Better than We Remembered: Revisiting the Lexus SC430
In the Top Gear review of Lexus’ SC430, Jeremy Clarkson infamously called the Japanese grand tourer the “the worst car in the history of the world.” The hosts panned the car’s insufficient power, poor ride, and frumpy styling. Twenty years after its release in 2001, we revisit Toyota’s big coupe to see if time really does heal all wounds.
This particular SC430 belongs to my father, and I’ve had the pleasure of daily driving it for the past two weeks while I addressed a few minor issues it was having. Although the majority of that time has been spent in short-distance commutes, I’ve had several hour-plus drives, and also had to move a bass guitar rig several times. I can tell you exactly what it's like to live with this big coupe.
Starting on the exterior, the SC430 has aged well. Whereas the styling was polarizing on introduction at the turn of the century, the curvaceous body now largely blends in with other more conservative Lexus designs of the era. Modern Lexus designs seem overwrought and complicated when compared with the restrained lines of the SC430. There is not a hint of aggression, but the car doesn’t promise anything of the sort as a driver either.
With the top down, the body loses the somewhat unnatural curve created by the retractable roof, but even then, it isn’t so offensive that non-enthusiasts would notice, or even presume that it was anything but a coupe. The automatic mechanism works flawlessly and makes swapping between the two options a breeze.
Power wise, the SC430 feels adequate in 2021. In 2010, the last year of the SC430, the 288hp was admittedly underwhelming, especially for a car that could easily kiss the $70,000 mark. In 2001, however, the Mustang GT only had 260hp. The NSX only had 290hp. While the SC430 was never meant to be a performance car, it wasn’t completely outside of the contemporary automotive landscape. At the end of the day, this is still a V8 powered coupe, and when set to cruise, there’s never a lack of passing power for those long stretches.
And the long stretches is where this car shines. This is a vehicle that was primarily built for comfort, and it succeeds. While the idea that this car could carry four had to have been suggested tongue-in-cheek by the Lexus marketing department, for two adults this is a supremely relaxing ride. The seats are plush and the touch points are nice; Lexus quality was beyond reproach in its best cars during these years, and that comes through. Even at 6’5”, I’ve been comfortable on long rides.
Luxury Car, Not Sports Car
Unfortunately, I think that that’s where the Lexus could fall short for modern day enthusiasts. If you approach this car as a sports car, you’ll be disappointed. It never begs to be driven hard, even with traction control fully off and Toyota’s ubiquitous ETC Power mode engaged. The six speed offers a manu-matic Sport mode, but those shifts are more suggestions than commands.
The suspension is soft and floaty. Frankly, if it was my car, I’d be googling coilovers and sway bars on day one. If the suspension was firmer, I think there would be a case for this car as a period Japanese muscle car. While the V8 has since spread to the RC and LC line in modern Lexus’, it started in the SC line with the previous SC400. Granted, I don’t mean to suggest that coil-overs would put this car in line with the Supra, 300ZX, or NSX, but it would certainly feel more familiar to import enthusiasts.
Although this car will remain as a cruiser, we did trade the worn out, run-flat tires out for a set of Nitto NT555 G2 tires in OEM sizing. These high-performance summer tires transformed the Lexus' handling giving it a firmer ride and better cornering stability without sacrificing wet weather performance.
In the early 2000s, as the automotive landscape shifted to a mindset of performance-for-all, the SC430 certainly felt outdated. In a world where the Accord and Camry now push 300hp, and the Lexus LS wears a predator-inspired front grill, a near anonymous plush touring coupe somehow feels unique, a call-back to a slower, more relaxed, more purposeful time.
Japanese Mercedes SL?
The SC430 is a Japanese Mercedes SL, not the AMG models of today, but the cruisers of the '80s. In its time, that felt ridiculously out-of-date, but the SC430 itself approached “vintage” territory, I think it is better to think of it as the last of the breed. This is a car that was built quality first, performance second.
SC430 Value and Maintenance
High mileage early examples of the SC430 can be had for sub-$10k, and for all the complaints, that’s a lot of car for not a lot of cash. After all, this is still Lexus, arguably at its best time for pure quality-focused engineering. The parts are built to last, and when compared to the German (or British) rivals, the Lexus will be a joy to maintain.
We are nearing the end of the V8-powered coupe, muscle car or not. As the late-model German values begin to rise, the Japanese will be next for collectors, and Lexus is the only player in that game. The SC430 may not be the best from the brand, but it checks the boxes, and never fails to deliver on everything that is promised. Twenty years later, I think the SC430 redeems itself. In a sea of crossovers, the big coupe draws attention and is a slow, relaxing, deep breath of fresh air.
More From Driving Line
- Want something a little older? The preceding SC400 is a Supra without the hype.