October 20, 2020

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Automotive pure lust

1992 Lexus SC400 Rewrites the Sport Coupe Formula

From the October 1991 issue of Car and Driver. One of our road warriors said,...

From the October 1991 issue of Car and Driver.

One of our road warriors said, “Lexus called—your bullet is ready.”

More than ready, as any numbnoggin can see. On the Lexus LS400 four­ door, “LS” stands for “Luxury Sedan”; “SC” stands for the new “Sports Coupe.” But who needs the help? Your eyes wrap around this high-caliber coupe and shout Sport! Drop the hammer and your foot shouts it louder than the engine. Lever good and hard for a cornering advantage and your inner ear grunts out the message.

The SC400 weighs 246 pounds less than the sedan. It puts the power multiplied by its shorter first-gear and final-drive ratios to good use. The coupe soars from zero to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds compared with 7.9 for the sedan. The coupe clears the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 93 mph, versus the sedan’s 15.9 at 90 mph. That performance also shuts down SC400 competitors such as the new Acura Legend coupe, the Mercedes 300CE, and the Cadillac Eldorado. Passing traffic? No worries: the SC picks itself up and flings past.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Thanks to vented four-wheel disc brakes and electronic ABS circuitry, the coupe’s 3694-pound mass stops from 70 mph in 185 feet. The pedal feel came up squishy, though, as if the heat generated by the brakes kept them hard-pressed to deal with the SC’s speed. Luckily, added miles made the stopping feel progressively stronger.

The coupe’s cornering tears the contest open. The SC’s claw-like 0.86-g of grip is a sizable improvement over the LS’s 0.79-g limit, and it easily surpasses the tenacity of its competitors. Better yet, Lexus’s coupe gladly hangs out its tail to display the balanced power oversteer of a potent rear-drive machine.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

However, we offer advice for Bullet Bob and his SC: don’t chase Cannonball Brock and his LS for top-speed honors. The LS’s taller gearing lets it unwind to a 5-mph edge over the coupe’s 145-mph maximum. Among coupes in its class, only the 147-mph Mercedes 300CE can better the SC in a top-end blast.

In fuel economy, the EPA says the SC and LS both get 18 mpg in the city. Our overall averages of 16 mpg apiece confirm it.

HIGHS: Masterful styling, superb quality, refined performance.

However you feel about a coupe offering blissful comfort enclosed in a carnival ride, these are excellent numbers. They come wrapped in glossy paintwork, lovely leather, and fine trim. A two-memory function sets the driver’s seat, mirrors, and wheel to two preset combinations. The near-perfect wheel rises in front of an electroluminescent (means “glows in the dark”) instrument layout. Despite a relatively lax shoulder harness, the firm seat holds you squarely in front of the big, bright analog dials.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Looks? For a true overview of this projectile from Toyota’s luxury division, climb high for an overhead view. This bullet hits you like the stunner it is. It rolls in as round as round can be and still be legal for road use without being beamed up by extraterrestrials for joyrides or epoxied down by UFO Alarmists for Global Security. This rocket’s lines scream: Women and children, get back—boys, we’re going ballistic! Everybody sees it can do that (especially the Ohio kid riding the mower who whipped around as if on a soda stool and gave some particularly handsome ground cover a reverse Mohawk). However you cut it, when the SC shows up on ”To Tell the Truth,” you’ll see which is a starship among pretenders.

Pretenders to coupe-ness have no choice but to keep a straight face; they began that way, as sedans. Most sports coupes—even those sold at exorbitant prices—remain sedans to the bone. Many purveyors of sports coupes simply revamp any old sedan—or even a good new one—by tipping off two doors (and thousands of customers) and selling the near-coincidental byproduct for a whole lot more money.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Not Lexus. The SC sells for $38,635, which is $1650 less than the sedan that made the line famous. The SC400’s goal is to blow a hole through the blue-ribbon market for sports/luxury coupes. Lexus means to hit it where they ain’t (meaning somewhere in the vicinity of below the belt).

Can you say “bull’s-eye”?

