By Mike Daly
Since the 1989 introduction of the LS 400 in the United States—the very first car offered by Toyota’s luxury vehicle division, Lexus—the groundbreaking sub-brand has consistently led its Japanese competitors in the production of upmarket luxury sedans and coupes.
But when family scion Akio Toyoda assumed Toyota directorship in 2009, he envisioned a more sporting identity for the luxury sub-brand. His first move was to greenlight the LFA supercar, a limited-production $375,000 Ferrari-challenger with a purpose-built 550-hp V-10. Toyota may very well have lost money on the LFA despite selling all 500 cars, but brand positioning is sometimes worth taking a hit.
In 2012, the company unveiled a concept car called the LF-LC, a “luxury coupe” interpretation of the LF platform that took the supercar’s styling a step further. It was so warmly received by design critics that Akio Toyoda again pushed for a full production model, which he insisted should retain as much of the concept’s styling as possible.
On the heels of 2015’s RC (positioned as a racing coupe), the resulting LC 500 hit Lexus showrooms in May after introductory fanfare, including a high-profile Super Bowl ad. The new model was the subject of a fantastic media launch on Hawaii’s Big Island last February, and we were invited to experience a few hours of seat time.
Envisioned as a flagship luxury coupe with high-performance capabilities, the LC 500 has managed to retain a surprising degree of the LF-LC’s striking design. Most notably, the concept car’s huge wheels have been duplicated with 20-inch standard (and 21-inch optional) alloys that required an all-new front suspension design with double ball-joints.
The LC is built on a brand-new rear-wheel-drive platform that combines high-strength steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic for a lightweight monocoque that’s supposedly even stiffer than the carbon fiber-intensive LFA. This innovation in materials has fostered some of the exterior’s more audacious styling elements, like the unusually short fender lips that barely hang over the front wheels, which recall the appearance of a racecar.
As with many Lexus products, the LC is available with either a traditional gasoline-engine or a hybrid powertrain (in which guise it is dubbed the LC 500h). The latter model will apparently sell quite well in Europe, but to my boorish American tastes, the LC 500’s 4,969cc V-8 was a far more alluring means of tackling Kona’s gently curving perimeter circuit. As a further progression of the engine used in Lexus’ GS F and RC F performance cars, the new 32-valve aluminum V-8 develops 471 hp at a high-revving 7,100 rpm (just 200 rpm short of its redline), predicated on an unusually high compression ratio of 12.3:1. Torque is commensurately strong, with 398 pd-ft arriving high in the power band, between 4,800 and 5,600 rpm.
The lack of significant low-range torque is probably one reason the LC is equipped with an all-new 10-speed automatic transmission, which implies that a downshift to improved drive ratios is never many revs away. The flexible tranny also allows for fuel-efficient cruising at highway speeds. Well programmed for sporty automatic use via four different drive modes (culminating in the most aggressive Sport+ mode), the 10-speed can also be manually shifted with wheel-mounted magnesium paddles. In tandem the driveline propels the LC 500 from zero to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds, though top speed is electronically limited to 168 mph (perhaps the most discreet suggestion that the model is defined more as a luxury cruiser than track whip).
As such, the LC can be optioned to the nines with high-grade combinations of exterior finishes and interior trims, as well as a bevy of electronic comfort and safety equipment. Ten-way automatically adjustable seats, a 10.3-inch digital infotainment screen, heads-up display, Alcantara upholstery, a leather-wrapped gearshift knob, and an optional 13-speaker Mark Levinson 835-watt sound system were among the more standout amenities of our test car.
But all these goodies come at a cost, pushing the LC’s curb weight to 4,280 pounds (4,435 pounds for the hybrid), which is by no means a slim waistline for a two-door sports car. As a comparative point of reference, a bare-bones Mercedes S-Class starts around 4,710 pounds, while the spartan Lotus Elise is more than a ton lighter at 2,041 pounds. It’s actually a tribute to Lexus’ suspension engineering and the LC’s low center of gravity that the car reacts as nimbly and carefree as it does, belying the added weight of all that luxury.
Despite the comfort mandate, the LC’s motor is tuned like the performance cars in Lexus’ F portfolio. In Sport+ mode the quad-tipped active exhaust consistently coughs in a pleasing manner during upshifts. The symphony of valves and ignitions are doubtlessly made all the more enjoyable by a resonance tube that channels engine sound directly to the interior firewall (say what one will about the authenticity of such a feature). And the V-8 is more than worthy of the task, as I discovered during several lightning-quick multi-car passes in the quagmire of Friday afternoon traffic, to the undoubted irritation of the laid-back locals.
Further nods to performance are evident in various elements of the LC 500’s architecture, like the engine’s positioning behind the front axle, a relocation of the battery to the trunk, and an active rear spoiler that deploys at 50 mph. Our test car also came equipped with a $10,000 Performance Package that unites all of Lexus’ stability components and software under one governing system, and additionally includes a carbon fiber roof and rear-wheel steering assist.
If it achieved nothing else, the LC 500 would demonstrate Toyota’s continued leadership in its segment, re-imagining the refinement and performance character that Lexus might attain. But as it happens, the LC is a beautiful car that’s impressively engineered, and should have no problem plying its way into the hearts and garages of well-heeled enthusiasts looking for a sporty daily driver. At its price-point and quality, the front-engine two-door sports/luxury coupe (with hybrid option) currently appears to have no direct competitor. Leave it to a Toyoda to think like Toyota.
MSRP: Base, $92,000; as tested, $102,995