In the cut-throat world of automotive design, the ability to see a concept model through to production virtually unchanged is akin to the Holy Grail – something the all-new Lexus LC500 has just pulled off.
The LC500 was a celebrated showstopper at this year’s North American International Auto Show, but the sleek, low-slung coupe was based on Lexus’ LF-LC, a show car that was first unveiled in 2012 and seen as a window into the future of design at Japan’s foremost luxury carmaker.
The push for Lexus to create more exciting designs has come from none other than Akio Toyoda, President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, who had been openly critical of the brand for producing cars “which are well made but boring to drive”.
He also said that Lexus, “should clearly define their brand”, something we believe has been well and truly achieved with the LC500. In fact, it may well end up the most attention-grabbing design of 2017.
But it wasn’t easy maintaining the LF-LC’s exaggerated proportions in the production version. It was a goal that required designers and engineers to abandon egos and work as one, according to chief designer Tadao Mori, who cited key challenges in bringing the LC500 to life.
“Everything presented a challenge, but it was the packaging – how we made use of space in the car – that was the most demanding aspect: how to keep a low roof, but at the same time, keep the cabin comfortable, or how to fit 21-inch wheels and still have a low bonnet.”
The coupe is also blessed with wonderfully short overhangs, only made possible after Lexus engineers designed one of the world’s slimmest headlight assemblies.
Down back it’s a similar scenario, with a pair of ultra-compact rear lights that use twin mirrors to create a deep-field 3D effect. It makes for a stunning light signature, which is bound to stand out, even amongst the light-obsessed, high-tech Audi portfolio.
It’s clear that Lexus has spared no expense in creating their latest flagship. Over 4000 people have worked (and are still working) on the car in the ‘pursuit of perfection’ – to use that long-standing Lexus brand philosophy. And it’s one they seem to be getting closer to achieving, if the LC500 is any measure of progress.
The attention to detail is simply extraordinary, even by Lexus standards. Take the steering wheel, which is hand-stitched using three types of leather for that perfect form and tactility.
That’s not all. The size and angle of the wheel has also been carefully looked at, so there’s a change in the cross-sectional shape throughout the rim circumference – and for what it’s worth, it does feel perfect.
Examples of high-end craftsmanship are everywhere inside this cabin, from the beautifully shaped magnesium paddle shifters to the delicately crafted door openers, both of which look and feel more like individual sculptures.
Even the gear selector has had the Takumi touch; not only because it is exquisitely fashioned using three separate pieces of the softest leather, but because the stitching is completely concealed to create a feeling of unbridled luxury in the hands of the driver.
And that’s before we get to the interior proper, something that is undeniably beautiful, particularly if you opt for the enhancement pack, which adds a host of exotic materials including super-soft Alcantara inserts on the sumptuous sports seats and door trim.
It’s heady stuff indeed, and along with some significant engineering achievements, the LC500 has clearly succeeded in lifting the brand to higher ground altogether – on a level that puts it on equal footing with the best Europe can offer.
The car itself is like no other Lexus before it, except of course, the celebrated LFA V10-powered supercar, with which it shares more than you might think. It’s even built in the same Motomachi plant as the LFA, using many of the same Takumi (master craftsman).
But the LC500 utilises an entirely new platform, not shared with any other Lexus, and becomes the most torsionally rigid car the marque has ever made. Yes, stiffer even than the LFA, and a blueprint for all future front-engine, rear-drive models.
Under the bonnet there’s a choice of two entirely different drivetrains; the latest development of Lexus’ proven 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine powers the LC500, while the LC500h gets a 3.5-litre V6 full hybrid unit.
Tap the starter button and you’ll ignite a short, sharp bark unlike any Lexus you’ve ever heard before. It’s a real eye-opener, and one that had my colleague and I stare at each other in complete surprise and with utter joy, all in the same moment.
It’s an exhaust note that has more in common with an Aston Martin Vantage than any luxury-skewed Lexus we’ve ever heard.
There’s a wild, angry nature to it, one that boded well for our drive from Seville to the Monteblanco racing circuit in Southern Spain, over some tight and twisty B-roads, despite heavy rain showers forecast for the area.
There’s a fair and reasonable argument that suggests 10- speed autos are no more than a clever marketing ploy to attract cashed-up technocrats from Silicon Valley and the like.
But the truth is, Lexus wanted to avoid a spread of gear ratios where some are too short, and others too long, to provide the precise, linear shift mapping they required for the LC500.
There’s no doubt the 10-speed transmission with close ratios brings the gears closer together, and even spacing between each gear. On the twisty, Spanish back roads around these parts, the LC’s gearbox proved almost faultless – even in the default auto mode.
Step it up a few notches and the shift speed quickens to the point where it seems quicker than some of the best dual-clutch boxes we’ve used, but still super smooth and perfectly matched to the engine revs.
