It seems everyone in America wants to become a truck driver, so you might wonder if anyone still buys luxury coupes. Thankfully, there are enough drivers who don't want to join the convoy and, instead of a boulder basher, opt for a modern piece of rolling sculpture. The Lexus SC300 and SC400 coupes are such four-wheeled works of art. Their styling has aged well, with a slightly rounded, straightforward look that still has a unique grace that doesn't mimic Mercedes, as the less successfully styled LS sedans do. These cars make their own statement. A small horizontal slit grille was added last year, which only differentiates it from previous models and adds little to its appeal. Out back, the taillamps have more detail. Again, this seems only to clutter up the original design, not enhance it. But the promise of speed is still here, thanks to new engines and transmissions. The SC300 offers a 3-liter in-line 24-valve six-cylinder engine capable of 225 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque. Pop for the SC400 and you get a 290 horsepower V8 installed under the hood. This 32-valve engine and its smaller counterpart have continuously variable intake-valve timing to control power and fuel economy better. Keep in mind though, that fuel economy is a relative thing. The test vehicle -- a well-optioned SC400 -- measured 19.7 in mostly highway driving. The car requires premium fuel. Both engines are fed through automatic transmissions. The five-speed manual has been removed as a choice from the SC300, which comes with a four-speed automatic, while the SC400 has a new five-speed automatic with a gated shifter to allow manual choice of gear. The transmission shifts seamlessly and, hooked to the smooth V8, makes for a drive train with incredible amounts of power and refinement. The engine is silent at idle. A subdued growl emanates from the chrome-tipped dual exhausts when called for. The five-speed transmission has three shift modes. Normal, power and snow. The snow mode is great for any kind of inclement weather. Toyotas tend to have light rear ends, so it's easy to make the tail slide around --sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The snow mode helps keep things in check during all kinds of inclement weather. Of course, the handling wasn't helped by the Goodyear tires on the test vehicle. They seemed to lose grip too easily, and wet weather traction was only average. Furthermore, when crossing expansion joints, they had a balloon-y feel and were particularly noisy, marring an otherwise quiet ride. The normal mode seemed to keep the engine a gear above where you'd want it to be. The power mode always seemed to keep plenty of power on tap, whether you wanted it or not. This was the best position for most driving situations. Pulling away from the pack is easy -- the Lexus drive train attacks the pavement with the cool fury of a tsunami. Putting all that po wer to the pavement is a fully independent double-wishbone suspension with coil springs and gas-pressurized shock absorbers. This did a fairly good job of smothering bumps, but the ride is quite firm considering the silky fittings of the car. This seemed at odds with its otherwise smooth personality. The brakes were quite good, although the pedal featured Toyota's typical soft feel. Foiling thieves has been enhanced this year with Lexus' installation of an engine immobilizer. The keyless entry buttons are integrated into the key, so there's no separate fob to carry around. The interior features most of the necessities of this class: automatic headlamps, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, automatic climate control, heated seats, integrated garage door opener, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, memory seats and, of course, leather trim and a killer sound system. The wood trim has a more matte finish, one that's more appropriate than the gloss used previ usly. There's an indicator light to tell you when the car has turned on the headlamps, something some automakers don't include with automatic headlamps. The front seats were very comfortable, the leather and interior fittings were nicely made and the finish was excellent. The lone exception was the moon-roof cover, which felt flimsy. Interior space is snug, something coupe-lovers don't mind. Others might find the limited storage space and lack of rear leg room appalling in 192-inch car. I don't care -- it's a coupe. That said, there should be some provision made for loose change and a turnpike ticket, something the most mundane car has. Also lacking was a trunk cargo net. In a car with this much power and agility, it would be nice to have a net to prevent small items from sliding around the 9.3-cubic-foot trunk. Considering the $52,700 base price of the car, it's ridiculous that it's an option. But this car is still a blast to drive, with a poise and agility that's quite fun. At the same time, some may find it soulless in its perfection. Whatever your conclusion (I'll go with the soulless crowd), it's still more fun than a sport utility. All those nouveau trendy truck drivers don't know what they're missing.
1998 Lexus SC400 Standard: 4-liter 32-valve V8, five-speed automatic transmission, front and rear stabilizer bars, variable assist power steering, four-wheel power disc brakes with anti-lock, 225/55R16 V-rated tires with aluminum alloy wheels, dual front air bags, intermittent wipers, auto on-off headlamps, electrochromatic inside/outside mirrors, theft deterrent system, maple interior trim, electroluminescent instrumentation, front power passenger seat walk-in, keyless entry, trip computer, power windows with driver's side auto down, power door locks, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power front seats, leather trim, memory seats, automatic climate control. Options: Color-keyedspoiler, power moon roof, traction control, remote CD changer, wheel locks, floor mats. Base price: $52,700 As tested: $57,230 EPA rating: 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway Test mileage: 19.7 mpg Competitors: Jaguar XK8, Mercedes SL, SLK, Lincoln Mark VIII, Cadillac Eldorado.
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