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2018 Lexus LC 500, LC 500h First Drive Review: When Concept Meets Reality

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 12/8/2016 Motor Trend Staff
2018-Lexus-LC-500h-front-end-1.jpg 2018 Lexus LC 500, LC 500h First Drive Review: When Concept Meets Reality

The third car Lexus ever built was a midsize two-door coupe called the SC 400. But really, it was the second; the ES 250 was little more than a Camry with a gold badge. Released in 1991 as a 1992 model, the V-8-powered beauty was deemed a hit. Motor Trend handed the SC 400 its Import Car of the Year honors in 1992. A year later, the 2JZ I-6 version made its debut, known as the SC 300, and it could be had with a manual transmission. A decade later, Lexus replaced its original coupe with the SC 430, a vehicle few under the age of 65 ever coveted. After selling 720 units in 2009, the SC 430 quietly went out of production, and no one noticed. That seemed to be it for big four-seat Lexus coupes—the current RC is a step down, size wise. Sure, they showed the radical LC-LF concept car at the 2012 Detroit auto show. But I remember standing on the stage, looking at the concept, and thinking, "Lexus is never going to build this." Imagine my surprise then when we published a story last year detailing the fast-tracked four-year development process behind the all-new LC 500. Actually, I wasn't surprised at all, because we worked on that article for years, and our own Randy Pobst helped Lexus engineers to develop the thing.

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I was rather excited when I climbed into an early build of the production LC 500h outside the Gran Melia Coln Hotel in Seville, Spain. Incredibly, Lexus took the far-out looks of the LC-LF show car and turned them into a real deal production vehicle. To be fair to the design team, which is based in Newport Beach, California, the production version is even better looking than the LC-LF. I still find Lexus' design language upsetting; in my eyes, the new look is both extreme and weird looking for the sake of being different. It's just too much. That said, I fully understand that some people love the look, and I will readily admit that the LC is--despite what appear to be blackened tear drops pouring down from the tiny headlamps--€”the best spindle-grille Lexus design to date. Especially when viewed from the hard side. The proportions--€”long nose, short deck, low to the ground--€”are also fabulous. Do I love it? No, but you very well might.

2018 Lexus LC 500 cabin 03© Motor Trend Staff 2018 Lexus LC 500 cabin 03

As the exteriors of Lexus products have grown more frenzied and polarizing, the interiors have become absolutely fabulous. This trend started with the cockpit-like innards of the LFA supercar (but in that car the button to activate reverse was somewhere near your right knee) and has continued through the new IS. It very well might have reached its zenith here in the LC. I'm blown away by what I experienced, specifically the cars that are specced out in tan. The quality of the leather, the Alcantara, the metal work, the overall design—it all reminded me of the best I've seen from Italy, only that unlike a certain Ferrari I'm thinking of, the door handles will still be working six months from now. Also of note, the passenger seat is the best seat in the house. Lexus claims they went through 50 different seats to get the thrones just right, and it feels like it. In terms of other cars currently on sale with better interiors, the only one popping to mind is the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe. Right on, Lexus. However, and as always, the navigation and infotainment stuff is still a decade behind the competition. Lexus doesn't seem to care.

The LC is the first Lexus to ride on the brand's new GA-L platform. That's short for Global Architecture-Luxury, and it will underpin every new front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Lexus from here on out. Like many modern cars, the GA-L is a mix of different materials including several grades of high-strength steel, aluminum, CFRP, and even a little bit of fiberglass in the trunklid. The suspension componentry is pretty slick, specifically the work chief engineer Koji Sato and his team put in to keep the hood of the LC as low as it is in the LC-LF show car (read our interview with Sato about the LC right here). The coolest feature has to be the split upper control arm. Basically, two halves of an A-arm share a common knuckle via double ball joints. The end result is a stiff, rigid chassis that also boasts a low center of gravity, two of the basic ingredients for a great handling car.

The LC has one good powertrain and one great one. Starting with the good, you have the multistage hybrid system that powers the LC 500h. That car comes with Lexus' ubiquitous 3.5-liter V-6. However, the redline has been raised from 6,000 to 6,600 rpm, and the V-6 kicks out 295 horsepower. When combined with a pair of electric motors, total system output is 354 hp. They call it a multistage hybrid because of this next part. The motors are connected by a planetary gearset as in most Toyota/Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive systems, only in this case there's a conventional four-speed automatic transmission bolted to the end of it and the V-6 can either drive through the HSD as usual or send power directly to the four-speed gearset. The electric motors can add power to various gears, too, the end result of which is a virtual 10-speed transmission. The meaningful takeaway is that this hybrid system feels way sportier than any other CVT-style hybrid I've driven. The LC 500h simply feels like a potent V-6-powered coupe, not at all like a hybrid. Instead of just going for efficiency, Sato and his team went for an emotional powertrain, too. The worst part of the driving experience was the decision to synthesize engine noise with speakers. It doesn't sound bad, necessarily, but more like the sound is in the wrong place and too damn loud for what it is.

