Lexus LC500: Fire with finesse – but what degree the burn?

The most affluent two-door car from the luxury arm of Japan’s biggest car brand is a heck of a machine. Yet it's not easy to nail down its primary talent.

MEETING market tastes can be especially challenging for car makers.

Take Lexus. The exemplar of Japanese auto perfection has knocked out a fair few products in its 30-year existence, yet arguably only two of these have hit the nail directly on the head.

One was the original LS, which so flustered certain other makers – think those with German accents – that they wholly redesigned their own big limos that, until the moment the Japanese car came out of nowhere, were smugly considered to be all that the world’s plutocrats ever wanted.

The other was the LFA, again a shot from the dark, this time into the ranks of supercardom, that again had far more effect on the established players than they’ve probably ever let on.

There will be a number of brands in the northern part of Italy who might be forever grateful that Toyota determined on day one of the long-winded development phase that its carbon construct V10 two-seater would be a limited count car built over a limited period, serving simply and wholly as a casual example of what Japan’s top car brand can do when it sets its mind to it.

Those original LS sedans deserve collectability status, but now it seems their role in redefining automotive history seems largely forgotten, so that day has yet to come. But you still see them occasionally and, for those who own one, there is probability that every day is just like the last, because the quality of design, engineering and build is such that they are, if nothing else, probably as they always were: An epitome of reliable servitude.

And the LFA? That one had no trouble being recognised as a great. And since just 500 were built for the entire world, then its status as something truly special was all the more enhanced. Most are already locked away in temperature-controlled time capsules, quietly ticking up their residual value. I’m told that quite a few are owned by fund management companies that understand that certain cars are worth their weight in gold.

Lexus has kept the LS name in production – there’s a new one about to quietly slip into the New Zealand road scape – but it has never built another LFA, nor has it shown inclination to do so. Which is something that buyers of the LC coupe should bear in mind.

This new low-slung four-seater car has an astounding road presence and, in the 5.0-litre V8 format driven here, no small amount of ferocity; it offers a sporting driving experience and has enough hardware and dynamic talent to make it a good thing on any challenging road, even a race circuit.

Yet I can attest with utter certainty – having been (hem, hem) the only NZ journalist ever given opportunity to drive the LFA (on a race track, with a great race driver, Scott Pruett, showing me the ropes) – that it is not in any way a successor, let alone an equal, to the amazing supercar that Lexus pumped out between 2010 and 2012.

There are numerous reasons for this being so – some to do with price (the LC, though looking equally glam and, is even with a $215,000 starting point less than half the price of the LFA), some to do with construction (no carbon reinforced polymer bits here) and a lot more to do with how it drives.

Another factor is what it sets out to be. That’s the part that might confuse. Many cars are designed to span a range of tastes and expectations, to have a foot in each camp. The LC does that, except that it has more feet than many; at least three.

Really, it has something for every kind of coupe fan. It’s a serious-ish sports car. To a point. A luxury grand tourer. To a point. An exemplar of Lexus technical prowess. To a point.

Which brings me back to the original … erm … point. The LS and LFA hit their marketing targets fully; they’re single bash, nail-in-all-the-way achievements. The LC, on the other hand, is another of those Lexus cars that don’t quite achieve the same laser-like accuracy. They don’t leave the nail bent, but they will create some confusion about the exact rationale of their being. Indeed, determining what the LC is all about is a question probably left to professional therapy.

Anyway, as said, it starts its campaign to win over the world by being one of the most astounding looking cars on the road at the moment. Not wholly alluring – the exterior and interior beauty is more in the exquisiteness of the detail than as a whole - but massively attention-grabbing.

In part because, agreed, it is massive, additionally wide and long enough to fill a standard angle and parallel parking spot, in fact. But mainly because it is a remarkably freeform expression of creativity. Even though it necessarily has styling elements that spread across the whole Lexus family – not least that massively gaping grille - it is so wholly singular that it’s a fair bet it will never suffer from mis-identification.

Some will suggest its drama is just too heavily laid on. It is one of those cars that seems set to lay down a standard for a future styling theme that a lot of car makers have not dared to pick up on. Yet even though some aspects touch into weirdness – notably the front three-quarter view – it is surely unfair to bag such boldness. Not least when you take into account that the brand’s overall boss, Akio Toyoda, has been reading the riot act to his troops about how boring past Lexus cars have been. The LC is surely a quick-smart appeasement to a bloke who used to quote letters from disgruntled customers at press events.

