It’s that time again … when our sardonic and jaded minds strain to think of something positive to say about oft-overlooked late model cars. Today’s candidate could go either way – either it’s the fast, luxurious coupe you’d always dreamed of, or the fattest Supra to waddle off to posh suburbia. The Lexus SC300 is a tough nut to crack, but we’ll do our best.
The Car: 1992-2001 Lexus SC300
Lexus was new and fresh in 1992, with the amazing (for the time) LS400 making German car executives sweat, and the Camry-based ES250 showed Toyota’s management that you could tart up a depressingly boring car and sell it for a premium. It was a time of optimism, and the management wanted coupes so the drawing boards at Toyota were abuzz with swoopy designs … but not in Japan. The new coupe was being handled by Toyota’s Calty design studio, in Newport Beach, where lead designers Denis Campbell and Erwin Lui broke all the rules of the straight-laced company by jumping right to 3D design studies that emphasized curves and flow. All of this smoothing lead to a low drag coefficient, Cd 0.31.
Of course, some people thought it looked like a metallic lamprey, and others decried the character creases running down the sides, or the fussy light fixtures, as overwrought. Let’s be honest: it’s not the sexiest car on the road. This car makes no statements like, “I am wealthy and like to party” or “shallow narcissist on board.” The SC300 says, disarmingly politely, only this: “I am a Lexus SC300.” Conspicuous consumers should look elsewhere.
The SC400 debuted first, using the 4 liter 1UZ-FE engine from the LS, but we’re not so much interested in that car, as it was only offered with a slushbox. A month later, in July 1992, the SC300 was let loose on America, offering the legendary 2JZ-GE engine. Not familiar with it? It’s the naturally aspirated version of the “-GTE” variant. “T” stands for turbo, and we know it best from the twin-turbo Supra Mk. IV. The strength of the stock bottom end of the 2JZ is the stuff of legend, handling 1,000 HP applications with ease. Of course, the SC300 wasn’t turbocharged, so lest all of this Supra talk confuse you, let’s put it this way: you can think of the SC300 as a larger, longer wheelbase version of the naturally aspirated variant of the Supra. Output was right around 220 HP depending on the year, with a similar amount of torque.
Best of all, you could get the SC300 with a proper manual. Why did Toyota/Lexus even offer one? The average Lexus owner at that point was 35 seconds from death, so they sure as hell weren’t going to shift for themselves. Here’s our theory: Lexus figured that these things would eventually depreciate to the point where your average 19-year-old hoon could actually pick one up and slide around his cul-de-sac sideways. This would build brand loyalty, so if the hoon lived long enough to afford a new IS-F, maybe he’d recall all of the good times he had in that SC300 before wrapping it around a signpost after reaching for the last scrap of stuffed-crust pizza he’d dropped on the carpet.
That was meant to be a joke, but maybe it’s true. The SC300 is a great car for your upwardly-mobile young person. It’s sophisticated, huge, safe, reliable, and comfortable. It won’t scream “arrest me” if you’re out past curfew like a bright yellow Integra will. Plus no teen who is limited to used cars could possibly afford to slap enough aftermarket turbocharging onto the thing to actually lose control. That class of hoon will bypass the used car market and buy a new Camaro as a casket.
Of course, you don’t have to be a hormone-addled 17 year old to appreciate the SC300 and its manual transmission. This is like the bargain Bentley of used cars: grace, pace, and space all abound. It is a proper grand tourer, and despite 3,500 lbs of heft, the 2JZ is enough to motivate the SC with some degree of alacrity – 60 MPH came in a reasonable 7.9 seconds. Famously quiet, the big coupe could carry two people (four in a pinch) and a heap of luggage all day at freeway speeds in relaxing near-luxury. These qualities meant that often these cars have been single-owner, low-mileage garage queens.
You probably saw this one coming. We let this metallic lamprey off the hook a bit. And it’s hard to blame us: SC300s with manuals, while sort of rare, are out there, and they are not very expensive. They offer a lot in terms of reliability, comfort, and power as-is. And of course, if you love sleepers as much as we do, the 2JZ-GTE conversion is very, very easy. The head gaskets on the stock 2JZ-GE are somewhat problematic, but not as bad as in the turbocharged variants. In any event, because of the similarity to the Supra, the aftermarket has mostly sorted out the issues with these cars. Go forth and pick them up! Just please put the pizza down through the cul-de-sacs …