The great powertrain—for now, because you'd better believe some sort of LC F is coming before too long—is the LC 500's 471-hp 5.0-liter V-8 and brand-new 10-speed automatic transmission. Lexus claims that the new 10-speed weighs less than the eight-speed it replaces. I'm here to tell you that it shifts much harder than any Lexus gearbox I've ever been around. Nice work. In a way, Lexus is carving a niche out for itself as a mini-Lamborghini because of its refusal to leave natural aspiration behind despite everyone else in the segment switching to forced induction. That's a roundabout way of saying the V-8's soundtrack is just awesome, and unlike in the LC 500h, the engine's natural sound is piped into the cabin via a tube. More important, the exhaust sounds mean and growly. Curiously and I think smartly, there are no physical differences between the LC 500 and the LC 500h. Both cars have a plethora of performance options that you oughta opt for if you're at all enthusiastic about driving. Chiefly, the carbon-fiber roof and adjustable rear wing that come bundled, the limited-slip differential, and the rear-wheel steering.

2018 Lexus LC 500 front three quarter in motion 03© Motor Trend Staff 2018 Lexus LC 500 front three quarter in motion 03

OK, OK, OK--€”but how do the two cars drive? Very well, I'm happy to report. Especially because the cars are much heavier than they felt or than I expected. Lexus is claiming the V-8 weighs 4,280 pounds, whereas the hybrid is porkier still at 4,435 pounds. The ride quality was great despite the run-flat Michelin Pilot Super Sports, 245/40R21 in front and 275/35R21 rear. Sato-san explained how run-flat tire technology has been greatly improved since its debut more than a decade ago and that the LCs were engineered with run-flats in mind from the get-go. The steering feel was excellent on both cars, and they seemed eager to change direction, especially just off center. On the road, well below either car's limit, there was no hint of understeer. The front end felt incredible stiff, planted, and well-tuned. Once on the racetrack both cars showed a tendency toward understeer, with the V-8 being the worse offender.

Counter-intuitively, the LC 500h also felt the more balanced of the two, especially on the track. Credit better weight distribution, mostly because of the heavy, trunk-space-eating battery that sits behind the rear seats. However, it wasn't a very good track—a development course in Spain called Monteblanco Circuit—because about half the corners were the throwaway variety—corners so tight you can't take the ideal racing line, so you just toss it and set up for the straight. The V-8 was much quicker, sounded better, and shifted better. Plus, it was ultimately more fun to drive, specifically when equipped with rear-wheel steering, something I'm tempted to call a must-have option. On the road, the LC 500 was most definitely the better driver's car, if only for the sound. I have two big gripes. The first is that both cars need more brakes, especially the V-8. I was getting above 140 mph on the straight, and just slowing down for Turn 1 cooked 'em pretty good. The second thing I'd like changed immediately is the throttle pedal itself. Getting through the kickdown requires more effort and travel than on other cars. I wonder if this is the legacy of those runaway Lexus stories from a few years back.

To summarize, Lexus has built a better BMW 6 Series. Their target demographic is men over the age of 50 who earn around $250,000 per year. Big coupes that shout, "I'm a banker! I'm a banker!" obviously don't occupy a large market segment, but Lexus feels the LC has the mojo to move about 5,000 units per year. The good news is that the car is good enough to hit, if not double, that sales target. Lexus hasn't announced pricing yet, but they did say that the competitive set is around $80,000 to $120,000. You can bet that the LC will be on the lower end of that. If I had to guess, I'd say the LC 500h will be closer to $80,000 than not, and the LC 500 will be close to six figures but nowhere near $120,000 even with plenty of options. That space will be filled by the not-so-secret, most-likely-twin-turbo V-8 LC F that we should start seeing next year. Most important, the LC's GA-L platform proves to me that the future of Lexus is strong. You'll be able to decide for yourself beginning next summer.

2018 Lexus LC 500 & LC 500h
BASE PRICE $80,000-$99,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe
ENGINES 5.0L/471-hp/398-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8; 3.5L/295-hp/257-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 2 electric motors; 354 hp comb
TRANSMISSIONS 10-speed automatic, cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT 4,300-4,450 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 113.0 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 187.4 x 75.6 x 53.0 in
0-60 MPH 4.4-4.7 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not yet tested
ON SALE IN U.S. Summer, 2017

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