In the Lexus LC500, this latest attempt to produce an emotionally engaging sports car - one that presents a viable alternative to the Europeans - actually has some legitimate and tangible merit. Finally.
After years of Lexus F performance cars that went about three-quarters of the way to getting you excited, but then failed to deliver, the LC500 is closer than ever to a car we would consider exciting and emotionally appealing.
Firstly, there's the look. Love or hate the current Lexus design language, the brand has emphasised the need to be different, and the LC500 takes what is without doubt different, to also being visually appealing.
It shares an awful lot with the concept car we saw in 2012, the one that no one actually thought Lexus would ever put in production in that form. Well, the Japanese company did just that, and it looks like a concept car for the road.
There are some questionable design elements, such as the teardrop indicators both front and rear, which tend to stand out a bit on the yellow or red coloured cars, but other than that, here you have a pretty Lexus.
It doesn’t exaggerate its grille like the RX or NX SUVs, and the front and rear of the car appear to have actually been designed by the same team, giving a very coherent look that we hope to see across the rest of the model range in due time.
If you think it doesn’t look that great in the photos here, just wait until you see it in person. It has a rather grand road presence - and it needs to, for it's going head-to-head with the likes of the BMW 6 Series and Mercedes-Benz SL. Two iconic cars that share almost a century of history between them.
That historic battle is nothing new for Lexus. After all, Toyota’s luxury brand has been in Australia now for 26 years and it has gone up against the might of the European establishment since 'day dot'. With the LC500, though, Lexus feels like a brand on a mission to reinvent itself. Almost as if someone sent the Lexus Conservative Officer (we shall call him LCO) on holiday for a few weeks so they could get a few features through untarnished.
The first? That noise.
If you recall, this author’s road test of the Lexus RC F argued the company has lost the plot if it can’t make a naturally-aspirated V8 sound good. It may have taken close to a decade since the original IS F made use of this Yamaha-sourced 5.0-litre V8 for Lexus to get the sound right, and finally, it has.
Here, you have a car that sounds more like an Aston Martin than a Lexus. Coupled to the company’s new 10-speed automatic transmission, the LC500 emits a noise that is both raspier and far crisper than its other V8 powered siblings.
Better still, for the first time ever, it has an active exhaust that really lets the engine emit its natural noise, plus the downshifts finally rev match with a big blip of the throttle.
It does appear, however, that our LCO found his way back into the office before the folks in the exhaust department managed to get the crackles just right. For it does not crackle at all, and that is a shame for it would’ve finally completed the sound package.
But it’s still such a different and more emotionally engaging noise than the RC F and GS F, that we can forgive the lack of crackles. It’s more than likely that dumping fuel in the exhaust for aural effect alone is a step too far for the otherwise conservative and very environmentally conscious Japanese brand. Lexus may need to poach a few folks from Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz to make that moral decision easier.
The actual experience of driving the LC500 is nothing like we’ve previously experienced from Lexus, well, except the V10-powered LFA supercar, with which this car actually shares a lot in common, in terms of both development and build process. Lexus says a great deal of the folks who built the LFA now build the LC500. In fact, the LC500 is the first car to be built in the same factory as the LFA.
A lot of the exhaust system’s learnings came from the LFA project, but believe it or not, the LC500’s frame is actually more rigid than the LFA, which begs the question, how does it drive?
Before we talk about the drive and the LC500’s dynamics, we have to address the elephant in the room: the LC500h. The hybrid version of the LC range, powered by a 3.5-litre V6 coupled to an electric motor for a total power output of 264kW with the aid 348Nm from the engine and 300Nm from the motor.
At $190,000, it costs exactly the same as the V8. In other markets it's actually more expensive, but, in Australia, it gets the benefit of lower luxury car tax due to its 6.1L/100km fuel economy figure. Lexus says it expects more than 80 per cent of buyers to opt for the V8, but will offer the hybrid for those seeking something unique.
Well, for those that might be thinking about the LC500h, a word of advice: don’t.
A few more words: Seriously, just, no. It’s a terrible, terrible idea. There is not one single possible measurable thing the LC500h does better than the LC500 except save fuel, and if you want to save fuel, do yourself a favour and buy a Tesla Model S in this price range and you’ll be a lot happier.
Now, back to the real LC.
It only takes the press of the start button to realise the LC500 doesn’t do 'subtle' well. It revs on start-up like a Lamborghini or Ferrari would, just to let you know it’s going to be a good day today. And did we mention it sounds good?
Ignoring the interior for a minute, pull the gear lever to the right and down to engage D. The left hand goes straight for the drive mode stalk, which oddly sticks out of the instrument cluster, and we engaged Sport+. This saw the LFA-styled instrument ring move to the left and change colours to red. A bit of showmanship never goes amiss.
