All curves and gumption, the SC 430, due to go on sale March 15 as a 2002 model, may be the car that finally updates the Lexus image of bland perfection. The fact that it's a convertible—the first in the 12-year history of Toyota's upscale marque—is enough to make this $59,000-base-price beauty a significant departure for Lexus. "Our owners have been asking for a convertible for a long time," said group vice president and general manager Denny Clements. But the 4.3 liter, 300 hp V-8 stuffed under the hood means it can scoot from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds and seals the deal. Still, don't be fooled—in spite of its untoward sportiness this is still very much a company car. For instance, that top is a retractable one made of steel and aluminum, not cloth, so when it clunks firmly into place the SC 430 turns into a racy-looking 2+2 seating coupe and the interior becomes a reasonable facsimile of standard Lexus tranquility. And that beefy engine is so clean the car is certified as an ULEV (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle).
Even the sensational-sounding nine-speaker Mark Levinson audiophile system (not an option but standard) automatically compensates for road noise when the top is down, adding a civilized tone to the convertible theme. However, don't expect much storage space in the trunk (that's where the lid goes) or much in the way of racetrack response from the 5-speed automatic transmission (it's the same one, with exactly the same gearing, as in the flagship LS 430 sedan). Otherwise, acceleration and handling were in the ballpark of the Jaguar XK8 and Mercedes-Benz CLK 430, a pair of pricey convertibles that will be the SC 430's main competition. A zippy, performance-oriented Lexus convertible? Shocking, simply shocking. Call 800-255-3987 for information.