2004 Lexus SC 430 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Luxury coupe turns into convertible in 25 seconds.
On cold, rainy days, the Lexus SC 430 looks like a neat sport coupe. But when the sun comes out, press a button and the retractable hardtop drops within 25 seconds, transforming the SC 430 into convertible.
Top up or top down, the SC 430 is a silky smooth sports car. Its smooth character extends from the four-cam V8 to the five-speed automatic to the supple suspension. Its styling looks upscale and refined. Its interior is as comfortable as it is beautiful. Indeed, the Lexus SC 430 is a classy luxury car for two people dressed to the nines. Poise can be maintained while enjoying an evening on the town. It is, after all, the flagship luxury sports car from Lexus, the company that redefined luxury cars.
In spite of its luxurious overtones, the SC 430 delivers surprisingly good performance. With rear-wheel drive and a 4.3-liter V8 that puts out 300-horsepower, it can run head to head with the Mercedes SL 500 and Jaguar XK8. It's stable at high speeds and, though soft, its suspension is well controlled on winding roads, on-ramps and off-ramps.
Lexus builds just one version of the SC 430 ($62,575) that features the retractable hardtop, the 4.3-liter V8, the five-speed automatic transmission, and a long list of luxury features. The SC 430 comes trimmed in buttery leather with beautiful wood and chrome accents. Also standard is a navigation system and a Mark Levinson audio system with nine speakers.
The option list is short: A thin rear spoiler ($440) reduces the car's slick drag coefficient of 0.31 to an even slicker 0.30. Run-flat tires ($400) eliminate the need for a spare tire and thus increase space in the trunk.
A Pebble Beach Special Edition ($2,000) features azure metallic paint with azure painted wheels, black bird's-eye maple wood trim, lighted blue scuff plates, run-flat tires, rear spoiler, special floor mats, and a Pebble Beach golf bag.
The SC 430 is well equipped with safety equipment, including side-impact airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, Brake Assist, Vehicle Skid Control, and traction control.
The Lexus SC 430 was redesigned for the 2002 model year and it's a total departure from the previous Lexus coupe. While the old (pre-2001) SC 400 was lean and well-proportioned, the SC 430 is curvaceous and daring, a dramatic, eye-catching statement that resembles nothing else on the road, least of all a Lexus.
SC 430's face is dynamic, flashing bright glints of chrome from its triangular headlamp clusters and Lexus trademark trapezoidal grille. The fluid arch of its roof leads to a rounded, suggestive rump, where integrated multi-lens taillights are sculpted as triangles skewed with curves.
Beneath its beltline the SC 430 is round and plump but pleasingly so. The bold, squatty stance is emphasized by its long wheelbase, exaggerated wheel wells, and 18-inch wheels. Those wheels are pushed so far out to the corners they almost seem to stretch the sheet metal behind them.
Press a button and the lightweight aluminum hardtop quickly folds itself double and tucks into the trunk. With the top concealed below the trunk lid, the SC 430 looks fluid and fast like a racy roadster.
The SC 430 has a lavish cockpit with contoured bucket seats swathed in buttery-soft leather. The seats are very comfortable and adjust every which way.
Glossy wood, available in light bird's-eye maple or dark burled walnut, graces the steering wheel, gear selector, and console and streaks across doors and dash. Wooden flaps conceal the audio unit and navigation system. A leather-padded armrest tops the console; lifting it reveals a handy storage bin. The cup holders work great.
Despite sophisticated electronic gear and power-motivated controls, the SC 430's cockpit is commendably simple and well-organized. The driver faces a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes with switches for the cruise control. Immediately ahead are three chrome-ringed binnacles housing round analog gauges, with crisp white-on-black graphics and vivid red needles. The gauges are easy to read except fuel and temperature, which compete with the gear indicators for attention. Switches for windows and door locks dot the padded armrest on the driver's door. To the right, above the console, horizontal modules hold audio and climate systems, plus a video screen for the navigation system.
The automatic climate system offers independent controls for the left and right sides of the cabin. It has its own, separate LED display for temperature and air flow. It's easy to read and operate. It's a smart system that gathers information from temperature sensors around the cabin. For example, lap vents automatically deploy when the top is open to compensate for solar heating.
The 240-watt Mark Levinson stereo delivers amazingly good quality sound. The radio, cassette player, and six-disc in-dash CD changer brilliantly reproduces sound through a seven-channel amplifier and nine speakers, including an eight-inch subwoofer. It maintains full harmonic richness and high audio resolution even when you're at speed with the top down. It's easy to operate in spite of its sophistication, so you don't have to study the owner's manual to figure out how to use it.
A button next to the climate system opens the top. Simply press the switch: a trunk flap rises, the roof folds and slips into the trunk, the flap closes and the windows go down.