Lexus began the journey into coupes­manship from a truly new beginning. Lexus chose to trim its sleek two-plus-two from the fabric of square one rather than snipping at the fine quilting of its chunkier four­ doors. It gave up all but the LS’s velvety 32-valve 4.0-liter V-8 and its rousing 250 horsepower.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Creativity sparked anew, Lexus conjured up a coupe unique unto itself. Also to the design world: the Lexus designers at Toyota’s Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, California, put away their sketching and drafting aids. They traded the specificity of their pencils and computers to add the third dimension of playing, like gifted kindergartners, with shapes created from balloons and plaster. These pliant visual aids added an organic roundness that the designers photographed, toyed with as if it were taffy, and translated into clay models and a full-size prototype with never an overall line drawn. The chief engineer at Toyota in Tokyo, Seihachi Takahashi, so loved the designers’ unusual, supposedly unproducible handiwork (C/D, June ’91) that he vowed to find good ways to build it. He did. Lexus invented new methods to shape metal and reinvented or relocated a wealth of components, from headlights to suspension layouts, painstakingly tucking former impossibilities within.

If the SC400 looks like business, it’s also remarkably graceful. Normally we avoid running on about styling—you like it or don’t—but classic lines tickle us as surely as great dynamics. The SC’s fenders blend well with the tail and hood. The softly beveled but crisply accented vee of the hood swerves down toward the center of the rounded nose, then veers outward in distinctive “ells” that mimic and mirror the stylized “L” within the Lexus logo—a touch perfected in a harmony of thought and line. The horizontal ovals of the outboard cornering lights carry through to the side mirrors; the upright ovals of the tiny projector headlights draw the eye to the SC’s beady glare; the soft fascia of the bumper gives way to the air dam’s stark Porsche-like aggression.

LOWS: Suspension isn’t the best on poor Midwestern roads; get rid of that spoiler.

But we’re not blinded by the rays from the Rising Sun. The SC’s cabin sits atop the lower body like a .22 Short stuck to a .308 round. “Easy-access” hinges don’t let the doors open far enough to truly ease access. The bird’s-eye maple trim looks coarser than some fake wood-grains. The optional stabilizing wing looks out of place on the SC’s classy tail. The SC’s profile and the brightwork around its side glass suggest the lines of the Lamborghini 400GT 2+2 built in Italy two decades ago. And the ten-spoke alloy wheels, despite modern 7.0-by-16-inch dimensions, look like the British-built Minilites of the same era.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

Our era sometimes brings advances. Take the SC400’s “intelligent” electronically controlled automatic transmission, the ECT-i. The “i” presumably stands for the quality of the brain. It ain’t dumb. A switch on the console gives a choice between power and normal modes, altering shift points. The shifting remains smooth yet firm enough to remind you that you’re gunning a sports coupe. But we wish more smarts had been put into the overdrive selector. You can leave the OD button engaged and slot the lever into Drive, but if you want more control you must use a button to get into and out of top gear. An added notch for overdrive would finish off the slick shift action perfectly.

The Lexus coupe and sedan feature similar control-arm suspensions, but low-­mounted upper aluminum arms in the front, extra-rigid mounting points in the rear, plus sportier geometry all-around, distinguish the coupe’s layout.

Cindy LewisCar and Driver

The suspension proves generally firm yet smooth and absorbent. Minor tire thump masks any suspension noise, and even running in fast-forward takes place in relative quiet. Only inexcusably crummy Michigan roads jolted the SC as if its ankles were fused. Despite the basic firmness, hard braking brings more nose-dive than we’d like after spending thousands of miles in an Infiniti Q45 with active suspension. Our regard for “old” dynamics, no matter how astute, suffers accordingly. Even the latest Acura Legend coupe—one of those door-deleted sedans—soaks up truly tricky roads more handily than the Lexus, and for somewhat less money. Out in the open, though, the hearty Lexus V-8 carries the day over the Legend’s less hearty V-6. The SC400 also wins for pure engine sounds, baying more joyously than Lexus allows in the sedan.

