Grand Touring Across California in a 2018 Lexus LC 500

700 miles, one weekend

CAMBRIA, California — It was probably around the third visit to the Lexus stand when I realized I was staring at one of the most striking, captivating cars I’ve ever seen. This in 2016, at a frigid, snowbound Detroit auto show, when Lexus trotted the stunning LC 500 out for its world debut. I distinctly remember returning to the Lexus show stand multiple times, trying to drink as much of the LC 500 as I could. Fast forward over a year, and I’ve nabbed the keys to a Liquid Platinum 2018 Lexus LC 500 for the weekend. With an evening and two full days cleared out, I’m set to explore what happens when Japan plants its flag in European-held territory.

For the record, I never said the LC 500 is beautiful, and after hours of oogling, I’m not sure it is. It’s alluring, engrossing, and unbelievably unique, but I remain unconvinced it’s objectively a beautiful car. In place of conventional good looks we get something incredibly original, and that’s worth the nearly six-figure price of entry alone. Aside from perhaps a handful of canopy lines, the LC is a wild, origami moonshot away from the established design consiglieri at Aston, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Jaguar.

The whole shape is awash with contradiction–that massive grille really, really shouldn’t work as well as it does. We paid for the Predator-aping Spindle Grill with the tax of time, dealing with different iterations until Lexus finally made it work. On the older RX models, it’s garish and gaping. On the LC, it’s arguably the most significant portion of the design, yanking the taut curves and angles from the front half of the body forward.

If you see one in person, spend some time walking around the 187.4-inch-long coupe. This isn’t an easily digestible shape—save for the BMW i8, this is the closest we’ve gotten to a concept car that snuck into production. From the insane, thick wheel design to the abruptness of the flat side, you could spend hours and not fully understand why the design “works.”

Inside, it’s not quite as shocking as the outside wrapper. It’s still very much sculptural, with gently rising curves and flat surfaces that create an environment much more special than more pedestrian Lexus offerings. Most of the buttons were heavy and comprised of metal, and the leather was some of the richest I’ve seen from the brand. On the door, sweeping lines ascended up the suede insert, interrupted by a floating door handle that’s as elegant as anything I’ve seen on much, much more expensive cars.

Things only get better once you find the metal start button behind the steering wheel, nudging the 5.0-liter naturally aspirated V-8 to life. Sound familiar? It should be—this is the same 2UR-GSE V-8 we’ve enjoyed since its debut in the 2008 IS-F. 471 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque are on tap, routed to the rear wheels through Lexus’ 10-speed automatic transmission.

It’s an older heart and you’ve got to punt the needle to the top to extricate the power, but that only means you can drink in the sensational soundtrack. The 5.0 is shared with the GS F and RC F, but it never sounded better (or louder) than it does in the LC. Much like the styling, the sound is wholly unique – not European, not American. There’s a touch of euro about it, but brings in a pure mechanical thrash accompanied by a gutsy intake resonance that I haven’t heard anywhere else.

At 4,280 pounds, it’s not light, but GTs by definition are weighty, substantial vehicles. Weight-shaving ascetisisim is the antithesis of grand touring—there’s always insulation, big engines, cushy seats, and complicated sound systems to keep occupants cosseted. Thanks to the V-8, performance is more than adequate, with 0-60 mph arriving in a claimed 4.4 seconds, and a top speed limited to 168 mph.

GTs are dual-purpose vehicles, offering the capability to dance around a slippery highland pass when the coastal path is too clogged with tour buses. For handling, I checked into the canyon roads weaving above Malibu, hitting all my regular paths. These tight, technical roads proved too claustrophobic for the LC’s sizeable hips and too bumpy for the over-active traction control system that cut power completely on more than one occasion.

Quickly, I charged through LA freeways to Angeles Crest, a canyon pass more sympathetic to wider, faster cars. Here, the LC was at home, holding sharply to the Crest’s myriad sweepers. As a bonus, there’s a tunnel near the top for bouncing the V-8 off the top of the tach.

Dynamically, it drives as well as you would expect it to, with medium-weight steering and easy, powerful brakes. Don’t expect much for tight, small corners, but long, gradual curves are the LC’s forte. As before, peak power arrives toward the top of the range, requiring a heavy foot to hustle, which is slightly off-key for GTs. You want consistent power delivery down low, with an unfussy transmission. The 10-speed was quick, but too often it would get confused and hold a gear too long, or upshift far too quickly.

After returning home that night, I wasn’t convinced I’d done any real GT-ing in the stop-and-go LA traffic. Sunday was fast approaching, so I laid out a course up north to Cambria, California for the next morning.

Located roughly 250 miles northeast of my home in the South Bay, the village of Cambria is a picturesque seaside hideout in-between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Aside from Hearst Castle and the nearby pine forest, there isn’t much to see here, but it makes for a perfect endpoint to a scenic coastal sprint.

In the morning, I’m out the door before the sun fully breaches the horizon. The Rioja Red leather-and-suede seats are a touch chilly, so both the seat and the steering wheel heaters are clicked on. It’s a 20 minute stroll through empty beachside streets to the highway, enjoying the LC’s comfortable ride and excellent sound system before I reach the 101.

For a brief stretch before Santa Barbara, the 101 touches the coast, providing spectacular vistas that fall right in line with the elegance of the LC 500. Out on the straight and smooth tarmac, it’s quiet and refined, showing very little of the raucous V-8 character found up on the Crest. Passengers in other cars crane their necks as I pass, likely taken aback at the Lexus badge on the rear bumper.

The Lexus’ 21.7-gallon fuel tank means I don’t have to stop for fuel until my destination, giving me peace of mind. In Cambria, I cruise around the wooded hills in search of photo spots before giving up and returning to downtown for some lunch. It was barely mid-day, and I still had some travel legs under me, so I set my sights on wine country.

A quick loop around Cambria puts me back on the 101, before shortly turning off onto highway 46. This meanders through straw-colored hills for 30-odd miles before washing into Paso Robles, one of the many wine-centric areas of California. I’m not the biggest oenophile, so I was here for the scenery – and to open the taps on the LC a little more. Exploration concluded with a cruise through wineries and farmlands, stopping on the side of a secluded backroad for another chance to oogle the LC.

It was only mid-afternoon, but I had a six hour drive ahead of me, and I had already been in the seat most of the day. I pointed the Lexus’ spindle grille toward home and fired, winding back down the coast and through increasingly clogged highways. I arrived long after the sunset, but was not much worse for the wear. Through the roughly 600-mile round trip, the Lexus proved to be as comfortable, approachable, and entrancing as its much more expensive and finicky European counterparts.

Job well done? I think so. The LC could almost get by on its stunning looks alone, and didn’t have to feel as satisfying to drive as it did. The LC 500 and LC 500h are the first of the breed, and considering this is a clear shot across the bow of the established GT players, watch this space for higher-performance variants to arrive in the future.

So, the next time your Cambria calls, give the 2018 Lexus LC 500 a try – it just might be better than you expect.

2018 Lexus LC 500 Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $92,995  (base)
ENGINE 5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/471 hp @ 7,100 rpm, 398 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 16/26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 187.4 x 75.6 x 53.0 in
WHEELBASE 113.0 in
WEIGHT 4,435 lb
0-60 MPH 4.4 sec
TOP SPEED 168 mph