Lexus is not renowned for producing headlining sportscars, but the evocatively styled LC500 looks to change all of that. The eye-catching V8-engined newcomer is now available in South Africa (priced at R1 729 600) and here's what it's like to drive...
SEVILLE – Stepping out of the hotel, onto the narrow, cobbled streets of Seville's town centre, two LC500s await us. In this setting, in the cool blue light of European winter, the new Lexus looks fantastic in the true sense of the word; like a time machine or some sort of exploration pod from another planet.
With its gleaming metallic paintwork, striking lines and near-perfect coupe proportions, the LC500 is forcing many passers-by to stop and stare. A few people take pics of the car, some even take selfies with it. This is a car with star power – that is one of the newcomer's greatest strengths.
Over the course of the day, we would find what its other strengths are…
Undoubtedly the most dramatically sculpted Lexus since the LFA supercar, the LC500 attracts admiring glances.
On the highways leading from Seville, the new Lexus behaved much like… a Lexus; the ride quality was superb; the cabin whisper quiet. The boot space is wide, but quite shallow… Perhaps you'd struggle to fit a full-size suitcase in there, but there's enough space for a weekend's worth of luggage. The LC500 was playing the role of GT car very well. The first leg our trip was only 90 km, but we would have happily travelled 900 km; it's an eminently comfortable car.
We were in the V8 model, one of two available from launch. The other was a V6 petrol-electric hybrid, which unfortunately will not be coming to South Africa – at least at this stage there are no plans to make it available. The 5.0-litre V8 is the same naturally aspirated unit found the in RC-F, here tuned to produce 349 kW and 530 Nm. Lexus claims that it makes the 0-100 kph sprint possible in under 4.5 seconds and, interestingly, just under 5 seconds for the hybrid.
With exquisite GT-like proportions, the lithe, low-slung LC remains remarkably true to the concept car that previewed it.
The Spanish highways gave way to smaller, regional roads and we headed for the mountains. The roads were exceptional: a seemingly never-ending series of corners, elevation changes and switchbacks, cutting across the countryside… not usually a route that would bring out the finest qualities of a Lexus.
'Feels like the whole car is working with you'
Except this one. Dynamically, the LC500 is deeply impressive. It is a large car and its kerb weight does make its presence felt in the tightest of corners, but generally it feels like the whole car is working with you; as if you're in control of every nut and bolt. Sometimes, with large powerful cars, it can feel like you're just along for the ride, but the LC500 avoids that. There's a predictable way to how the car behaves, with almost zero understeer, and it all combines to inspire confidence. If the goal of any sportscar is to put a smile on the driver's face then the Lexus engineers can consider that box ticked.
An enormous amount of work has gone into making sure the Lexus feels engaging. The engine is mounted as low and as far back as possible; in fact, it is positioned behind the front axle. The roof is made of carbon fibre, as are the door panels and the floor of the boot. Even the battery has been placed in the boot for better weight distribution. The suspension towers are aluminium, as is much of the chassis. The result is that the centre of gravity is just 510 mm from the ground (very near the driver's hips) and this creates a sense that you can "feel" what the car is doing as the weight of the car pivots around you.
There is something intoxicating about the soundtrack of a naturally aspirated V8...
Of course, there are multiple electronic aids and a fair degree of suspension trickery at work here. The adaptive suspension is apparently so responsive that the LC can change damping rates multiple times per stroke of the shock. In Sports S+ mode the car is noticeably stiffer, but its ride quality was still forgiving.
Descending from the hillsides, on the flat roads leading to the Monteblanco racing circuit, the LC500 once again became the docile, ultra-civilised Lexus you'd expect it to be. And that is the greatest accomplishment here: the true dual-nature of the LC500. And we were about to test that dual nature to its limits with a couple of hot laps of this little-known F1 test track.
Before 2012, heading to a racing circuit with a Lexus would have been a very odd proposition. But that year, the company debuted the LFA supercar. It was a surprise move from a brand that is synonymous with comfort and luxury, but quickly, the LFA gathered a reputation for being an exceptional driver's car. It was a signal from the company that it was changing direction.
The engaging driving experience of the LC does not come at the expense of on-road comfort, quite the contrary.
The LC500 is an attempt to capitalise on some of the magic created by the LFA, but in a package that is more suited to everyday driving, and at a price that more people can afford. But where the LFA has a high-revving V10, the LC500 has a V8. And where the LFA is entirely made from hideously expensive carbon fibre, the LC500 has to make to do with high tensile steel and aluminium. How would these shortcomings translate into on-track performance?
With the drive mode set to Sports S+, the exhaust note changes remarkably. The V8 has special ducting which channels induction noise from the engine bay into the cabin, while the active exhaust has been tuned to make it feel like the sound "is chasing you". On downshifts, the exhaust system spits and barks, complementing the howl that only a naturally aspirated V8 can produce. There is something refreshingly old-school about the way this engine sounds and, coupled with the more modern, programmed outbursts on downshifts, aurally, at least, this car was pressing all my petrolhead buttons.
