MOTOR MOUTH: Just plot your course

MOTOR MOUTH: Just plot your course - I did not much care for the key of the Lexus SC430. Given the well-demonstrated Japanese flair for joyously bizarre invention, it is a sad, crude, proletarian thing: three fiddly and ergonomically incoherent buttons and a dangly leather fob. It put me in mind of what you might expect from a Corolla made in the early Edo period, not from a gorgeous luxury coupe designed for shopping trips to Gucci rather than to B&Q. Something in titanium with subtle chrome highlights and a touch of matt black morocco would be just right.

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I did not much care for the key of the Lexus SC430. Given the well-demonstrated Japanese flair for joyously bizarre invention, it is a sad, crude, proletarian thing: three fiddly and ergonomically incoherent buttons and a dangly leather fob. It put me in mind of what you might expect from a Corolla made in the early Edo period, not from a gorgeous luxury coupe designed for shopping trips to Gucci rather than to B&Q. Something in titanium with subtle chrome highlights and a touch of matt black morocco would be just right.

The Lexus SC430 is so very fine a car, the critic is forced to dwell on trivia. So I'll continue: the little button to retract mirrors is not illuminated. This means that when parked in a dark, dangerous, narrow alley around the back of your local Gucci store, you cannot find the switch to help you do so.

Another example: the reversing lights are set way, way too low. This means that someone close behind cannot intuit your intention to go backwards.

In my experience of driving, there is always someone extremely close behind, so this failing can lead to unwelcome conflict. Since the opulent swagger of the SC430 has already predisposed certain weak personalities in the psychodrama of urban life into spasms of envy and hatred, chagrin is often an unfortunate result of even the most elegantly executed parking manoeuvre.

Again, I noticed a light chirrup from the roof. I'm not talking moody diesel rumble, something more like a hummingbird in flight, but - acoustically speaking - Lexus has made a lode for its own back with an SC430 engine and drivetrain that is almost supernaturally smooth and silent. You notice the precise character of the noise from the second speed of the heater fan.

More seriously, I found myself continually selecting the wrong gear: Neutral not Reverse and Park rather than Drive. I think this must be because - since most of the cars will go to America - the sightlines to the shift gate are optimised for left-hand-drive. I had to rely on the instrument telltale to know whether I was coming or going.

And for faults, that's it. I suppose you could say that the dashboard, like the Jaguar XK-8's, shows how very difficult it is to reconcile the traditional biological signifiers of luxury with diodes and VDUs, but it is not too bad: the wood, leather, sat-nav and superb sound system make this a very pleasant place to be. With the melancholy exception of the odd Corolla-related switch, everything is beautifully put together. This includes the roof: a component designed to come apart in chin-dropping fashion.

The roof is the purpose of the SC430. With a press of one perfectly weighted tumbler, metal and glass choreograph themselves into the boot. Never mind that local environmental and weather conditions deter any but particulate and drizzle enthusiasts from open-air driving, you find yourself deploying this roof mechanism for friends, family, passers-by.

It is brilliant, but must account for about 50 horsepower.

Thus, despite a 4.3 litre V-8 in a 2.5 seater, the SC430 is not a specially fast car, although it acclerates with seamless decorum and sits on the motorway at 100mph in complete silence and security. The steering is slow. Not unpleasantly so, but discouraging twitchy changes of direction.

It is best on a wide piste, not a slalom. You plot a course rather than improvise, a style of driving further encouraged by the fine, floaty ride.

What I am saying is this is not a 'sports' car. Handling and performance benchmarks are a Venice Beach inflatable, not Talladega Speedway.

Fifty thousand buys you impressive morphology. The SC430 is satisfyingly singular and looks like nothing else, except perhaps an experimental Japanese Navy floatplane of 1942. From most angles it is pleasing, although less happy from others: the architecture fore and aft of the cabin is vast and its angles remote, even invisible. But that sounds like another niggle.

The truth about the Lexus SC430 is simple: a Japanese Mercedes SL of two years ago, designed for California. That brief may not fit the City of Westminster demographic, but it makes an agreeably eccentric choice: more distinguished than a Jaguar, less expensive than a Mercedes. Put it this way, the quota was sold out long ago ...

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