From the June 1991 issue of Car and Driver.
The new Lexus SC400 coupe is as rounded and slippery and slick as a caplet of Extra-Strength Tylenol. The big difference is, this baby will cause headaches.
Imagine that your house payments and your kids’ new shoes depend in some way on sales of Mercedes-Benz or BMW or Cadillac or Lincoln automobiles. The Lexus brand has already skimmed your gravy with the LS400, a four-door that lures away your customers like a discount Hope Diamond. But that’s only the four-door market. You’ve still got your coupe customers. They’d no more be seen in a four-door than they would in a leisure suit. But, amazingly, you can show them a synthetic coupe—what amounts to a sedan with half the number of doors—and they write the check. Pretty nifty gambit as long as it works.
If you’re relying on synthetic coupes to keep the kids in Keds, then the migraine throb will kick in as soon as your customers see this real coupe from Lexus, the brand that can do no wrong in the four-door market. Because this is not a made-over sedan. It’s a new car, with an entirely new appearance, a new suspension, and a new personality. About all the SC400 coupe shares with the LS400 sedan is the extravagantly smooth and powerful four-cam, 32-valve V-8, which everybody loves already.
Starting to worry about the repo man coming for the Sony, leaving the kids without Sesame Street? Well, this next bit of news won’t help. Lexus boss J. Davis Illingworth says, «We’re going to price this car where we think the customers are.» In plain English, that means a window sticker low enough to move the iron. The synthetic-coupe makers typically take two doors away from their sedans and make up for it by raising the price. Lexus has baked a fresh new recipe and will undercut the sedan’s $40,285 base price.
How can other brands compete? First, they’d have to be as serious about business as Toyota is. The world’s third-largest automaker is determined to grab a big hunk of the market’s sirloin. Two years ago—back when Lexus was just a name, not a car—there were doubts that a Japanese sedan could ever sit at the head table with Mercedes and BMW. Toyota shouldered its way into prestige territory the old-fashioned way—with a better product. The LS400 has quality, comfort, and performance; the dealers take care of the customers; and the price is right. It’s as simple as that. And amazingly, the bystanders are as charmed as the buyers. Even taxi drivers hacking along in their tired Caprices speak admiringly of Lexus.
For the competitors, this SC400 coupe amounts to piling on. It’s a power play. The coupe is not held back by a need to share parts with the sedan. The coupe is built to do what a coupe should do: be stylish to the eye, be energetic to the touch, be impressive to the Sharper Image set. This amounts to the creation of a new car, and few carmakers are serious enough about the coupe business to go to all that trouble. Toyota, perhaps alone in the world now, is that serious. That’s why the SC400 will cause so many headaches for the other fancy labels.
The differences between coupe and sedan are everywhere. The coupe—sold in Japan as the Soarer—is about six inches shorter overall on a five-inch-shorter wheelbase. Track is about 1.5 inches narrower, and weight about 180 pounds lighter. Both use the same V-8 to drive the rear wheels (an inline-six will become available in autumn, with an optional five-speed manual transmission).
The mechanical differences surrounding the V-8 are many: The coupe has a shorter first gear in the four-speed automatic and a shorter final drive for better acceleration, larger disc brakes all around, sixteen-inch wheels instead of the sedan’s fifteens, an entirely different suspension for improved dynamics, and a few radical innovations to astound the Popular Science reader. Topmost on this list is the radiator fan powered by a hydraulic motor. When asked why he used this approach, chief engineer Seihachi Takahashi faded into Japanese inscrutability. «Because it’s the best way,» he said. «Quieter.»
Some behind-the-scenes probing revealed the source of the quietness. The usual thermostatically controlled electric fan is either off, in which case it’s completely silent, or it is on and therefore producing a considerable air-rush sound. The hydraulic fan is a variable-speed arrangement, so, in some modes, it may be on but at such low speeds you won’t notice.
When the LS400 sedan was previewed in the press nearly two years ago, it generally received high praise for its engineering and condescension for its styling. «Sort of like a Mercedes,» people said. «Got a big grille in front.» Japanese cars are created by teams that are typically organized quite differently from the way the rest of the world does it. In Japan, the body designers report to the chief engineer, who has veto power over anything he doesn’t like.
Detroit designers would rather walk picket lines than work under an engineer. They think that an engineer would divert them toward stern and boring cars. Maybe. But that’s not what happened in the case of the SC400. Chief engineer Takahashi is known to have fallen in love with the first clay proposal sent to Japan from Toyota’s Calty Design Research, Inc., in Newport Beach, California. Takahashi now calls the car an «original American design.» He liked the early shape so much that he wouldn’t give up on it, even though it was, at the time, unbuildable by all known methods.
