2002-2005 Lexus SC430, 1997-2005 Jaguar XK8, and 1998-2002 Mercedes-Benz CLK430

Glenn Paulina
Overhead Rear View

But everywhere we went in the Palm Springs area, the newest Lexus provoked a tremendous amount of positive attention. "I'll take it, I'll take it, I'll take it," exclaimed a blond, fifty-ish woman as we idled by the gate of her well-tended estate in one of the city's posh neighborhoods. "Wow! Nice car," pedestrians called out. "Hey, honey, there's that new Lexus!" Some of this interest may be chalked up to the SC430's newness--it wouldn't reach dealerships until March 15--and some of it is down to the fact that there's never been a Lexus convertible. The SC430 is a striking car, for sure, because it strikes all the chords that people are conditioned to expect in a luxury droptop. It certainly struck Sam Pishue, a youthful Palm Springs retiree who chased us down in his old VW Beetle convertible. He'd already ordered an SC430 sight unseen and was thrilled to be able to sit in our test car. "I liked the Audi TT," he said, "but I just didn't want another canvas top. And this car almost looks better with the top up." Pishue's SC430 will join the Beetle, a concours Jaguar Mark X, and a Cadillac Escalade in his garage.

The SC430 drives serenely; it's like a two-door LS430. It's not a sport coupe in the manner of the SC400. The 300-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-8 is amazingly quiet, especially when compared with the Mercedes V-8, which burbles and rasps like a diesel. It's the most powerful of the three engines, and it gets the Lexus from 0 to 60 mph a second quicker than the other two cars. Those who like to hear and feel their engine working might be disappointed, though. The five-speed automatic defines transmission smoothness and refinement, but it doesn't shift as quickly as the others, especially when you accelerate out of a tight corner. The steering is lighter than the other cars', with very little on-center feel, and the wide front tires are sensitive to road undulations. Still, this is a pedigreed chassis--taken from the GS430 sedan--and it remains largely unflustered when it's all loaded up with cornering forces. More important for its clientele, it has the best ride of our trio.

Overhead Passenger Side View

With the roof down, you can chat at will in the remarkably quiet cabin. The fully automatic hard top ascends or descends in about twenty-five seconds, similar to the Mercedes. (The Jag wins this contest, retracting in only twelve seconds and coming back up in sixteen, but it doesn't have a hard tonneau.) When the top is up, there is some oddly shaped trunk space, but when it's down, there's hardly any room at all, and the temporary spare tire is right in the middle of what little there is. Relief can be found in the optional run-flat tires, which eliminate the spare and provide room for a couple of duffels or maybe a golf bag. The rear seat also will fit a golf bag.

Both our Jag and Lexus test cars were equipped with optional navigation systems; Mercedes-Benz's Comand system is available in the CLK430, but ours was not so equipped. As has been our experience in other Jags, the XK8's nav system worked pretty well but on occasion would inexplicably send us off in the completely opposite direction from where we wanted to go. The Lexus setup, on the other hand, is intuitive and well designed, and the screen tilts seven degrees up or down to avoid sun glare.

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