With 351kW of power on tap and 540Nm of torque, the naturally-aspirated V8 has nothing on the Germans when it comes to a power war. This is further affected by the LC500’s weight, which comes in at a hefty 1950kg (add 50kg for the Hybrid). In comparison, the BMW 650i coupe weighs about 160kg less.
Its unfortunate power-to-weight ratio results in a less than spectacular 0-100km/h time of 4.7 seconds (5.0 seconds for hybrid). So, it’s fair to say the LC500 is slightly underpowered, a little heavy and rather slow comparatively. Frankly, though, it doesn’t really matter.
We drove from the Mornington Peninsula all the way to Phillip Island racetrack through a selection of country and mountainous roads to explore the LC’s on-road dynamic capability. There’s no denying that one can feel the weight and size of the car around corners, and it that regard, competitors like the now ageing BMW 6 Series still remain ahead, but the big Lexus keeps its own with a very engaging and precise drive experience.
The front end is very sharp and goes where pointed, the rear follows without much fuss thanks to the grip provided by the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres wrap around the standard 21-inch wheels (front: 245/40/21; rear: 275/35/21).
It presents a ride that is much more compliant than we were expecting, absorbing some horrid bumps smoothly while never sacrificing its dynamics. It suffers from very little body roll and despite our best efforts to unbalance the car mid-corner by either hitting bumps or harshly engaging one of the pedals, it never lost its composure.
We found the 10-speed automatic super smooth and very engaging to use. You may be wondering if one really needs 10 gears and the answer is probably no. But, when you have a N/A V8 lacking torque, the short gear ratios mean it will sit at the very top of its rev range under full acceleration for much longer, which gets the most out of the engine in terms of its grunt to the road but also provides a very evocative soundtrack in the process.
It’s not as fast as the dual-clutch systems offered by some European rivals, and it also occasionally takes too long to shift down, but overall it’s a much better engine and transmission coupling than the eight-speed used in the RC F and GS F.
If you happen to option up the $15,000 enhancement pack, you’ll further benefit from four-wheel steering and variable gear ratio steering, reducing the turning circle by 25 per cent and improving turn in on the go.
An active rear spoiler (deploys automatically at 80km/h), carbon-fibre roof (in place of the standard glass sunroof), combination leather-accented and Alcantara upholstery, 10-way power-adjustable sports front seats and carbon-fibre scuff plates also come to the party as part of the price.
On-road, the enhancement pack does make a noticeable difference at low speeds, not only in regard to parking, but also fast paced driving through the twisty stuff. On the race track though, it was harder to tell the difference.
To be honest, we found it odd Lexus Australia picked Phillip Island as a launch venue for the LC500. One, because it’s not a track car or one you should ever consider as such, and two, because Lexus never allowed the cars to endure more than two fast laps in a row, highlighting the grand tourer’s potential repeated braking limitations.
But in fairness, both those fears were mostly allayed as the LC500 performed rather well on track (for a big GT) and it stood up to our collective brake abuse better than we had suspected.
After around 10 laps of Phillip Island, we can safely say the LC500 will understeer before it will do anything else. It’s a very predictable car and it will tend to push its nose out wide when the going gets tough, but Lexus delighted us with its Sport+ tuning on the stability and traction control systems for they rarely interfered and when they did, it was very subtle without sapping any noticeable power or heavy braking.
Phillip Island is a track which tends to favour cars that are a little short on torque, but even then, the LC felt fine for its intended purpose. It’s never going to beat the Germans in a drag race, but it presents such a plush and complete package that we feel it has an ideal place in the market.
As for the interior and infotainment. Well, much like every modern Lexus, the LC500’s build quality and craftsmanship is top notch. Nothing inside feels cheap (apart from the 10.3-inch infotainment screen that really needs a resolution bump) or poorly put together.
In fact, the interior is a big highlight of the car and, given that’s where you’ll spend all your time as the owner, it’s a big drawcard for picking it over the Germans. It’s a very comfortable place to be and every surface looks and feels great to touch.
Apart from a few simple features in the enhancement pack, everything in the interior also comes standard; from the Mark Levinson sound system to the heated and cooled seats and lots in between.
Unfortunately, the Lexus LC500 still suffers from Lexus’s inability to make a driver friendly user-interface to its infotainment. The controls are still highly sensitive and the experience is frustrating at best.
Overall, though, the LC500 is by-and-large the best car Lexus currently makes. It carries all the hallmarks of the brand's aftersales support and service, plus the Lexus durability whilst finally offering an emotionally appealing package for a very competitive price.
In a sign that there is more to come from the LC range, the 500 name leaves the door open for an LC F, but for now, the $190,000 offering is one that will undoubtedly please those that can afford it.