Allows the tail to step out just enough
The way the LC500 builds speed is impressive, but I would have liked a bit more torque delivery on corner exits. Dynamically, out here on this circuit full of tight corners, the Lexus impressed, however. Those same characteristics that presented themselves in the mountains were at play here too: predictable, progressive behaviour that inspires confidence. The brakes, 13-inch ventilated steel discs up front and 12 inchers at the rear, do a superb job of scrubbing off speed. While predictable, the car’s handling is not anodyne, nor placid. The setup favours oversteer and in Sports S+ mode, the traction control system takes a step back, allowing the Lexus' tail to step out just enough to make you feel like a pro. It stroked my ego to catch the car’s oversteer with a bit of opposite lock, but it’s more likely the system flattered my driving skills!
The LC's 5.0-litre V8 produces 349 kW and 530 Nm and is mated with a superb 10-speed transmission.
This is another great strength of the LC500.... The car is eager and playful. It feels like it wants you to enjoy yourself – it’s not an intimidating driving experience. And again, I was entertained out on the track and drove back to the pits with a huge smile plastered on my face.
What I was most worried about when I headed out onto the circuit was how the 10-speed, single clutch gearbox would behave. Lexus proudly claims this transmission offers all the advantages of a dual clutch gearbox (speed), with all the advantages of a traditional automatic (reliability). A new torque converter is employed and the clutch is multi-plated, which doesn't run dry and because of the torque converter, engages without slip, which drastically reduces wear.
In practice, the gearbox is quick. Very quick. Utilising the large magnesium alloy paddles that are attached to the steering wheel results in sharp, quick changes. You'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and any dual-clutch 'box. But the reality is that 10 ratios is a lot, and I found myself getting lost somewhere between 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th on the odd occasion.
If the ultimate role of a sportscar is to put a smile on its driver's face, the LC has succeeded in its quest.
'Just leave it in automatic'
I posed this issue to Ito-san, the Takumi who helped develop the car. In Lexus-speak, a Takumi is a master; perhaps a master craftsman, or in this case, a master driver. Ito-san had spent thousands upon thousands of hours crafting the feel of this car. Every aspect of how it drives is down to him, and to a lesser extent, his ultimate boss Akio Toyoda. Ito-san encouraged me to leave the 'box in automatic. He insisted it would surprise me with how it was set up.
And he was right. During my hot laps of the circuit, I forgot about the gearbox entirely. The 10-speeder was always in the right gear... it seemed to faultlessly select the gear I needed, exactly when I needed it. Indeed, this gearbox is a triumph and, if it proves as reliable as Lexus claims it to be, then the firm really will have achieved something that moves the game along in the wider automotive industry.
The LC500 doesn't fit neatly into the modern marketplace of luxury coupes. For some clue as to which cars Lexus sees as competition, we're told that the firm hosted a "dynamic clinic" for the owners of BMW 6 Series, Mercedes S-Class Coupes and Jaguar F-Types, where they were given a chance to sample the newcomer.
Although the LC's size and bulk become apparent in tighter corners, its ride/handling balance is hard to fault.
In addition to those three cars, I think the LC500 might even bother the Maserati GranTurismo and, to a lesser extent, the Porsche 911. But the car it most reminds me of, which Lexus didn't mention, was the Mercedes-Benz SL. Its proportions are smaller but very similar, it has a decent 2+2 configuration and the driving position is very similar too. In the corners, the LC500 feels lighter and more agile than an SL, but in terms of cruising, they're much of muchness.
On the return trip to the hotel, I had some time to take in the Lexus' interior. It is quite a stunning cabin, easily one of the finest in its class. The leatherwork is superb and expansive, the steering wheel just the right size and the rim’s thickness is just about ideal. The dials are carried over from the LFA, which lends a sporting note to the dash. A 10.3-inch infotainment screen dominates the fascia, but Lexus have stuck with the trackpad touch interface, which I’m not particularly a fan of – it’s a bit fiddly and I think there are better systems out there. The transmission tunnel sits quite high, cocooning the driver and passenger. I loved how the cabin seemed to shrink around me – it felt like I was in a snug cockpit like that of the Audi TT. The closeness is reassuring.
Whereas the LC's cabin layout is not as outlandish as its exterior appearance, there's an intimate snugness to the cockpit.
Parked outside the hotel as the sun set, the mild pandemonium began once again… the photos, the selfies. I would have loved to have spent more time with the vehicle and I couldn’t help but wonder when I might next have the chance. The LC500 will reach South African showrooms in June 2017, where it hopes to steal a few sales from Lexus’ German, Italian and British rivals; I really look forward to driving it on local roads.
I think this is mission accomplished for Lexus. The LC500 is anything but boring, and after my experience in Spain, I have a completely new appreciation for what the brand is capable of. For Lexus, the LC500 is about more than just sales. It needs it to become a halo car... and I think it will.
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