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Sophomore Slumps: The Lexus SC430

October 7, 2011 by Matt

2003 Lexus SC 430

Movie sequels rarely turn out as well as the original films. Musicians call it the “second album curse.” Automakers fall victim to the same tendency as well—a groundbreaking car can make such a splash that disappointment is inevitable when the second generation rolls around. Finding the balance of maintaining the qualities that enabled the success of the first generation car and updating it for the times can be a very tricky proposition indeed. Today we briefly consider a model which failed to capitalize on the promise of its predecessor: The ’01-’10 Lexus SC430.

There are two main ways a car sequel can fail: First, by mimicking too much of the original car, leaving customers wanting more, wondering why they bothered to update the car at all. And secondly, an automaker can take the original concept in a significantly different direction, discarding key qualities of the first generation in pursuit of a new paradigm. With the SC430, Lexus failed in the second manner, abandoning the classically-beautiful coupe proportions and detailing of the ’91-’00 SC coupe in favor of something more high-fashion. Rather than take inspiration from the car haven of California like the designers of the earlier car had done, the SC430’s stylists drew on the “lifestyle of the French Riviera,” top-down trundling along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, villas perched on the hillside and nights at the Monaco casino. And that was all fine and good, but they forgot to make the car attractive in the process. With its upright, bathtub-ish profile and disconnected, multi-lens headlights, the SC430 had an off-putting, slightly insectoid fascia and misshapen overall look. It was the kind of car a designer would have to tell you is attractive, rather than being able to arrive at that conclusion on your own. It would have been one thing if the original SC coupe had had the kind of “straight off the runway” concept behind its lines like the SC430, but first-generation car’s beauty was much more accessible, classical, comprehensible. There’s a true consensus that the ’91-’00 car (shown below) was one of the loveliest cars to emerge from Japan.

1992 Lexus SC400

The mechanicals are almost incidental, as cars in this market niche are primarily bought for their looks. In any case, the SC430 was powered by a healthy 288 hp V8, sports a capable RWD chassis and was one of the very first (with the Mercedes SLK) to feature a retractable hardtop. I take no issue with those attributes, but as important as it is for a flagship coupe to have actual sporting credentials, they’re not the main sales drivers. In the areas that matter, Lexus missed the mark with the SC coupe sequel.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Lexus, Sophomore Slumps


  1. Joel says:

    Count me in the minority, but I think the convertible (and only the convertible, w/ no spoiler please) 2nd-generation looks fantastic. It’s funny you mention a bathtub-ish profile, because I see a little bit of Porsche 356 peeking out from that body.

    In high school a buddy of mine’s Dad had the SC300 from around ’94 or so. What did we drool over…a manual transmission in a Lexus!

    • Matt says:

      You’re right; there is a bit of 356 there. It’s nowhere near as delicate as the Porsche car, though. The Lexus is just more massive and substantial-looking.

      The SC300 was available from the factory in Japan with the underrated twin-turbo 280 hp 1JZ-GTE engine, the one I swapped into my Supra back in the day. Import one and it’s a direct bolt in to the SC300. The combo is a real “iron fist in a velvet glove” kind of car. I wouldn’t mind owning an example. :)

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