Amid the revealing quiet of cruising through town, you realize how easily everything in the SC whirs, meshes, and glides. The 225/55VR-16 Goodyear Eagle GS-Ds, alternatives to Bridgestone Potenza RE93s, keep quiet on most pavement. The Eagles hang on when the skies open and threaten to close the roads. A thunderstorm hit with horrendous winds that flattened roadside reflectors, but the SC still felt solid. The big coupe tramlines in truck ruts, though, and when it finds them turned into water troughs it planes up like an Everglades fan boat. We shut off the SC’s optional traction control (which comes bundled with heated front seats for $1760) because it feels eerie. Traction control is like ABS and all-wheel drive: it can’t always do the trick. Perhaps the next engineers will perfect the system with better thinking and a better brain.

THE VERDICT: If a 40-grand coupe can be a great value, this is it.

The SC400 costs only one-sixth of the astounding $250,000 price tag of the Aston Martin we tested in May. The Lexus turns the Aston into an instant aberrational anecdote—a shaky tale told in the face of another projectile about to go ballistic for real.

We have seen Bullet Bob, and he is us.


Counterpoints

The first Lexus SC400 I saw in the metal sat outside the annual art and design show held at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. What an appropriate setting. If I’ve ever seen one, this is a car built to keep chiropractors busy unturning heads. The SC400 is a product of Calty Design, Toyota’s U.S. styling studio—where it first appeared as a clay model, not a sketch. The result of Calty’s work is nothing less than the most pleasing car to look at that we’ve seen in some time. Happily, the only thing more fun than looking at the SC400 is driving it. It’s fast, silent, and just about perfect on the ergonomics front. —William Jeanes

The Japanese have been hitting home run after home run these days, and a person generally has to haul out the microscope to find imperfections in their products. One common complaint has been that many Japanese cars (including the Lexus LS400) seem to lack personality. Darned if they aren’t starting to get that right also. The SC400 shares the crypt-like silence, silky smooth engine, and supple, well-controlled suspension behavior of the flagship LS400. Off-the-line performance and exterior styling are where the LS’s stiff upper lip give way to the SC’s sly, sultry grin. Shorter gearing boosts the force available at the pavement in low gear by fifteen percent, which translates to a much more aggressive launch feel and quicker zero-to-60-mph times. The SC400 trades the safe, conservative lines of the LS for a riskier, more striking appearance—it’s simply unlike anything on the road. It’s an appropriate look for a car that stands alone in its market niche. —Frank Markus

I recall sitting in a roadhouse in Ojai, California, following my first drive in a big Lexus sedan. I told Csaba Csere it was a revelation but needed to be less velvety and more visceral. I wanted more steering feel, more exhaust note, a sprightlier 0-to-60 time, less body roll, and (well, okay, I’m embarrassed by this) more wood trim in the cockpit. Lexus must have bugged the roadhouse with voice-activated microphones.

The SC400 coupe is … well, I almost said perfect. But that would be wrong. There are some pot-walloping, glaring faults. Like the three chrome badges on the car’s rump. And the trunk-lid spoiler. And I wish that when I reached to adjust the radio’s volume that I didn’t always accidentally twist the climate-control knob to the Furnace Creek setting. Stuff like that. See? Not perfect. Maybe I should mutter these complaints in the roadhouse.

If I were, say, an engineer on BMW’s just-released $86,540 850i, the SC400 would cause me to enroll in demolition night courses. —John Phillips

Specifications

SPECIFICATIONS

1992 Lexus SC400

VEHICLE TYPE
front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe

PRICE AS TESTED
$43,994 (base price: $38,635)

ENGINE TYPE
DOHC 32-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement:
242 in3, 3969 cm3
Power:
250 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque:
260 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm

TRANSMISSION
4-speed automatic

CHASSIS
Suspension (F/R): control arms/multilink
Brakes (F/R): 11.7-in vented disc/12.1-in vented disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle GS-D, 225/55VR-16

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase: 105.9 in
Length: 191.1 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 52.6 in
Passenger volume: 85 ft3
Trunk volume: 9 ft3
Curb weight: 3694 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 6.7 sec
100 mph: 17.6 sec
130 mph: 41.4 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.0 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.6 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 4.1 sec
1/4 mile: 15.2 sec @ 93 mph
Top speed: 145 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.86 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 16 mpg

EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/city/highway: 18/16/20 mpg

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