Principal designers on the project were two California men: Dennis Campbell, who had stints at Ford and Chrysler before joining Calty in 1980, and Erwin Lui, whose career began at Calty in 1982. Lui now speaks of the SC400 as a «designer’s dream come true,» and he credits the engineers. There were times when he too was ready to give up and relax the design to something more conventional so it could be built, but Takahashi wouldn’t let him. Takahashi was determined about this coupe, and he was backed by an equally determined front office. Together they went the extra kilometer to find a way to build a practical car in the designers’ shape.
The problems all stemmed from the rounded nature of the SC400’s design, particularly the nose, which appears semicircular as you look down on it from above. All that roundness eliminates the corners. Of course! But then where do you put all the necessary components that are normally pushed out into the corners? If you look under the hood of the LS400, there’s no empty space. So how could the engineers possibly fit the same equipment into even tighter quarters?
Consider the headlights. Front corners are perfect for headlights. But when you round off the front corners, and roll back the vertical face above the bumper so that it quickly blends into the sloping hood, the normal headlight space is gone. The headlights end up back against the radiator bulkhead where you’d have to do a major teardown just to change a bulb. What to do? Originally, all of the lighting was intended to fit into a single smooth module in each corner. But that wasn’t possible. The projector high-beam part of the module required too much depth. The final solution separated the high beams from the module and positioned them inboard, where depth behind was greater, with their own ovoid lenses, and at the same time created what will surely become one of the SC400’s most talked-about details.
Once the design was approved by Toyota, Lui went to Japan to see it through the transition to a production shape. With the designer on hand, Toyota thought, the true essence of the original would more likely be preserved in the final car. Again, more evidence of Toyota’s determination. Lui remembers confronting the «hard points» for the first time. Hard points represent equipment that has to be in the car, such as the top of the intake manifold and the battery. The engineers came to the clay model and drove pegs into it to the depth of the hard points. A number of pegs poked outside the rounded shape. Some surfaces were moved to accommodate them, but Lui says that Takahashi did everything he could to relocate and reshape internal components. The coupe’s air cleaner, for example, is an entirely different shape than the sedan’s. We notice also that the coupe’s front suspension positions its upper wishbones much lower in the car, which would allow more space in the engine compartment.
The original design had an even smaller grille opening in front, too small to cool the engine, Takahashi said. So the opening was enlarged. To keep it as small as possible, however, the engineers reached for a method commonly used on racing cars but rare on the road—they constructed a duct that channels all of the incoming air through the radiator.
Extra engineering is evident in two other areas too, areas that will surely make the coupe friendlier to passengers. The doors swing on complex four-bar hinges that move the front and the top of the doors farther out of the opening than normal hinges would. Back-seat passengers will also appreciate the power feature of the passenger-side front seat that slides it forward on its track when the backrest is folded. Both of these features pay off in easier entry and exit.
We’ve driven only preproduction samples of the SC400 at this point, so we’ll keep the driving impressions general. This car shares the interior mood of the sedan—beautifully sculptured shapes covered in fine textures and pastel colors. Leather is standard equipment, as is bird’s-eye maple dash and door trim. The instruments, as on the sedan, are self-illuminated whenever they’re operating, which makes for an exceptionally legible display. The windshield slopes steeply, but it’s positioned well forward, thereby minimizing the solar-cooker effect on the occupant’s laps.
We’ve greatly admired the four-door for the way in which it combines a silent, plush ride with trusty handling. The coupe’s personality is quite different. The body is quiet, but the engine talks. Toyota thought a coupe should be sporty. The shorter gearing gets the V-8 up in the revs quicker. The retuned intake and exhaust acoustics now turn the engine sound into a scream when you tip into it, albeit a refined scream. And the whipped cream has been eliminated from the ride. The coupe’s motions are highly damped. You definitely feel the contours of the road now, although much of the harshness is filtered out.
This car is beautifully executed, very much a designer piece both inside and out. In our view, the plush silence of the LS400 seems a loftier accomplishment, yet the SC400 has the sporting attitude that’s entirely missing from the sedan. Clearly, these two cars are intended for different buyers.
And that, in turn, means headaches for a new group of sellers. The synthetic-coupe business will never be the same.
1992 Lexus SC400
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
ESTIMATED BASE PRICE
DOHC 32-valve V-8, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 242 in3, 3969 cm3
Power: 250 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Wheelbase: 105.9 in
Length: 191.1 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 52.6 in
Passenger Volume, F/R: 55/30 ft3
Trunk Volume: 9 ft3
Curb Weight (C/D est): 3600 lb
PERFORMANCE (MANUFACTURER RATINGS)
60 mph: 6.9 sec
1/4-Mile: 15.3 sec
Top Speed: 150 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
City/Highway: 18/23 mpg