Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Lexus LC 500 and 500h

GT car first, sports car second – new Lexus coupe is at its best in V-8 guise on the open road

So, just what is the Lexus LC? Today, it’s my mission to find out. I’ve followed the various concept cars that have led us to this fully functioning production model, read all the technical specs and understand the significance of this new platform, which is so flexible that the next car to utilize it will be the new LS sedan. We’re going to see it at the upcoming 2017 Detroit auto show, and while the LS will no doubt arrive with a healthy dose of the brand’s edgy and distinctive design language, it’s not difficult to understand its positioning against the likes of the 7 Series and S-Class.

The 2018 Lexus LC, though? That’s a bit trickier. During the press presentation we see a slide show suggesting the BMW 650i ($89,000), Mercedes S550 Coupe ($122,750), and Jaguar F-Type R ($105,400) as natural rivals. These relatively disparate cars aren’t really rivals for each other, so either the LC has a never-before-seen breadth of ability or Lexus is struggling with where the LC fits in, too. And that’s before they mention its dynamic benchmark: The Porsche 911. A coupe that weighs more than 4,000 pounds that’s as serene as an S-Class and as exciting as a Carrera S? You’ve got to admire the ambition…

So here’s what we do know. The LC has a sports car shape that borrows heavily from the scintillating and wildly expensive LFA, stretched and teased to accommodate a 2-plus-2 seating layout and decorated with the bold spindle grille and plenty of samurai sword sharp details. I happen to love the way it looks, but there are grimaces from colleagues in the room, too. Better to be divisive than invisible, that’s the new Lexus way of thinking. The V-8-powered LC 500 and hybrid LC 500h, which features a 3.5-liter V-6, two electric motors, a CVT and a 4-speed automatic transmission, are visually distinguished only by their different badges. Lexus hasn’t announced pricing yet but expect it to dip just below the $100,000 mark. Some markets are positioning the 500h as the flagship, others the V-8 model. In the U.S. most will go gas, so expect it to be the premium and better-specified model. Deliveries are expected to start in May of next year.

2018 Lexus LC 500h rear three quarter in motion

Beneath the controversial surfacing is the new GA-L (Global Architecture – Luxury) platform. It utilizes steel, aluminum, and some carbon fiber (the trunk floor). The philosophy behind the platform was to create a new dynamic identity for Lexus with a lower center of gravity and by improving the front/rear balance for enhanced agility. The main factors in this are lowering the engine by 0.4-inch and pulling it roughly 2-inches closer to the center of the car for a true front mid-engined layout. The LC also features aluminum hood and fenders, a fiberglass trunk lid, and you can specify a carbon fiber roof. Plus, there are die-cast aluminum suspension towers (a weight saving of 42-percent over steel), forged aluminum suspension arms, and the engine bay has six aluminum braces to improve rigidity and steering response. Suspension is multilink at the front and rear.

The low center of gravity is palpable in the design of the LC and when you approach it the low hood line is striking, the wheels are pushed out to the corners and the proportions look just right. There’s an innate litheness that radiates from the car. Considering the LC is nearly as long as a 650i, wider than the F-Type, and falls between the two in terms of height, it’s impressive that the aura it emits errs towards sports car rather than hushed GT. It has a longer wheelbase than the BMW and Jaguar too, which speaks well for its chances of following through on the dynamic brief. It’s a disappointingly heavy beast, though. The LC 500 comes in at a groaning 4,280 pounds and the 500h is even heavier at 4,435 pounds. Both the BMW and Jaguar are considerably lighter and to save Lexus blushes we won’t mention that the 911 Carrera S carries more than 1,000 fewer pounds.

My first taste of the LC is on a short blast from the centre of Seville, Spain, to the Monteblanco race circuit in a LC 500h. The route takes in the chaotic city and then some lovely sweeping roads. The bare figures are much less impressive than the LC 500, which produces 471 horsepower at 7,100 rpm and 398 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm, but the 3.5-liter V-6’s 295 horses at 6,600 rpm and 257 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm are supplemented by the second electric motor built within the transmission. The first acts as a generator. The total output is a still modest 354 horsepower, but of course the instantaneous torque delivery should create a much more muscular impression. The transmission of the LC 500h is heinously complicated but it’s essentially a four-speed automatic that drives through a CVT transmission to create 10 virtual ratios. This matches the new 10-speed automatic gearbox featured in the LC 500. You didn’t think eight gears were enough, did you?

I’ve already got a warm, fuzzy feeling about the LC because it evokes memories of the LFA. Of course I need to put that car’s fiercely expensive materials, build quality, and shrieking engine out of my mind, but I hope that the design themes carried over are discernible in the way the LC moves, too. Expectation ramps up a notch further because the interior really is exquisite. Sadly, there’s a TomTom navigation slapped to the windscreen because these cars have a U.S. spec infotainment system with no European maps loaded (or is it because the interface is still tricky to master on a short test drive? I’ll let you decide), but even the ugly wire and grubby little screen can’t detract from the minimalist architecture, artfully mixed materials and the glorious and configurable dash readout that has plenty of LFA inspired animation. The driving position is fantastic too, with the tarmac-scraping seat discreetly amping-up the drama, and it’s paired with a very low hood line that ensures you feel absolutely at ease.

Slipping quietly through Seville, the LC feels like a fine place to be. The Adaptive Variable suspension is smooth but still allows you to feel connected to a low, broad, and obviously very stiff chassis. Even the fitment of runflat tires doesn’t result in patter and thump upsetting the supple composure. Perhaps there’s more road noise than you’d expect of a hybrid Lexus but there’s much greater steering response, too. The electric steering is fast (2.6 turns lock-to-lock), accurate, and you can really appreciate the added bracing and the rigidity it breeds. Even the gearbox is decisive and gives a direct, most un-CVT-like feeling. There isn’t the clean, sharp action you get with a dual-clutcher or even the best conventional autos, but at least the V-6 engine isn’t braying like a demented donkey as is so often the way with continuously variable transmissions.

