Two Boulevard Cruisers That Flip Their Lids

Lexus tackles the hardtop convertible concept adroitly. As for Ford, nice try

Hardtop convertibles are back. The Lexus SC 430, with an automatically retractable roof, hit the market earlier this year. Ford followed in August with a Thunderbird convertible. Detroit correspondent David Welch drove both. Here are his reviews.

SC 430: Smooth Operator

Think Lexus, and the image is of comfortable but boring luxury cars. That's why the $61,000 Lexus SC 430 convertible is attracting so much attention. On the outside, its bold, curvaceous form draws plenty of commentary, both flattering and otherwise. The interior design is so innovative that other auto makers are looking to mimic it. The ride and handling is comfortable and more spirited than your typical Lexus.

I have to give Toyota Motor credit for breaking the mold with this car even though I don't like everything about it. The rear is fat, and it slopes downward, giving the car a somewhat bulbous look. For a convertible, the SC 430 is noticeably tall from the ground to the top of the window sill. That's because Lexus needed a bigger body so its engineers could build enough space to store the hard top when it's pulled down.

STEALTH VINYL. The roof mechanism itself works effortlessly. Push one button and the top raises, folds, and disappears behind the backseat. But all that extra hardware makes the car heavy, leaves little trunk space, and renders the rear seats useless except to hold a golf bag or two.

The inside design of this car is cool. When I climbed into my black test car, I was immediately impressed by the cognac-colored leather that surrounded me. It lined the doors, wrapped the steering wheel, covered much of the dash and the console, and made the plush seats supple and inviting. In between the leather was some brushed aluminum and real wood on the stereo controls. One nice touch: A wooden door reveals the stereo controls at the push of a button.

Then came a big letdown. Just to the right of the aluminum-encased audio controls was a small crack in the leather. I peered at it closely and then realized it wasn't leather but vinyl. Lexus covered any surface that driver and passengers touch with their hands in leather, but shaved a few pennies from the vehicle by stitching a little vinyl into the dash. That's like sewing cheesy plastic buttons onto an Armani suit.

On the road, the SC 430 is no BMW, but it took all that I could dish out in the way of abrupt right turns and swerves through traffic. The steering isn't as precise as it might be for a smaller, two-seat convertible. But the car still handles quite well. Its powerful, 300-horsepower engine gives plenty of push and the automatic transmission shifts effortlessly. That makes the car a great boulevard cruiser. One big bonus: The SC 430 is surprisingly quiet for a convertible. The car shields its passengers from the wind quite nicely, allowing for easy conversation even when the top is down.

If you like the quirky styling, the car delivers the cushiness of a Lexus but with more pizzazz.

T-Bird: Skin-Deep Beauty

One thing about the new Thunderbird is certain: It's the best T-Bird Ford ever made. But let's qualify that. The Thunderbird has historically been hugely overrated. The original 1955-57 T-Bird--a stylistic gem that spawned the new one's retro design--looked great but didn't drive well. Recent T-Birds, like the boxy version of the early 1980s and the bloated, mass-marketed coupes of the 1990s, have been laughable for so prestigious a marque.

On its own merits, the $39,000 T-Bird is pretty good. Stylistically, it's a dreamboat. Unlike most of today's coupes, convertibles, and sports cars, the T-Bird does not resemble a wedge of cheese with wheels. Instead of sloping forward like a sports car, it tapers from the nose down to the tail for a laid-back look. When I tooled down Detroit's Woodward Avenue--the scene of an annual classic car cruise every year--I got a lot of looks. Everywhere I went, people stopped to gaze at my bright red test car. And it should keep its exclusivity. Ford plans to sell only 15,000 a year.

It's a nice ride, too. The car was designed for what Ford marketers call "relaxed sportiness." It's not a nouveau muscle car for the 50-year-old divorced guy in a midlife crisis but more a stylish cruiser for aging boomers who yearn to head to the country for a Sunday drive. A long and heavy car, it tends to ride smoothly over potholes and bumps in the pavement. And its V-8 engine powers forth effortlessly and with authority. The steering is precise, but the car's weight keeps it from moving too nimbly. I took a few corners pretty hard and had to white-knuckle the steering wheel to keep it in line.

The T-Bird is at its best when the hard top is off, but that's not something you can do at the push of a button. In fact, the roof has to be removed manually, and the unit is so awkward and bulky that it requires two to do the job. When the hard top is on, it squeaks and rattles. The annoying noises, along with some manufacturing snafus that Ford had when the company was trying to launch the car, make me wonder about the quality of the workmanship.

LINCOLNESQUE. Inside, the car falls well short of my expectations. When I first slid down into the cockpit, I got a feeling of déjà vu from the dashboard. It's almost the same plastic-laden instrument panel that Ford built into the Lincoln LS sedan. While that's not terrible, the interior is so dull it defies description. The only saving grace is a set of brushed-metal strips that run across the front of the dash and the doors. That's not the striking interior that I thought would come from the company that promised to "surprise and delight" customers.

For most T-Bird enthusiasts, the wait of nearly three years for the redesigned model has been enough. As long as history isn't too kind to Thunderbirds of the 1980s and 1990s, they'll think the newest one is worth every penny. Others may see the car as an overpriced beauty.

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