Curbside Classic: 2002-10 Lexus SC430 – Personal Luxury Convertible

Objectively, there’s a lot to like about the Lexus SC430. There’s Lexus’ superlative reliability and build quality, a creamy smooth 4.3 V8, a secure and convenient folding roof and the fact this was Lexus’ first luxury convertible. It sounds like a real winner on paper but, when it comes to subjective measures, it loses its appeal.

Perhaps the most bothersome part of the SC is that it was even called an SC. The first SC (nèe Toyota Soarer) was a smooth, well-proportioned and understated coupe, carrying on the proud tradition of the prestigious Soarer line. In part because it was the first Soarer designed in the Calty Design Research center in California, it fit perfectly into the Lexus line-up. Like the SC430, it wasn’t overtly sporty. Nevertheless, it was a grand tourer per the European definition – smooth, comfortable, but dynamically adept.

Then along came the SC430. Forget about grand touring, European-style. This car was designed for long, straight, smooth roads and little else. Body roll and understeer were abundant. The steering was numb. Ride quality wasn’t even that great, early models hobbled with run-flat tires.

Some minor mechanical tweaks a few years into the SC430’s run helped improve ride quality and tie down (moor?) the handling a little bit. There were running suspension changes in late 2002 and 2004, at least in European markets.

Despite its heavy American emphasis, the SC430 was actually designed at Toyota’s design center in France. Sotiris Kovos was the chief designer but, although he had done a fine job penning the pert and perky first-generation Toyota Yaris hatchback, his work on the SC430 was met with decidedly less critical acclaim. Despite measuring 14.7 inches shorter than the last generation of SC and a few inches shorter than a Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class, the car looked bloated (the SC430 was 1.1 inches wider than before).

There are perhaps two things about the SC430’s design that stand out the most, and for entirely the wrong reasons. Firstly, there’s it’s – oh, how do I put this delicately? – its enormous, fat ass. Unfortunately, the folding metal hardtop is partially to blame for that and Kovos wasn’t the only designer to struggle at gracefully styling a rear end that had so much junk in its trunk. The Great Coupe Convertible Epoch of the 2000s brought us many ill-proportioned designs, like the Ford Focus CC. Alas, it also yielded a few cars that managed not to look so rear-heavy, like the final Volvo C70. It was a difficult task but it was possible. The SC430, unfortunately, managed to look bad with either the roof up or down. From extreme angles it could look passable, but that was merely a ruse, like how an overweight person might hold their phone far up above their head when taking a selfie to disguise their bulk.

What was much easier for automotive designers was styling an attractive front-end. Here, in my opinion and in many others’, Kovos failed. It certainly looked contemporary with its overly large headlights, reminiscent of the frumpy Lexus LS430. Lexus’s grille design of the era was forgettable, however – some may argue they’ve overcompensated since then – and the SC430’s face was bland.

Then there was the SC’s image. Sure, the Germans and Jaguar generally had the luxury of heritage and entrenched cachet in their favour. An SC430 could’ve been almost as desirable and coveted but, thanks to its visual avoirdupois and cushy dynamics, it instead seemed tailor-made for middle-aged, female Realtors in Florida or wealthy snowbirds.

Although this was the most global SC yet, offered throughout European and Asia-Pacific markets, it was ironically the most niche, made-for-America Lexus to date. American critics, even those typically more dynamically-minded ones at Car & Driver, were a fan of the SC430 at launch. Critics elsewhere in the world, not so much.

At launch, the SC430 was priced around $4k higher than the Mercedes-Benz CLK430 convertible. Against the BMW 645ci convertible and Cadillac XLR, however, the SC430 was the value play – in 2004, it undercut both by around $13k.

Only the Cadillac matched the Lexus’s folding metal hardtop, the Bimmer and the Benz sticking with soft tops. With 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, the SC430’s engine was competitive against the A209-series Mercedes-Benz CLK500, the XLR and the 645ci.

To the SC430’s credit, it sold considerably better in the US than its dated predecessor had in years. In its first couple of years, Lexus sold over 14,000 examples. The last time the previous SC had managed that feat was way back in 1993, though the SC430 never matched the SC300/400’s debut year figures of over 20,000 units.

Apart from the introduction of a six-speed automatic in 2006 to replace the five-speed and some minor visual tweaks, the SC430 was left more or less unchanged for the rest of its lengthy run. That gave it the bizarre novelty of being the last automobile from any major manufacturer to be sold in the US with a cassette player. With the introduction of the Lexus brand to Japan, this was the last generation of Toyota’s posh Soarer line, the car switching to Lexus badging in 2005. The SC430 was left to slowly peter out, quietly disappearing after 2010. Sales declined each year with just 328 sold in the US market in 2010.

Lexus eventually developed a flagship that earned international acclaim. The Lexus LC has drop-dead gorgeous styling, almost identical to the LF-LC concept that previewed it. It actually handles. It offers a choice of buttery smooth 5.0 V8 or a 3.5 V6 hybrid. Its cabin – Lexus’s fussy Remote Touch interface aside – is exquisitely detailed and bereft of the fake-looking wood afflicted on early-2000s Lexus models like the SC430. Although on paper it appears much pricier than the SC430 was, if you adjust for inflation it costs only a few thousand more.

This year, Lexus confirmed a convertible version – again, largely identical to the LC Convertible Concept – will be produced.

It was a pleasure to see Lexus finally offer a convertible, especially one with a V8 engine. Despite its virtues, however, the SC430 was disappointing. The lure of Lexus build quality and reliability was tempting but the car was unattractive. The promise of a plush boulevardier was enticing but ride quality, at least at first, simply wasn’t as good as one would expect. The clever hardtop took only 25 seconds to retract but that party trick was soon replicated by countless convertibles. You bought an SC430 because you wanted a Lexus convertible, not because it was the best convertible. Toyota’s luxury brand could do better. Fortunately, it appears to have done so with the upcoming LC convertible.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1997 Lexus SC 400 – V8-Powered Coupes From Japan Are Indeed A Rare Breed

Future Curbside Classic: 2004-2009 Cadillac XLR – The Allanté, Part II