Is the attention-grabbing LC a pure sportscar, or an indulgent grand tourer?
Just look at it. Even painted in dour White Nova paint, the Lexus LC500 is a striking piece of design that sets necks craning and eyes widening. Hell, traffic laws are broken as fellow motorists whip out their smartphones and hit record.
In the luxury-car sphere, half the work is done if the vehicle nails the static-appeal brief. And Lexus’ chief designer, Tadao Mori, has certainly achieved something remarkable. Imbued with cues from 2012’s LF-LC concept unveiled at that year’s North American International Auto Show, stretched across an elegant, long and low body, the LC500 is pure theatre. From the most ornate interpretation yet of the 28-year-old company’s spindle grille – studded with buttons that give it a mesh-like surface – to headlamps that simultaneously dip into the bumper and nudge towards that grille, and taillamps that mimic the front lights’ design but have their own unique touch in an intricate three-dimensional effect, the big Lexus looks unlike anything else plying our roads.
We’ll forgive it some awkward angles from the rear-three-quarter (and you’ll have to make up your own mind about those flashy, chromed 21-inch alloy wheels) in return for the brand’s sheer bravura in launching a production model that appears to have escaped from a motor show stand.
Hop inside, taking care not to bump the long door against an adjacent object, and the drama continues. Perceived quality is beyond reproach – a crew of master craftsmen at the Motomachi plant in Japan is responsible for constructing the cockpit, including hand-stitching the gearlever – and every surface fits like a perfectly aligned Tetris block into the next. This test vehicle’s interior is trimmed in Dark Rose, a shade used for the leather and Alcantara panels, while the buttons and dials are machined in high-grade alloy. The paddle shifters, meanwhile, are magnesium-alloy. If it looks like a certain material in here, chances are it’s exactly that material.
The LC500 is offered with every possible feature as standard, including a 13-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, head-up display, sat-nav and ventilated and electrically adjustable front seats (which remain indulgently comfortable after hours spent behind the wheel). Some are simple to use – physical buttons for the dual-zone climate control are always welcome, especially if they’re such a tactile pleasure in their operation as the Lexus’ – while others frustrate. Why the carmaker persists with its Remote Touch Interface, a haptic pad that’s over-sensitive no matter the mode it’s in, is anyone’s guess. We’ve used this system for years in a number of Lexus models and still haven’t mastered it; the Germans do it much better. Criticism was lobbed at the counter-intuitive drive-control stalks either side of the instrument panel, too, but thankfully you don’t use them often.
Punch the starter button to the left of the perfectly sized steering wheel and an engine that dominates the vehicle’s driving manners fires up. The naturally aspirated 5,0-litre V8 is a familiar one, having served in a number of F-branded sports models for a good few years now (and Giniel de Villiers’ Toyota Hilux Dakar vehicle). Lexus’ engineers, under the guidance of chief engineer, Koji Sato, took extensive measures to reduce friction and pumping losses on the V8; cut vibration by installing a double torsional damper on the crank pulley; and optimise the aural qualities by fitting a sound generator to the front air intake that’s directly connected to the cowl reinforcement and as such reverberates sound in that enclosed space. The exhaust system, meanwhile, boasts valves that open or close depending on the engine speed and the drive mode.
And it’s a roaring success. The creamy V8 sounds magnificent, with upshifts by the 10-speed transmission punctuated with rapid fire as the 5,0-litre again races to the 7 200 r/min red line in the next gear. What it doesn’t do, however, is create an impression of effortless performance. Two culprits are responsible for the occasional paucity of punch: the vehicle weighs 1 935 kg; and the atmospheric engine delivers its 540 N.m at a heady 4 800 r/min.
It’s here where the 10-speed torque-converter automatic transmission is tasked with filling in the gaps. No bigger than Lexus’ current eight-speed ‘box, the new transmission does a stellar job when left to its own devices, never creating the impression that it’s been burdened with a brace too many gears. Pop it in manual mode, however, and 10 feels like overkill, with lots of finger-flexing needed across those tactile paddles.
Set off and one of the first things you notice is the composed ride. It has a firm edge, sure, but not one that’s uncomfortable by any definition; there’s a deliberateness in the way the Lexus handles road scars and speed bumps that implies outstanding damping qualities (considering it runs on ultra-low-profile, run-flat tyres). Next you notice the astonishing refinement, with near-silent levels of wind and road noise, and an engine that settles to a whisper at just 1 600 r/min at 120 km/h. Perhaps the LC is a grand tourer after all, despite some of the brand’s marketing claims to the contrary?
And then you tackle a set of bends, clock the feel-free electrically assisted steering, notice how the vehicle gently washes into understeer a little earlier than you had hoped – despite rear-wheel steering that’s part of the Dynamic Handling package standard on SA cars – and become slightly frustrated that the transmission appears to ignore some of your manual inputs, and the LC’s mission statement is clear: it’s a finely crafted, exclusive GT.
As alluded to earlier, local LC500s are equipped with every conceivable option, including a full suite of safety features that adds blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist and cross-traffic alert. What it doesn’t have, however, is a basic level of autonomous-driving technology. That will be introduced with the new LS that, incidentally, will share this LC’s modular Global Architecture-Luxury platform.