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The Bold and the Beautiful
by MARTHA HINDES

How many times have you driven a car and had people chase you down to ask about it? Well, it didn't make any difference whether it was Phoenix, Arizona under a hot desert sun or Detroit, bathed in early Spring sunshine.

Those were the mere settings, maybe framing is a better word. The star of the show in both places was the sporty new Lexus SC 430 for 2002, a prestige convertible with luxury overtones and uncharacteristically eye catching visual lines that is bringing Lexus back into the performance coupe arena with a bang.

The biggest problem testing the vehicle was the number of times people stopped to ask about it, or just to turn heads as it drove by. It's that stunning.

Traffic Stopper

"That's a beautiful car," yelled a man through the window of his panel work truck, after pacing the SC 430 for about a mile. It didn't matter that a couple of drivers behind the both of us were honking their horns in impatience as we slowed a little to talk.

Down in Arizona, a man had been watching a whole string of SC 430s doing test runs and finally couldn't contain himself any longer.

At a lengthy stoplight, he jammed his car into park, jumped out and rushed up to ask where we were going. The two who were testing the vehicle led him back to the corral where he saturated himself in waves of music from the unparalleled Mark Levinson sound system -- with permissions of Lexus folks, of course.

Such is life at the wheel of the only convertible ever put on a Lexus-branded product.

Toys Will Be Toys

I'm not sure of the lifespan of the self-extracting aluminum convertible hardtop that tucks neatly under the trunk deck in its own little cradle. Surely the number of times one launches it to open then close again could have some impact -- an unavoidable temptation that brought the vehicle to a stop several times just to marvel at the controls.

Familiarity certainly would diminish the novelty and tendency to want to play with it. But for starters, it was just wonderful being able to push a button and have the windows run down, the trunk pop open, the top lift up and back and then disappear under the trunk lid, and not need to adjust the permanently installed wind oppressing glass panel over the back seat. It's all done for the driver with a push of a single button. It isn't even necessary to manually lock it down at the headliner.

This could be called a "whistle car," whether in hard-top coupe or top-down mode. It turns that many heads.

The SC 430 is just trendy and sleek enough to demand attention wherever it is, with enough amenities to pamper the driver who wants to have controlled fun on the road.

The design might be overwhelming without the monstrous 18-inch wheels with slim profile tires that balance the whole package visually. Choose the runflat tire option at $400 from Bridgestone or Goodyear, and presumably you'll eke out a bit more trunk storage, but a little harder ride.

Then there are those little touches that lend a sense of pampering. Go to step in at night and there's the muted glow of a back-lighted Lexus name in the doorway's rocker panel by your feet. There's a tiny light at the seat belt holster for less groping to attach it in the dark. And the tilt angle of the touch sensitive navigation system screen makes it readable in sunlight - despite a collection of fingerprints. That $2,000 option is actually easy to use once the learning curve is complete. It doesn't frustrate as much as some other systems, although it takes getting used to a dual map display that sometimes rotates pictures independently.

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