(first posted 3/1/2016) Negating Lexus’ current RC-F, a Japanese, V8-powered, rear-wheel drive, fixed roof coupe sold in North America pretty much means one car, the 1992-2000 Lexus SC 400. Following Lexus’ successful roll-out year and smash-hit flagship LS 400, Toyota’s newly created luxury division rapidly solidified its place in the market and continued moving forward with new product development. On the front burner was both the placeholder ES 250’s replacement and the mid-size GS sedan, but arriving before either of those vehicles was a coupe model, the SC 400. Rear-wheel drive, V8-powered, and exclusively 2-doors, the SC 400 was Lexus’ foray into the shrinking but still potentially profitable (due to high transaction prices) personal luxury coupe segment.
Created primarily for the U.S. market, the design of the SC was carried out by Calty Design Research, Toyota’s design studio in Newport Beach, California. As opposed to the conservatively-styled LS, the SC exuded a far more fluid and organic shape, owing to its “in motion” appearance even while standing still.
Lacking its relatives’ lower body cladding, two-tone paint schemes, and traditional grilles, the sleek SC stood out among other Lexus models as well as other more conservative looking personal luxury coupes including the Acura Legend, Cadillac Eldorado, Infiniti M30, Lincoln Mark VII, Mercedes 560 SEC, and Volvo 780.
Production of the V8-powered SC 400 began in Japan in early-1991, with U.S. sales beginning in June of that year as a 1992 model. Featuring the same 1UZ-FE 4.0L V8 which debuted in the LS 400, this advanced 32-valve DOHC engine produced an identical 250 horsepower and 260 pound feet of torque in the SC 400. With the help of its slick .31 coefficient of drag, the SC 400 was good for zero to sixty in the 6.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds.
The following year, in summer of 1992, the SC 400 was joined by the six-cylinder SC 300. Powered by the 2JZ-GE longitudinally-mounted 3.0L inline-6, the SC 300 was initially rated at 225 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. Whereas the SC 400 was only sold with an automatic transmission, the SC 300 offered buyers the choice of a 5-speed manual from 1992-1997.
This car was also sold in Japan as the third generation Toyota Soarer. Sharing the SC’s sheetmetal and interior, the Soarer also offered a 2.5L turbo I6, as well as a digital gauge cluster, touchscreen radio, and one of the industry’s first CD-based GPS systems.
All SC’s utilized a fully independent double wishbone suspension system with front and rear stabilizer bars and coil springs. Speed-sensitive power steering and four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes were standard, with traction control optional throughout the SC’s run.
Mimicking the car’s exterior, the cabin of the SC featured no sharp angles or abrupt edges in favor of soft curves and flowing lines. Featuring a sweeping dash that curved into the door panels, the literal centerpiece of the interior was a floating instrument panel and a large joystick-style shifter (in 1992-1997 automatics), conveying a modern aura.
Featuring soft leather buckets, neutral colors, and subtle wood trim, the overall theme favored minimalism over the opulence that was found in most European and American luxury coupes. Additional wood trim was added to the center console in 1998, along with the new step-pattern gear-shift for the new 5-speed automatic.
Befitting of the SC’s positioning, a full suite of luxury features were standard. These included leather, 8-way power seats with power lumbar support and 2-position driver’s memory, power tilt-and-slide front passenger’s seat for easy rear seat access, power windows with one-touch down, automatic climate control, premium 7-speaker audio system, remote keyless entry, and front doors that swung forward as they swung out for easier entry, just to name a few.
Changes over the first-generation SC’s run were fairly limited. 1995 was the first year of any major updates, with the SC receiving new taillight clusters and alloy wheel designs. Underneath the skin, the SC was given structural enhancements to comply with the impending 1997 federal side-impact standards. 1996 saw the SC 400’s V8 gain modest horsepower and pound-feet of torque increases by 10 each.
1997 brought a face-lifted front end, with redesigned lower air intakes and fog lights, and now a slim grille between the headlights. The biggest changes arrived under the hood for the 1998 model year. The SC 300’s I6 gained 10 additional pound-feet of torque, but more notably, variable valve timing boosted the V8’s output to 290 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Along with the SC 400’s new 5-speed automatic, zero-to-sixty times were down to 6.3 seconds.
For 1999, the SC coupe benefitted from new perforated leather upholstery, as new 3-spoke steering wheel also wrapped in perforated leather, and a standard 6-disc CD changer. With no major changes, the 2000 model year was ultimately the SC’s last in its original form.
Despite its voluptuous looks, sumptuous interior and copious performance, the Lexus SC 300/400 never achieved the same success as its four-door relatives and was largely forgotten in its later years. Although the SC was always a bargain compared to most competitors (with 1992 base prices for the SC 400 starting at $39,400 and the SC 300 starting at $32,700), prices steady rose over the car’s run, with the SC 400’s reaching $56,305 by 2000.
The real hurdle, which the SC could not overcome, was a rapidly shrinking consumer interest in coupes, mostly in favor of SUVs. Regarding Lexus, this shift in buyer demand was evidenced by the introduction of the LX 450 and trend-setting RX 300 crossover. Selling over 20,000 examples in the U.S. in 1992, SC sales dropped off rather consistently, with Lexus selling just over 5,000 by 1996, and only 631 SC coupes in the U.S. for the car’s final model year, 2000.
Lexus did move ahead with a second generation SC, although the now convertible-only SC was catered to a different demographic than the original. Decidedly more grand tourer than sport coupe, the new SC 430 was less of a “Lexus Supra” for the driving enthusiast, and more along the lines of a “super Solara” aimed at the Boca Raton crowd. Despite improved sales over the first generation’s later years, sales soon slipped to under 10,000 annually. The SC 430 received very little attention over its 10-year run (a factory cassette tape deck was left in the dash right through the end, becoming the last car sold in United States), and was quietly discontinued in 2010.