Review and road test of the Lexus SC 430 (2001 - 2009)
OPEN TOPPED BUT NOT COPPER BOTTOMED
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Despite their forays into the compact executive and luxury 4x4 markets most still associate Lexus with the production of big, technologically advanced luxury saloons. When Toyota's luxury division announced that they were planning on bringing an open topped car to market that would rival the Mercedes SL most took the threat seriously. Unfortunately the Sc430 never really proved itself up to the task of taking the fight to the big Mercedes and as a result used values for the few that did sell are distinctly reasonable.
There are many cars that seem a bit of a duffer when new but make interesting used cars second time around and the SC430 fits into this category with a significant caveat. Although you'll save a packet on the car's new [price, used values are still falling fast., making a used SC430 a pretty pricey companion on a pence per mile basis. As long as that's clear upfront and you know the nature of this vehicle there's no reason why you shouldn't find a well looked after example rather enjoyable.
SCS430: March 2001 to date (4.3-litre petrol 2dr coupe/convertible)
The SC430 arrived amid a blaze of publicity in March 2001 but initial test drives proved that Lexus had one eye firmly on their biggest market - the US. With its comfy seats, enormous stereo, prodigious thirst and lazy power delivery, the SC430 didn't translate too well to the UK market. One of the criticisms of the original version of this car was that it was too soft for European tastes and remedial action came at the tail end of 2002 with a package of handling changes. The suspension was re-tuned and incorporated different springs and dampers: as a result, say the engineers, the car responded more crisply, yet ride quality and refinement were as good if not better than before. These changes failed to turn the SC430's fortunes around and they remain a rare sight on our roads.
In mid 2004, further changes to the suspension were introduced in a bid to boost UK sales and at the same time there were various hi-tech specification upgrades. Then late 2005 saw a very mild facelift, so mild that the layman would be extremely hard-pushed to tell the pre and post facelift cars apart. Look for a set of revised 18" alloys along with slight modifications to the grill, bumper and headlamps.
What You Get
The shape is probably how the Audi TT would have turned out if it had been left in the clutches of a California Design Studio for too long, big bulbous and unthreatening with just a hint of low rider in its Y chromosomes. It's eye catching in the sort of way that makes other drivers spark up a conversation with you at traffic lights before you nod politely and render them insensible with megadecibels of the Mark Levinson stereo.
The top is one of those irritatingly clever electronic origami numbers that no matter how many times you watch it operate, you can never quite work out how it manages to coordinate itself. It takes 25 seconds in all to do its party piece. Lexus haven't stopped with the roof either. The stereo system and satellite navigation also have covered panels that electronically whirr into place. Perhaps the SC430's kerb weight of 1740kg is partly explained by the fact that it hauls around more electric motors than you'd find at a Steven Hawking lookalike convention.
Take the stereo system. Mark Levinson Audio, a company based in Middletown, Connecticut has gained a serious reputation amongst hi-fi buffs over the last few years. Naturally the opinions of bearded folk whose idea of nirvana is a double diffusion MOS-FET in the transept stage may not normally concern us, but we think they may be onto something here. Nine speakers are linked to that Sizewell-B amplifier driven by an AM/FM radio cassette and 6-disc CD changer to truly devastating effect.
The air conditioning system is also self-indulgently intelligent. It can adjust the airflow and temperature automatically, knowing when the hood is up or down, and adjusts according to speed and outside temperature. On cold days when you're running with the hood down it realises that pools of cold air will form around the footwells and the lap and will direct a warm blast towards these areas. It even understands wind chill factor and takes this into account.
Interior quality is, as would be expected from Lexus, impeccable. A great deal of thought has obviously been paid to ergonomics and design, with the only noticeable quibble being the way that when trying to adjust the stereo, it's quite easy to hit the climate control buttons. Aside from this, the story's all good. When pondering the wood cappings that are featured on the fascia, Lexus turned to the expertise of the Yamaha musical instrument factory to learn how to mould, bend and coax wood into all sorts of complex shapes. It obviously takes a great deal of time, money and expertise to make wood look like plastic, but Lexus have pulled it off. The leather interior, available in black, saddle tan or ecru appears similarly money-no-object and the seats, whilst wider than the Rio Grande, are supportive comfortable and infinitely adjustable. You even get an illuminated scuff plate that glows gold by day and red by night.
What to Look For
There is, amazingly, almost nothing to report. Lexus were determined to make these cars as faultless and long-lasting as possible and it seems they've succeeded. Even the hideously complicated folding hard top has escaped the teething problems that plagued early examples of the Mercedes SLK and Peugeot 206 CC. The main worry with an SC430 will be accident damage or mileage clocking. If you can, check the car's service records and cross-reference mileage with the dealers who carried out the scheduled maintenance. That way, you'll have peace of mind that the immaculate, low-mileage car you're looking at really is just that. Any car imported privately or unofficially from Japan will give you grounds for serious negotiation on price.
(approx based on '01 SC430) A new radiator is around £850. An alternator should be close to £710, a starter motor around £450 and rear brake pads would be around £65. A headlamp will be around £375, and expect to pay close to £970 for a full exhaust system (inc Catalyst).
On the Road
The engine, as we'd expect from Lexus, is electric motor quiet. It's the same 4.3-litre engine we find in the GS and LS430 models, a V8 that's good for 281bhp and that will reach 60mph in just over six seconds. Although hardly slow, you won't feel the need to lean hard on the Lexus, the car preferring to make more serene progress. You never feel shy of engine but the handling is markedly better in later models where the ride suspension has been fettled for European tastes. The earlier cars were baggier round corners and added insult to injury by being rather harsh riding to boot. This ride quality suffered over pockmarked surfaces or tram tracks. Given the tranquility base that is the LS430's ride, this came as something of a surprise. Rabbit punches to the kidneys when riding over expansion joints were an unwelcome novelty in a Lexus.
The Lexus SC430 remains an expensive acquired taste but the sting of the big upfront price is removed by buying used. The problem here is that in order to maximise your saving, you'll be looking at one of the less desirable early cars that rode on US specification suspension. If you have got your heart set on a used SC430, there's probably little that will prevent you taking the plunge but if you can wait a year or two for the later cars to start commanding reasonable used prices then you'll snap up a better deal.
Lexus SC 430 (2001 - 2009) review by ANDY ENRIGHT