2018 Lexus LC 500 front end in motion 02 1

As the road opens out the Lexus LC remains impressively composed. However, the initial cohesion and consistency does start to erode and doubts creep in. The enhanced soundtrack through the stereo speakers isn’t especially pleasant nor natural, the gearbox suddenly starts to betray itself with slower shifts and strange moments where the revs hang at a fixed rpm, and the sheer performance on offer feels slightly disappointing. Oh, it’s fast hybrid – 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and 155 mph all out – but at times 354 horses versus 4,435 pounds feels like a one-sided argument. To be fair, the chassis response doesn’t get overwhelmed by the mass, and the LC 500h steers sweetly and contains body movements with efficiency in the more aggressive Sport S and Sport S+ driving modes. But you sense this is a car looking for an engine to make it sing. The LC 500 awaits us in the pit lane at Circuito Monteblanco. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking its potential.

I jostle myself to the front of the queue for the ultimate spec LC 500. It features the Sports package, consisting of a carbon fiber roof, 21-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires and a speed activated rear wing. To further sharpen the car’s focus it also features the Lexus Dynamic Handling (LDH) rear-wheel steering system, which can dial in 2 degrees of angle and enhances agility at low and medium speeds and stability in high speed situations. LDH also brings a Torsen limited-slip differential. In short – this is the LC at the height of its powers.

From the moment the 5-liter V-8 booms into life I know that the hybrid 500h is little more than a side show. An intriguing and convincing car in isolation but blown clean away in terms of excitement by the V-8 model. These two cars are likely to have a very similar price so you’d have to be a Saint or really object to paying for gas to consider the hybrid. That much I know from the moment the first drop of fuel ignites. A dozen or so laps later I know plenty more, but that first instinct is only reinforced.

On track I’ve dialled the car right around to Sport S+ mode and so configured the 10-speed gearbox is exceptional. It hits hard and clean like a dual clutcher, and although it sometimes resists aggressive downshift requests on the paddles, a little double beep at least lets you know that you’ll need another millisecond or two of patience before it’ll give you that optimum gear. Better that than a quiet denial only to leave you floundering in too high a gear mid turn. You might think that 10-gears is way too many. I tend to agree. But whereas I expected to get lost amongst the ratios out on circuit, it’s so quick and effective that I just used my ears to keep the car right in the sweet spot. Ah yes, the noise. Unlike the 500h the V-8’s dry, multi-layered howl is all natural. Sure, they pipe it into the cabin but there’s no digital manipulation. It sounds glorious.

So the soundtrack and drivetrain response creates an expectation that this big coupe might be able to take on the 911 after all. So too the first few corners as the LDH system effectively shrinks the wheelbase to create fast reactions and help reduce understeer. The track is greasy and cold but the LC 500 copes well, the big six-piston brakes staying pretty firm and resisting that horrible juddering that can make lapping feel like torture. The car locks onto line smoothly and the V-8’s linear, slightly torque-lite delivery allows the rear tires to find good traction.

Of course the weight starts to tell soon enough. Get too greedy with turn-in speed and the rear-steer can’t stop the front washing wide. Try to be the last of the late-brakers and you’ll sail past the turn-in point. The sports car vibe is real, but it’s the sort of sports car that’s more at home on a smoothly winding road, rather than scratching its way around a track. A 911 Carrera S would be long gone, its driver beaming and completely absorbed. Having said that, a BMW 650i would probably drop away from the Lexus just as rapidly and the F-Type might provide more raw entertainment but it also demands a lot more skill. The LC is a compromise but maybe, just for once, for the good.

A few laps in the 500h highlights the much lazier response of its gearbox and the softer-edged feel to every dynamic facet of the car. It’s amusing throwing a hybrid Lexus into a slide and finding out it’s well-balanced and easy to drive well beyond the limit, but you’ll still be pining for the sharper V-8. On the road the 500’s added athleticism is equally noticeable with every shift, every turn, and every time you crack open the throttle. It sounds and feels so much more up for a bit of fun. Even so, the understeer that can start to dominate on the track does rear its head in fast road driving, too. It’s far from chronic but it does just remind you that this car is a GT first and sports car second. Better to dial back a bit, enjoy the lovely engine, punchy 10-speed, and the effortlessly cool interior. Just don’t volunteer to sit in the back. Rear accommodation is definitely one area the Lexus LC does bear comparison with a Porsche 911.

2018 Lexus LC Specifications

On Sale: Spring 2017
Price: $100,000 (base) (est)
Engine: 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6, 295 hp at 6,600 rpm, 257 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm, plus Lexus Multi Stage Hybrid system with 131.9 kilowatt electric motor, total system output 354 hp (LC 500h);

5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8, 471 hp at 7100 rpm, 398 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm (LC 500)

Transmission: Continuously variable gearbox linked to four-speed automatic, 10 virtual ratios (LC 500h)

10-speed automatic (LC 500)

Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front engine, RWD coupe
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 187.4 x 75.6 x 53.0 in
Wheelbase: 113.0 in
Weight: 4,435 lb (LC 500h)

4,280 lb (/LC 500)

0-60 MPH: 4.7 sec (LC 500h)

4.4 sec (LC 500)

Top Speed: 155 mph (LC 500h)

168 mph (LC 500)

Comments
We’ve Temporarily Removed Comments

As part of our ongoing efforts to make AutomobileMag.com better, faster, and easier for you to use, we’ve temporarily removed comments as well as the ability to comment. We’re testing and reviewing options to possibly bring comments back. As always, thanks for reading AutomobileMag.com.