cabin of the Lexus cannot the keep up with the superb teamwork of the 6-by-9 woofers and the thundering of the specialized sub. The multiple rattles, along with a low-mounted head unit and the "5-alligator" long wait to load CDs are all that keep this system from being a 10. —Trevor Reed

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
So, Lexus beats Mercedes to the punch with a retracting hardtop. Yeah, I know; the SLK has had a retracting hardtop since 1998, but as an entry-level vehicle designed for recent Mercedes converts, the SLK doesn't count. The SL is the real deal when it comes to high-end luxury sports cars, and it won't have a retracting top until next year when the new redesigned version hits.

Besides the retracting hardtop, the SC has additional bragging points in the form of a DVD-based navigation system, Mark Levinson audio components and a reputation for never breaking. Seems like even the all-new SL can't compete with it, right?

Maybe, maybe not. While the SC is an amazing vehicle in terms of build quality, interior materials and high-tech features, it has more than one Achilles' heel. First, the styling can best be described as "eclectic." Universal agreement on the coupe's appearance could not be reached among staffers, with more than half of the team unimpressed. If that same ratio holds true among potential SC buyers, this could pose a problem for Lexus.

Then there's the ride-quality issue. Lexus vehicles have become world-renown for their ability to shield occupants from the outside world, but buyers expecting this sort of treatment in the SC won't find it. Even with the hardtop in place, the car bounces over uneven pavement and freeway expansion joints. And while traversing one set of railroad tracks, the car actually "banged." Now there's a word I'd never have expected to use in a Lexus review. The run-flat tires on our test car no doubt contributed to the car's roughshod nature, but with no room for a spare in its tiny trunk, it's either stiff sidewalls or a can of fix-a-flat.

The SC 430 is clearly an engineering and technological marvel. If you appreciate the styling and don't require "Lexus-like" ride qualities, it may be the perfect all-season vehicle. If you require the sort of coddling often associated with premium automobiles, you might want to wait for the 2003 SL.

Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans Says:
In less than two years, Lexus has updated and revised almost its entire vehicle lineup. In terms of cars, we've seen the introduction of the IS 300 sport sedan, the revised GS 300 and GS 430, the all-new LS 430 and now the SC 430. In a few months, a new ES 300 will be available. Meanwhile, Cadillac soldiers on with products that are either old, boring, or both old and boring. So tell me again why Lexus sales continue to rise while Cadillac and Lincoln sales figures stagnate and decline?

The success of Lexus is due to quality product, reliability and customer satisfaction. The new SC 430 certainly upholds the product end. When I first saw the concept car at the '99 Tokyo Auto Show, I didn't like it. It looked like a hokey Audi TT rip-off. When I saw pictures of the production car, I still didn't like it. I even let out a cynical snort when I read that Lexus used nautical themes for inspiration when designing the car. I could imagine the Lexus engineers pitching the idea to their bosses: "Yes, we'd like to design our next car to be sluggish, big and have a propensity to take on water and sink."

Alas, I was proven wrong. The SC 430 is a lovely car in person and easy to impress other people with. Which is why I promptly took my girlfriend out to dinner. The warm summer nighttime air ruffled our hair, and the V8 mixed with the sounds of Miles Davis. I felt like I could have been Ralph Lauren or Robert Redford that night, but without the wealth, power or nice clothes. The SC 430 isn't perfect, but I'd take it over a Mercedes CLK430 convertible, no question.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
As Lexus moves from relentlessly pursuing perfection to passionately pursuing perfection, focus is apparently getting lost in the transition, especially when the company tackles new segments. Take the IS 300, for example. It wants to be a luxury sport sedan, but it manages to deliver only the sport portion of that equation.

After driving the new SC 430, I'm left wondering what the goal was with this car. Is it supposed to be a boulevard cruiser or a sporting roadster? I suspect Lexus wanted to deliver equal elements of both, but the result is an unsatisfying compromise.

Ride quality is poor. Not only does the SC 430's suspension feel incapable of managing the pudgy convertible's weight, crashing over rather than absorbing minor bumps and dips in the road surface, but its steering transmits too much road shock to the driver's arms. On grooved pavement, the car hunts annoyingly, particularly when braking.

What should feel like a stout V8 underfoot comes across as underpowered, especially with the transmission's power mode switched off. The brakes work nicely in a straight line, but hustle the SC through a canyon, and you'll find that the ABS kicks in early and regularly. The tires howl in pain when running hard through switchbacks.

Get the SC 430 onto higher speed sweepers, and it's a happier camper, unless those sweepers have dips or rumples in them. The suspension pogos fore and aft, and it feels like the outside-wheel bumpstops are getting intimately familiar with the dampers. Toss in a surprising amount of cowl shimmy and shake for a 2002 model constructed from scratch as a convertible, and the SC 430's appeal further erodes.

