- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

Looking as out of place as Billy Bob Thornton at a Sunday-matinee performance of “The Nutcracker,” the SC 430 is a radical styling departure from the rest of the Lexus lineup.

Launched for 2002, the SC 430 exchanged most of the sharper creases and corners of the SC 400 it displaced with softer, rounder lines. Designers had considered engineering the SC 430 from the SC 400 — also not a typical-looking Lexus — but product planners decided it would require too many compromises in structure rigidity and noise.

With its retractable hardtop, the SC 430 kills two birds with one stone and there are no compromises in Lexus core qualities, such as noise insulation and structural integrity.

Although its jaunty styling implies sports car handling dynamics, for the most part this is a tease. Better suited to sweeping turns and wide-open straightaways, it is more about leisurely excursions to the regular Saturday tennis doubles game at the club than Cannonball runs through tight mountain switchbacks. If rally performance in a Lexus is more important to you than dropping the top, take a gander at the IS 350 or even the GS 430.

Despite its lack of a high-end performance resume, the $66,050 SC 430 houses a fairly potent V-8. Displacing 4.3 liters, it delivers 288 horsepower. Aggressively departing the line when the light switches to green can be credited to its 317 foot-pounds of peak torque enhanced with variable valve timing that provides some extra boost in the lower end of the rpm band. There is no shortage of power. It accelerates on demand without hesitation. Reaching 60 mph from a standstill can be accomplished in less than six seconds. A driver-shiftable five-speed automatic transmission funnels power to the 18-inch Z-rated rear rubber.

Engine and transmission communicate through a computer, producing seamless shifts and fuel-conserving performance. The Environmental Protection Agency rates fuel economy at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway.

The double wishbone four-wheel independent suspension supplies a supple ride. It plays the part of a luxury car flawlessly, soaking up pavement imperfections without complaint. Its vehicle-speed sensing progressive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light to the touch, but responsive. So successful has Lexus been in engineering in a plush ride experience that there is a small degree of disconnect between driver and machine. That, however, won’t matter much under typical driving conditions. Behind the alloy wheels dwell disc brakes supervised by an antilock system featuring vehicle stability control, traction control, brake assist and electronic brake distribution.

With the top in place, the SC 430 looks somewhat like a gumdrop. Dropping the top, which requires less than 30 seconds with the push of a button, reveals an elegant-looking tourer. The top retracts and is completely secluded behind the rear seat. The rear seat itself is perfunctory at best — more for appearance than utility. Likewise the trunk is smallish. Its 8.8 cubic feet of cargo space is less than the Kia Rio’s. Even this evaporates to almost nothing with the top lowered; so pack light for that weekend in the Hamptons. Spending $400 for the run-flat tire option frees up a bit of additional cargo space by dumping the spare.

The interior virtually screams get in. A stunning array of leather and wood, the cabin is as luxurious as that of any premium schooner. Deliciously contoured, the front seats with their side-impact air bags are exceedingly supportive and have a 10-way power adjustment. Fronting a tri-cluster gauge pod is the upscale-looking wood-and-leather steering wheel. The standard features list looks like a collection of the what’s what of top-end luxury cars. Items such as a tire pressure warning system, automatic dual-zone climate control, DVD-based navigation system and heated, electrochromic mirrors are just a few of the perks.

Deserving special mention is the nine-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with in-dash, six-disc CD changer. The sound it produces is nothing short of awesome.

Beyond run-flat tires, there isn’t much to consider on the options list. The rear spoiler will set you back $440. Just about every other add-on such as a trunk mat, cargo net and wheel locks can be bundled into the Preferred Accessory Package for $194. It seems like these items and their cost could be folded into the standard equipment list. What’s another two hundred bucks when you’re already north of $65,000?

You would have to grab a magnifying glass and pin on your “nit picker” badge to find something to take real issue with in the SC 430, and even then it would be a challenge. Anyone wishing for an upscale convertible experience, solid engine response and mainstream handling will appreciate the character and attributes of this Lexus.

The brand’s reputation for bulletproof quality doesn’t hurt either.

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