There’s no getting around the fact that Lexus is a dominant carmaker of reliable, luxurious cars that don’t dispense loads of cash out of your savings every time you need to replace a part and keep it running. New cars sold today are complicated no doubt. But pick any Lexus built before, say 2012, and you’ll be ferried in refined comfort while your butt sits on a cloud.
The mission of Toyota’s luxury arm was simple: to prove you can have a lavish car without the running costs of a German one. This worked to great effect when they launched the LS 400 toward the end of the Eighties — to global automotive corruption. And the Japanese weren’t alone in presenting to the world their best work. Around the same time, Honda’s NSX and Mazda’s humble MX-5 roadster would shock the world to its core that the competition had to step up.
But Lexus had one chink in the armor, if you could even call it that. At some point, they needed to replace the SC coupes of the Nineties. While working on a new car, they decided it needed to be a convertible. The end result was a car that could be loved or hated but in the end, not that bad. But that didn’t stop automotive powerhouse that is Top Gear from exploiting their rare error.
And so, we must defend it and decree that Top Gear was wrong about the Lexus SC430.
The Car’s Mission
When the Lexus SC430 premiered in 2000, it was the production variant of the concept show car that debuted a couple years earlier. We assume the response was positive because Lexus wouldn’t have built it if people didn’t like it, right? It was the intended replacement for the SC coupes that played an essential role in growing the Lexus brand. After nearly a decade of production, Lexus decided people were ready for wind in their hair entering the next century.
Officially, the SC430 was modeled after the European premium lifestyle. What Top Gear didn’t tell you is that Lexus allegedly didn’t adopt a sleeker shape in order to prevent wind buffeting that often protruded the open cabin of convertibles. It wasn’t a ‘styling error.’ Lexus was hell-bent on making sure their convertible had some function on top of their form.
So what if it didn’t look the most elegant to some people? When you look at the Mercedes-Benz SL at the time, that wasn’t quite elegant looking either. It was a bulbous hot mess presumably stuffed with dollar bills so Mercedes could charge more. Both were two-door roadsters that adopted a metal-folding hardtop shell to simulate a coupe-like impression. Only Lexus had the advantage of being able to squeeze four seats.
The Lex wasn’t down on power either. The 4.3-liter VVT-i V-8 engine yanked out of the LS flagship sedan ensured it could keep up with the stalwart from Stuttgart, providing a gut-punch of ultra-smoothness while putting down respectable numbers.
The Critical Response
At launch, the V-8 put out 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. This was enough to propel the SC430 for a 6.1-second launch to sixty miles an hour, not bad for 2001. Meanwhile, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Both Car And Driver and MotorTrend lauded the Lexus convertible for its head-turning design, smooth performance, and plenty of amenities.
Creature comforts available to the SC430 included ten-way leather seats, a Mark Levinson sound system with nine speakers, touchscreen navigation, a six-CD changer with a cassette player, and wood galore. One appreciated gimmick was the ability to hide both infotainment systems with even more wood, leaving you only to worry about the HVAC controls and driving. Remember, this was 2001 and not Apple CarPlay today.
Over the years, the Lexus had received minor cosmetic updates to keep it fresh before production ended in 2010. This included new paint options, updated wheels, and limited edition appearance packages. Meanwhile, the SC fundamentals remained unchanged.
Top Gear Stunt Probably Backfired
When the Lexus SC430 was proclaimed the worst car in the world, it was probably for giggles on Clarkson’s part. At the end of the show, he and May traded in exchange for Hammond’s classic Ford Mustang that they presumably gave back when the cameras stopped rolling. But the Lex was left in the dark to wallow in humiliation.
Public rebuttals have since been made to defend the Lexus SC430. In the end, the car’s appearance on the most-watched BBC television show drove up market value due to publicity. Today, used examples with low miles can be found north of $30,000. Later models can creep past forty large.
In 2021, to spend that money on a decades-old convertible could be seen as idiotic. But then you look at it and it makes sense. Lexus design today is fussy with details. The old-school SC430 presents simple clean lines that could even be described as pretty.
So no. It is not the worst car in the world; not even close. The Lexus SC430 was a popular hit that retains its value today.
Of course, this does raise the question. If the Lex barge is decidedly not the worst car in the world, then what is? You let us know.
NEXT: Lexus ES Dials Up Style And Adds Tech For 2022
Lost Marques: A Look Back At The 1966 Unipower GT
About The Author