Moving to the interior, when the hardtop is raised, an inordinate number of rattles and squeaks rises from the rear compartment and overhead. Also irritating is the surprising amount of road noise that makes its way into the cabin, from both the tires and the suspension. Thankfully, with the top up, wind noise is virtually absent.

The good parts of the SC 430 include the now-it's-a-coupe/now-it's-a-convertible folding hardtop, the superb Mark Levinson audio system, the impeccable quality of the cabin's supple leather and gorgeous wood, the simplicity of the navigation system and the elegance of the sheetmetal. For many buyers, that, and the way people notice this car as it cruises by, will be satisfying enough.

Consumer Commentary

"Here in Northern California the weather was perfect yesterday (and at the coast it was gorgeous). It was the third day with my new SC 430. So off to the coast I went. I have driven this route many times before. North on 116 to River Road, west to Highway 1. And then finally north (and on the return, south) on Highway 1. But never quite like this. With the top down, I was warm on the inside even though it was 60 degrees at the coast. I could feel the outside air but I was not chilled nor buffeted by it. For the first time ever while driving, I could smell the mix of the ocean and the pines. The car was quiet and smooth with plenty of power at the ready. I attacked the many curves along the coastline with more confidence and security than I ever dared to before. I never had to bleed off speed to negotiate any of the many curves. It was simply a blast. And the sound. I don't mean the ocean. The Mark Levinson was astounding. Even at 60 mph with the top down, the sound was fantastic. Power, clarity and accuracy. This was the best experience I have ever had driving a car. Easily the best $70K I have ever spent." — skip110, "Lexus SC 430 (owners and admirers)," #120 of 370, June 10, 2001

"Is it perfect? No, but it is a very good compromise between a luxury car and a sports convertible. Top up it is quiet, very smooth running (albeit a bit hard due to the low profile tires) and luxurious. Top down it is, well, cool! Either way it has lots of guts when you ask it to perform. I've owned and driven lots of cars in the past 40 odd years, from Hudsons to Caddys, Karmann Ghias to Jags, but I can say without reservation this is my favorite. As long as your expectations are realistic, you should love it as most owners here seem to do. Just remember, it is neither a true sports car like a Porsche nor a luxury car like the LS430, but it is a very nice blending of many of the features of both." — exmo, "Lexus SC 430 (owners and admirers)," #156 of 370, June 19, 2001

"…The car is very enjoyable on a daily basis and comfortable on long trips. You just cannot pack a whole lot of stuff. Overall, it's a blast to drive with the top down. I don't think I will get tired of it anytime soon. The other day, I had an opportunity to take a new Porsche 911 Turbo for a spin for about an hour. It's a completely different kind of car and I actually didn't quite know what to do with all that 415 horsepower and felt awkward trying to find the right time to shift. I guess it takes a little getting used to. At 43, although not quite over the hill, I no longer have the 'need for speed' and prefer my SC 430 at half the price [of the 911 Turbo]. But on those occasions when a little extra testosterone surges in my system, the SC 430 has plenty of punch to satisfy my needs while providing the comfort and luxury that I desire. Bottom line, after two months, I still love it!" — golfnut, "Lexus SC 430 (owners and admirers)," #149 of 370, June 18, 2001

"…The SC 430 is very comfortable on long trips; the only downside is that the passenger seat does not recline as much as in most cars because the seatback hits the 'rear seat.' If the passenger is short, she can move the seat forward to get more tilt on the back. And that's about the worst. As for luggage, I suggest canvas or duffel type luggage, as fixed square boxes take up too much room in the oddly shaped trunk. Assuming you will be traveling with the top up, you can get a lot of stuff in there, because the trunk is higher than you think. With the top down, of course, you have room for plenty for a long weekend, if you pack carefully and use the right-size bags. Several small bags work a lot better than one or two larger ones…. The car is great fun on a daily basis, rain or shine. The only problem is that it is hard to keep a low profile while driving this car, as everybody comes over to look at it. This will change a little as more cars hit the road, but it's great fun to have the latest toy out there. It is smooth, quiet and powerful. The ride is rougher on bad roads than you might expect from a Lexus, due to the low sidewalls, but that's a trade-off for the better handling. Given the level of luxury and features and power, I think the car is underpriced." — squidd99, "Lexus SC 430 (owners and admirers)," #151 of 370, June 19, 2001

"Just purchased our new SC 430 Indigo on Ecru. It is absolutely fabulous looking. Wow! What a vehicle; roomy, smooth, powerful, handles well and generates the attention-getting 'looks.' Having just sold a '93 Toyota Supra twin turbo, I was looking for a vehicle with power, performance and refinement. I feel I've found it in the SC 430. The SC isn't as fast as the Supra but very much more refined. We live in Santa Barbara, Calif., and enjoy those wonderful drives along the coast. The convenience of putting the top down so effortlessly is the 'icing on the cake.'" — zuma13, "Lexus SC 430 (owners and admirers)," #181 of 370, June 27, 2001

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