But, sure, it’s right out there. A friend with a love of sci-fi reckoned he would not be surprised were the design team to fess up as huge Ridley Scott fans. It seems to be purpose-shaped to sit most comfortably within the world’s most futuristic cityscapes: You can easily imagine this car sashaying through the artificially illuminated canyons of downtown Shanghai, Los Angeles or Dubai at night, zipping past their most outrageous modernist structures.

The interior is easily as amazing in in overtness; there are very few straight lines and, while the quality isn’t quite up to that you’d expect from a top-drawer Italian thoroughbred – or, for that matter, the interior colours (the test car’s light brown had enough orange in it to be of similar hue to a bottle-derived tan), you’ll still wonder how their leather could be any better quality than the handcraft Takumi hides chosen by Toyota’s premier division team. Still, the attention to detail is exacting as you’d expect from Lexus. Even on a high-end Toyota, you’d never see effort being put into tucking the leather seams out of sight, as occurs here.

The determination to put design first does have certain consequences. The massive curving grab handle arching down in the middle of the car from the dash to the centre console on the passenger side bisects the cabin to the point of isolating one occupant from the other. And it utterly squanders interior space. There are surely few other cars so big that feel so small inside. The rear seat is more usefully sized for stowing shopping bags than the boot, which possibly might take just a single family-sized suitcase but probably won’t, because the opening is so tight. Even the oddment spaces are laughably teensy. Basically, if you want practicality, the smallest car in the Toyota range, the Yaris, might be better. But, then, Lexus probably doesn’t think for a moment that LC owners will be taking this car to Bunnings.

I could live with the lack of space. It’s the approach toward other ergonomic aspects that personally annoys. You could go on all day about Lexus instrumentation and switchgear: Basically, this car is supposed to have improvements over past models, yet it’s still a mixed bag.

The digital gauges ahead of the driver are fantastic for clarity and, being so deeply recessed, are not affected by sunlight glare. Also, they’re utterly Lexus bespoke. Same cannot be said of some of the other wands and buttons, which appear to have been plucked from the Toyota parts bin.

When it comes to aspects of driver-control interactions, Lexus just cannot get it right. When, at point of handover, your host feels compelled to demonstrate how to screen-access and operate the ventilation system because previous media testers have been flummoxed (actually,, it’s not THAT hard) you know you are in for an ‘interesting’ time.

And so it proved. I thought I was well-versed in sorting radio station pre-sets, but apparently not. Couldn’t nut it. (On that subject, a quirk of it having a digital receiver is propensity to suddenly cut out a station the moment if gets a whiff of static).

This is all because Lexus just cannot make ‘smart’ simple. This is the age of the human machine interface; some makers are exemplars at creating quick, slick accesses to their car’s complexity. Lexus has yet to join their ranks: The LC presents another rejig of the Enform system and, despite delivering some improvements – like several short-cut buttons, it ultimately remains one of the most distracting systems on the market. You get the sense that the 10.1-inch touchscreen’s fantastically high-resolution graphics might always be underutilised because the awkwardness of controller, a touchpad on the centre console that operates a cursor on the screen.

The steering wheel has many buttons - for cruise and distance control, phone and audio control. You have to wonder if that’s more a hindrance than a help. One enduring Lexus annoyance: When on the move, you cannot input an address on the sat nav nor use the phone to make a call to anything other than a number that has been recently called before.

Happiness returns when you fire the engine into life. Two drivelines are offered, both the same price, one being a six-cylinder hybrid set-up that’s ‘nice’ and the other being a five-litre, quad-cam, 32-valve, all-aluminium V8 from the RC-F and GS-F that’s much nastier.

The car here is in the latter format and it shouldn’t surprise that, so far, it has been the one that almost all early adopters have gone for. I would too. It’s not that I lack any sense of Green-ness – hey, battery-assisted driving is a future I definitely subscribe to – but, frankly, the eight-cylinder is just so good at making you want to be bad.

By all rights, this might be one of the last jobs it will ever have, because it is not the latest and greatest in the category. The outputs of 351kW and 540Nm are short of category-topping, and there’s not much torque down low, yet fairly fiery and very free-revving (right up to 7100rpm) nonetheless and there’s no need to doubt the cited 0-100kmh sprint time of 4.4 seconds or its ability to reach beyond 230kmh. In the modes that allow it to represent at its moodiest, there’s enough wallop to remind you how much we're going to miss these units when they're gone.

