Lexus--whose luxury cars were born with a solid elegance that took Mercedes almost a century to achieve--broadens its American conquest with the SC400 coupe. This time, Lexus won't be clawing directly at the European competition. The SC400 is a category of one, creating its own niche in the two-door, high-performance, medium-priced luxury-touring car division. And with a base price of $37,500 for a near-flawless 2+2 of impeccable manners, it will be a warm winter in Stuttgart before anyone dethrones this car. By concept and execution, the V8-powered SC400 presents stunning contradictions to industry norms: * Manufacturers traditionally charge a little extra for silkier and sportier two-ear versions of their four-door sedans. Lexus sells the SC400 for $1,500 less than the $39,000 LS400 sedan. * Most coupes are exercises in cosmetic surgery, little more than sedans with sheet metal lightly rearranged to carry two doors. The SC400, however, is a total redesign of its heavier, longer, taller and beamier big sister. The only commonalities are its 240-horsepower engine, four-speed automatic transmission and the Lexus logo, with its overriding implication that you are one smart buyer. * Coupes invariably utilize hand-me-down technology. The SC has been allowed to play pioneer of Lexus' 400 series with a radical, 4-link hinge that moves the doors outand then several inches forward to provide greater room in closer quarters. Then there's the passenger seat. Unlatch the back and the whole automatically slides fully forward to allow rear seat access without awkward glimpses of bare skin or underthings. * Finally, builders of $37,500 cars are usually quite content to take their shots and their lumps against other $37,500 cars. Lexus prefers to set itself up as a bigger underdog than the Houston Astros. In sophistication, quality of materials, craftsmanship and performance, the SC400 easily rubs fenders with European nobility: The Mercedes 300CE (at $57,000), the Jaguar XJS ($48,000) and the mighty BMW 850i (at an almighty $80,000). Would you prefer to cruise Melrose and arrive at Patina in an SC400 or the BMW 850i? The Bimmer, of course, with all its classicism. But would you spend $80,000 for an 850i when you could get two SC400s for the same price? Of course not. Especially when buying twin Lexii would leave sufficient bucks for seared whitefish and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot at Patina. With creme brulee for afters. One word to the wise but sadistic: If you know a BMW 850i owner and don't value the relationship, mention that the Lexus coupe is a fraction faster from zero to 60 m.p.h. With a top end of 150 m.p.h., it is only one frown slower. The SC400--third car in the Lexus lineup now in its sophomore season--dispels an initial, lesser image of the marque. This coupe is not a nondescript motor car of passive whispers. It gives good engine sounds , has a purposeful heft and flexes more than enough muscle at all portions of its performance band. The car growls and snorts politely because it was designed that way. We know through the zippy Miata, built for old bloods and their nostalgia, what music Japanese manufacturers can make by tuning an exhaust like a piccolo. There is a slight cornering twitch to the SC400, almost a double-take between oversteer and understeer that says there is atiny touch of mischief in its genes. The result of all this careful calculation--and do not doubt for one moment that this car is one very savvy contrivance--is a powerful Japanese luxury car that finally has developed soul. The SC400 will even salve whatever traces of guilt die-hard Middle Americans might feel about buying a Japanese car. For the concept of the SC400 was given style and dimensions through the clay models and car-size mock-ups of Dennis Campbell and Erwin Lui of Toyota's Newport Beach studio, Calt Design Research. That style, a marked dedication to ellipsoids and ovoids, is rapidly becoming a hallmark of auto design of the '90s. Headlights are taking that form. Side elevations are showing the shape. The Mitsubishi 3000/Dodge Stealth has it. So does the Nissan 300ZX and this year's Nissan NX sport coupe. And you saw it in the Dodge Viper supercar that paced and shepherded this year's Indy 500. The SC400, when viewed from above, looks like something best tied in pink ribbon for Easter. Yet it is a sensational figure given enormous continuity by oval headlights that fit curved and flush into a most businesslike front end. The windshield is raked flat enough so that the long hood line seems uninterrupted as its rushes to the short, blunt rear deck with optional spoiler. Windows are narrow, sleek and discreetly emphasized by chromium frames. The cast-alloy wheels, however, must have been picked out by Roy Rogers. The last time anybody used 10 spokes it was to mount a Gatling gun. These are the stagecoach wheels that ran backward during Saturday matinees. About the only flaw to be found in the SC400's interior was one stitch on the center armrest that seemed a little out of line with the other 36,894. Elsewhere, driver and passengers look at a standard of supple glove-leather upholstery and liners; just enough bird's-eye maple to ease environmental concerns, and that welcome wonder of daylight-illuminated instruments. The process is called "electroluminescence" and is worth remembering only if you play Scrabble with William F. Buckley. The center console is from the Star Trek IX with big knobs, big lettering, big LED displays for climate control and radio--and enormous noises coming from the optional, 280-watt Nakamichi sound system (including a 12-disc CD player in the richly carpeted trunk) with its arsenal of precision amplifiers that deliver serious decibels to seven satellite speakers. Under no circumstances consider the SC400 a four-passenger car. It has rear seats. Barely. They are better than token. But only just. They are upholstered and look functional. But so do saddles on a bicycle. Of course there is a driver's side air bag. Anti-lock disc brakes also are standard. So is the automatic tilt and telescopic steering, power seats with memories (cannily linked to outside mirrors and steering wheel settings) for the driver's side, automatic climate control, power windows with power-off operation. . . . Whisper it softly: This is about as good as it gets inside that aforementioned BMW 850i. Performance from a 32-valve, 4.0-liter, aluminum V8 is huge. Initial acceleration projects the car ahead of anything except six-figure machinery at stoplights, and always with an intimidating growl. The coupe's mid-range power is made quicker still by the electronically controlled automatic transmission (Lexus has ordained that hand-foot pur ists will have to do without a five-speed manual) and almost imperceptible shifting. All of which makes high-speed freeway maneuvering a matter of seeing a space and then filling it. The speed-assisted steering remains faithful in feel throughout the speed range despite a momentary heaviness when transitioning quickly from left to right. The brakes would stop a grizzly bear falling out of a tree. The suspension (ably assisted by Goodyear Eagles on those almost-beautiful, 16-inch wheels) is tighter than the LS400 and firm enough for driving by the seat of the pants without jarring any of their contents. And all this in a car that faces virtually no competition. Except, possibly, for the Acura Legend coupe, which recently moved up-market and now sells for $36,000. At that price--while offering less performance and prestige--the Acura Legend could easily lose 1991 sales to the Lexus SC400. It could form a glimmer of hope for European and domest c car manufacturers. At least they will have Lexus ready to go one-on-one against Acura. 1992 Lexus SC400/P> The Good Fluid styling and a classic for the '90s. Excellent pace, handling and technology. Competes with cars twice its price. Total breakaway from Bland X of Asian luxury cars. The Bad Undersized rear seat. The Ugly Worst wheels since the Goths outlawed chariot racing. Cost Base: $37,500 As tested, $41,122(including power sunroof, spoiler, Nakamichi sound system, leather interior, anti-lock brakes, traction control, 12-disc CD player, etc.). Engine 4.0 liters, 32-valves, double overhead cam V8 developing 250 horsepower. Type Rear drive, 2+2, high-performance luxury coupe. Performance 0-60, as tested, 7.1 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 150 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 18-23 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,640 pounds.
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