First Drive: The 2018 LC500 Will Kill the Idea of a ‘Boring Lexus’
It may be one of the most worn out cliches around, but the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance bears repeating here: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Why? Because everyone — especially gearheads — loves a good legend. Like how the Ford GT40 happened because Hank the Deuce was livid after being jilted at the automotive altar by Enzo Ferrari. Or how the original Acura NSX is the sole reason why the Italians decided to clean up their act and build exotics that actually started every morning. It doesn’t matter that it may not be entirely true, but it’s close enough, and you just choose to believe that it is.
Well, Lexus has a new flagship on the way, and believe it or not, there’s already a legend developing behind it that’s too good not to repeat.
Remember the LF-LC of 2012, the jaw-dropping concept that showed Lexus could do fast and sexy as well as anyone? According to legend, Akio Toyoda, the President of Toyota Motors, was sick of his prestige brand’s stodgy image. Lexus the boring luxury brand. Lexus the conservative one, the predictable one; the company that’s too safe for its own good. After the LF-LC’s launch at the Detroit Auto Show, the boss issued a decree: “No more boring cars.” Lexus needed to show that after nearly 30 years of being this close, it could build a world-class grand tourer that couldn’t be ignored. The days of “good … for a Lexus” were officially over.
Four years later, that’s why I’m outside Seville, Spain about to track the production-ready LC500. According to the myth, LC stands for “Lexus Challenge,” after Toyoda’s order to his engineers to build the car he saw on the podium by any means necessary. In reality, LC is short for “Luxury Coupe,” and existential moonshot or not, the car is no less of a milestone for the brand. In fact, it’s the most impressive performance car to wear the big L badge since the LFA supercar. Unlike that halo car, this one could mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the entire Lexus lineup.
When it was introduced in 2010, the LFA was a major coup for the brand. Yes, it was a V10-powered, carbon fiber-intensive supercar that could hit speeds of over 200 miles per hour. But it also took a decade to develop, cost close to half a million dollars, and had little effect on the rest of the Lexus lineup. You can see a family resemblance between the LFA and LC500, but in practice, the LC is much closer to another Lexus legend: the 1992 to 2000 SC300/400. And that’s incredibly promising.
Like the SC cars, the LC will be a little cheaper than most of its competition (starting under six figures), and is available with a V6 or a V8. In this case, the V6 is a 3.5 liter mill mated to an electric motor for a total of 354 horsepower. The V8 is the naturally aspirated 5.0 liter from the GS F and RC F that’s been massaged to make 471 horsepower here. Other than their powertrains, the 500h and 500 are visually identical, save for a few discreet badges. The LC’s styling is front-and-center here, and thankfully Lexus has refrained from anything that could distract from that, regardless of what’s under the hood.
Up front, the LC wears the company’s spindle grille better than any other production car to date. Out back, its aggressive, complex taillights dominate an angular rear fascia — call us crazy, but we even see a little of the old SC back there. In between, the wheels are aggressively flared and pushed to the outer corners, giving the LC a concept-car-come-to-life look. Compared to rivals like the Mercedes SL-Class, BMW 6-Series, and Audi S5, Lexus has made everything else in the segment feel old, and set a new benchmark in the process.
That carries over into the interior, where the LC has maintained its concept car wow factor. Some of the leather trim is hand-stitched, and virtually every surface you touch (save for switchgear) is either leather or metal. My favorite interior offered — hell, possibly my favorite interior offered anywhere — is the tri-color white interior (pictured above), though really you can’t go wrong with any of the interior colors.
My morning in the LC began in a 500h, on a drive from downtown Seville to the Monteblanco Circuit in the rolling countryside. On Spain’s wide, well-maintained highways, the 500h is smooth, quiet, and comfortable, effortlessly eating up miles while switching seamlessly between Normal and EV mode, which can be activated at speeds up to 87 miles per hour. In the hybrid, power is routed to the rear wheels via two transmissions. The first shifts and combines with three fixed ratios for nine forward gears, while a final 10th gear behaves like a CVT. Overall, the clever setup does an admirable job of mimicking the 10-speed auto in the V8 model.
The 500h is a fine luxury cruiser, but I had some issues with the hybrid — namely, that it feels like it’s writing checks the car can’t cash. It’s quiet, smooth, and comfortable on the highway, but under heavy acceleration in anything below Sport S+ mode, it feels hesitant, and you feel every pound of its 4,300-plus curb weight. What’s more, the 3.5 six isn’t an engine you don’t want to spend much time listening to, and in Eco mode, switching between the gas engine and EV mode felt a little too much like something out of the Prius family for my liking; far too unrefined for such a nice car.
On Monteblanco, the 500h wasn’t the star of the show, but the hybrid powertrain did highlight the car’s chassis and suspension, which is fantastic. Built on the all-new GA-L platform (the same architecture that will underpin the next-generation LS sedan), the LC500 feels every bit the world-class grand tourer it looks. That curb weight is on the high side, but its carbon fiber reinforced bits, and a healthy dose of lightweight, high-strength steel make for an extremely rigid chassis and keep the center of gravity low.
The V8 is another story. In an age when forced-induction is the name of the game, the 5.0 liter mill is naturally aspirated, and with good cause. Paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission, the car keeps the power on as you accelerate, shifting gears at an interval that Lexus calls “rhythmic shifting.” Hammer down, and in automatic mode, the gears come like clockwork. Boom. Boom. Boom. And so on.
In manual mode, those 10 gears are controlled by magnesium paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. With so many to choose from, you can forget which gear you’re in (especially on a twisty track), but downshifting produces a loud crackle from the engine that makes any frustration a moot point. Overall, the engine, transmission, and chassis are a match made in heaven, and with the throttle down, it lets out a bark that sounds better than some GT cars twice its price. Throttle response is fantastic, and while the V8 makes the car slightly nose-heavy (54/46 weight distribution for the V8 versus 52/48 for the hybrid), it’s mitigated by big powerful brakes — progressive and not too grippy — communicative, nicely-weighted steering, and a suspension that features a double ball-joint multilink setup up front, and a five-link setup at the rear.
On the track, even the V8 couldn’t mask the fact that the LC500 isn’t really a track car, but that’s OK, neither is the Aston Martin DB11. Like the Aston, the LC came alive on a long drive — through the rolling hills of southern Spain. The LC’s cabin is a place you’ll want to spend all the time you can, and when you stomp the gas on straightaways or while passing on the narrow two-lane highways, it fills with the V8’s sonorous bark. Of course, this extends to the exterior too, where Lexus has engineered the exhaust note so it’s not just enjoyable to you, it’s as one engineer put it: “Pleasing to people who enjoy your car as you pass by.” Judging from the response of the people in the villages we passed through, I’d say it worked.
Lexus has spent its entire existence trying to maintain a spot at the table with the Germans. With the LC, it’s now seated at the head of it. Before you get into serious exotic territory, the LC500 is probably the best grand tourer money can buy. And even once you get into the exotics, it still makes a pretty convincing argument. There may be more powerful, or more exclusive models out there (Lexus plans on selling 400 LCs a month in the U.S.), but as far as style, comfort, and power go, you won’t find a better GT out there. It’s fitting that there’s already a legend behind the LC. That’s only going to grow as Lexus’ reputation for boring cars becomes a thing of the past.