Lurking behind the front seats are a pair of smaller, form-fitting rear buckets rigged with integrated headrests and three-point safety belts. But don't mistake the SC 430 for a four-seater. Those back buckets are painfully upright and only large enough for Barbie and Ken, the dolls, that is. Better to use them as a relief storage shelf for the diminutive trunk.
The SC 430 is not the best car for picking someone up at the airport as trunk space is lacking, but the same is true for other luxury sports cars. The SC 430 offers 8.8 cubic feet of luggage space. Removing the spare tire expands it to 9.4. Dropping the top eliminates the trunk as a serious storage area. On the bright side, the Lexus offers considerably more luggage space than you'll find in the Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet or Cadillac XLR and slightly more than what's provided in the Mercedes-Benz SL 500. Yet it's a bit less than what's available in the Jaguar XK8.
The Lexus SC 430 blends performance and agility with smoothness luxury. With the hardtop raised and symphonic sound swirling through the leather-lined cabin, the SC 430 isolates its occupants from noise and rough roads. Its engine and transmission are very smooth and the suspension handles swales, bumps and undulations superbly, far better than most cars.
Drop the top and the wind swirls above you, but even then this flagship from Lexus protects its occupants from the undesirable aspects of the environment. Wind buffeting is minimal at normal highway speeds. Even at high speeds, there's little buffeting and it's easy to conduct conversation without raising your voice.
The Lexus SC430 is not a sports car in the sense of a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. With its soft suspension, the Lexus floats and wallows on winding, bumpy roads. Take it to the limit in a tight corner, and it understeers (the front tires lose grip before the rear tires). It offers neither the grip nor the transient response of the 911, the Mercedes-Benz SL 500, the Jaguar XK8, or the Cadillac XLR. We also noticed some susceptibility to strong crosswinds.
The SC 430 is enjoyable to drive, however. It's quite wonderful when driven at a brisk pace on winding mountain roads. Its rear-wheel-drive is the proper layout for a performance car, giving it handling balance and responsiveness that no front-drive car can match. But it is not intended to be driven like a race car. It is, after all, a Lexus, designed to excel in the areas of comfort and refinement.
Similarly, the SC 430 is quick, but not lightning quick. It's capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, according to Lexus. The double overhead-cam 4.3-liter all-aluminum V8 produces 300 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 325 pounds-feet of torque at 3400 rpm. The SC 430 offers acceleration performance comparable to that of the Mercedes SL 500 and Jaguar XK8, which is fast company, but it isn't as quick as the Porsche 911 or Cadillac XLR. Top speed of the SC 430 is about 156 mph, more than fast enough. Around town, the Lexus is smooth, quiet and sophisticated. It's a very flexible engine, with strong torque at low rpm, so it's always ready for your input, never struggling to deliver smooth power. These are benefits of the variable valve timing, which Lexus calls VVT-i and a modern drive-by-wire throttle setup.
The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, almost seamlessly. It features three shift modes (Normal, Sport, Winter). Mounted on the floor console, the shifter has a C-shaped gate, allowing semi-manual shifting, though not as deftly as with a Porsche Tiptronic or similar automatic. It's best to let it do its own thing and it does that well. The Lexus transmission is designed to be smooth, not quick, however, so it does not respond as quickly as a Mercedes or Porsche transmission, even in Sport mode.
The SC 430 features the latest in active safety systems that will do everything physically possible to keep the car headed in the direction the driver is steering: anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), traction control, Vehicle Skid Control (VSC), and Brake Assist. This is great technology to have as it can help you avoid an accident. While it's good to have at least a vague understanding of what these systems do, it's less important to understand how they work. The important thing to know is that, when faced with having to suddenly take an evasive maneuver, you should press down firmly on the brakes, remember to look and steer in the direction you want to go, all the while maintaining hard pressure on the brake pedal.
ABS prevents the brakes from locking up so that the driver maintains steering control. Electronic brake-force distribution maintains the proper balance of braking force to all four tires. Brake Assist helps maintain hard pressure on the brake pedal when the system detects the driver is making the.
The Lexus SC 430 is a luxurious roadster that converts to a hardtop coupe with the press of a button. It's smooth and quiet, powerful and enjoyable to drive. Its interior is beautiful, comfortable, and luxurious. It's a terrific car for a long drive assuming you pack light. Though it has a vestigial rear seat, the SC 430 is, for all practical purposes, a two-seater.
The SC 430 does not offer the crisp reflexes of a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet or Mercedes-Benz SL 500. But it's very smooth and very pleasant and costs much less than the other cars in this class. It is a Lexus.
Lexus SC 430 ($62,575).
Options As Tested
Pebble Beach Special Edition ($2,000) includes run-flat tires, rear spoiler, azure metallic paint, azure painted wheels, lighted blue scuff plates, black bird's-eye maple wood trim, Pebble Beach Special Edition emblems and floor mats, Pebble Beach golf bag.
Lexus SC 430 ($62,575).
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