It doesn’t take long to warm to this new Lexus coupe, as it feels so much more focused than the RC F.
While it’s certainly not one of the world’s most powerful V8s, given its rivals are either turbocharged or supercharged, it is one of the last naturally aspirated V8s left on the planet and you’ve got to be thankful for that.
It’s not just the instantaneous throttle response, which allows for near-perfect increments of throttle to be dialled in as you power out of corners, it also feels like a perfect match for the 351kW and 540Nm of torque on tap.
It likes to rev, all the way out to 7100rpm, and it's here where the LC500 delivers its most scintillating engine note, at least in Sport mode. Conditions were far too wet to try the more manic Sport+ mode.
It’s quick, too. Lexus claims it will go from a standstill to 100km/h in less than 4.5 seconds, but on track it felt like it had more pace than that – even in the wet. A proper, timed acceleration test will need to wait until we get the car on home soil.
Handling prowess was also a little difficult to assess with any real degree of certainty, due to the limited drive time and conditions, but the LC500 is well equipped to deal with big speeds and high g-forces.
Apart from the most rigid chassis Lexus has ever engineered, the LC500 places most of the mass, including engine and driver (and passengers) in a lower, more centralised position for an optimal centre of gravity.
Even the driver and heel points have been lowered, wheels pushed to the corners of the car, and the drivetrain sits behind the front axle line to create a front mid-ship layout.
The effects of which are felt immediately; the very moment you start attacking the tighter corners. The car sits dead flat, but more than that, it feels beautifully balanced, despite its 1935-1970kg heft.
I know it’s heavy, heavier even than the larger GS F sedan, which is odd given the vast array of weight-saving measures employed by the engineers on the LC500.
Apart from the optional carbon-fibre roof, aluminium door skins are mounted to the carbon-fibre door inner structures, as well as a composite floor.
And in another first for Lexus, Michelin Pilot Cup Sport 21-inch run flats are used to eliminate the need for a spare wheel and tyre, thus saving even more weight.
Grip from the Michelins is exceptional too, even in the wet, but we can’t wait to put the car through its paces in dry conditions here at home, as we suspect road holding will be exceptional.
Even though you’re aware of the LC500’s weight, it’s still a car that urges you to constantly push harder, and you oblige with all the confidence in the world.
The steering is pinpoint accurate. It’s also quick and beautifully weighted, and there’s very little hand movement required. No coincidence then that it’s closer in feel to an Aston Martin Vantage or even a Porsche 911 in this regard, given the later was heavily benchmarked along with the LFA.
The LC500 is starting to feel like more of an engineering triumph than just another new model from Lexus.
Opt for the greener approach, and you’ll find the LC500h significantly more exhilarating than you might have expected from an ‘eco’ model, though not quite as angry as the V8 version.
While it’s a full-strength hybrid, it’s just not your usual Lexus hybrid. This is next-generation stuff, dubbed Multi Stage Hybrid System, which marries a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine; electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack, to a four-speed automatic gearbox mounted behind the hybrid transmission.
Lexus claims its combined outputs of 220kW and 348Nm is enough to launch from 0-100km/h in less than five seconds. And on track at least, that claim feels about right.
That slurry, rubber band effect common with almost all continuously variable transmissions up and down the rev range, has largely been eliminated on the LC500h. Instead, it behaves more like a traditional auto.
Maximum engine speed has been increased from 6000 to 6600rpm, which is reached at about 50km/h, so when you floor it, there’s some real shove on tap.
The standard ‘D’ range has a simulated shift control pattern that simulates a 10-speed box and for the most part it works well, certainly better than any hybrid we’ve ever driven outside the super exotics like a McLaren P1 or LA Ferrari.
It’s even got an M mode, that allows the driver to shift manually via the paddle shifters, and for the most part it works well. Though it can’t match the quick-shifting transmission in the V8 for sheer driver engagement, as it still slurs sometimes and downshifts can be slow on occasion.
It even sounds decent, though unlike the V8, which is an all-natural note and an active exhaust system, the LC500h relies on sound amplification through car’s audio system.
Both cars rode well, employing variable adaptive suspension to soak up the bulk of the big bumps and cracks over a variety of road surfaces, despite riding on big wheels shod with run-flats that normally impair their ability to offer pliancy due to the heavier tyre wall required to support a flat tyre.
While time behind the wheel of the new LC500 and 500h was limited, there’s no question that Lexus has produced its best effort to date, bar the high-priced LFA – but that was priced at $750,000 and only 10 were allocated for Australia.
We won’t know the price of the LC500 or the LC500h until closer to the car’s local release in May 2017, but as the new flagship model for the Lexus brand, you can bet this won’t be a volume chaser.
With the LC500 Lexus has created something quite special, one that is likely to become a highly desirable proposition with plenty of on-street cachet, even in hybrid guise.