It's also worth reiterating that the Lexus engine doesn't use turbos, which is partially why it develops less power than the big-banger German engines (and has higher CO2 emissions too), but it does mean that its throttle response is sharper, and it's much more musical as well.

Nailing it in the sportiest settings unleashes a song you’d normally expect to only hear at a race circuit. Even though some of this is the result of computer-enhancement piping through the speakers, this gorgeous gurgling soundtrack is something you’ll never tire of. After I drove the LFA, I found a recording of it V10 at full noise and kept it as a phone ring tone for a time. I probably should have done the same with this engine.

Lexus doesn’t do manual and its only direct-shift gearbox was for the LFA, but the new 10-speed automatic is a good substitute for the latter, insofar that the ratios are close-enough spaced to keep the engine on the boil, even if you have to feather foot it occasionally to initiate a smooth change.

The rear-drive platform ain’t dumb, either. This model debuts the new GA-L (for global architecture, luxury) steel, aluminium, and carbon fibre body framing and suspension that also underpins the just-arrived LS luxury saloon and is set to feature on other large, rear-drive Lexus models of the future.

That the car felt deft and poised on the same roads on which I’d chucked a BMW M2 just the week before was also perhaps due it coming with some extra handling tricks, including a limited slip differential (which still occasionally struggled to put down the V8's 540Nm of torque on tight hairpins) and rear-wheel steering. These are part of a $5000 option pack. You can also spent extra to get the tester’s carbon-fibre roof.

I was impressed by how easily it could be positioned into and through corners. The steering felt good, too, being almost perfectly weighted. And the brakes? They’re unbelievably strong.

You can understand why they’ve had the confidence to use the LC – the very example on test, in fact – for customer hot lap play during the Toyota-involved rounds of the summer motor-racing series. It is clearly engineered to do all that without stress; In fact, apart from the edges of the tyres having been rounded down, the only signs of it having spent five consecutive weekends on circuits prior to this test were brake dust on the alloys and it asking for a wee top-up of oil.

And yet, for all that, there are good reasons for not immersing it into track days. Indeed, I’d wager that, for all its grunt and go-hard, every one of the rivals Lexus cited at the LC’s international unveiling – these being the 375kW Mercedes-AMG GT, 404kW Jaguar F-Type V8 R, 338kW Maserati GranTurismo and 316kW Porsche 911 Carrera GTS – would all ultimately show the Lexus up in a secondary road showdown.

For all its eagerness, it feels pinned back – indeed, it often is by an over-zealous electronic stability control. Most rival cars now have ESCs that can be left in standard phase or re-jigged to a less-intrusive sports setting, but not the LC, which is primed to be too prim, even in its wildest Sports Plus setting.

Primarily, though, what also makes this car slightly hard work is its sheer size – it is hardly a narrow vehicle and there are times when it feels wider than it really is – and the weight, which is equally XL. The shape might suggest svelteness but the scales tell a sobering story. At 1935kg, this is an especially hefty car and not just within its immediate class. Some like-length SUVs are lighter.

This patently impacts on outright performance - no wonder the engine isn’t quite as sharp as it sounds – but has even more obvious influence on the way it handles. It never feels wholly committed to hard cornering which means, in turn, you’re never really at one with it when you try that. The element of ‘will it, won’t it’ isn’t so great to be totally unnerving, but you do tend to start reading road conditions especially avidly when pushing because there’s an impression that, were it to run of grip, it could quite soon after run out of dynamic talent as well.

The positive of being a bit porky show up in the ride. Outside of its most extreme setting, the LC is quite relaxed. The degree of compliance is quite remarkable, given the extrovert size of the rims and narrowness of the rubber they wear. But, fact is, if you expect composed and quiet ride comfort as a priority from your big, low coupe, then the LC is surely going to be hard to beat.

Getting back to where this story started, it’s a car that comes across as being coat of many colours. Performance-wise, it’s snarly yet, when push comes to total shove, you quickly learn it’s a bit soft and timid and would undoubtedly be far more athletic were it a bit smaller and lighter. The looks are astounding. The interior ergonomics infuriating. The build quality is incredible. Yet some of the inattention to detail (cupholder size and location being one example) is poor. And, for all its sheer size, it’s a touch cramped inside.

As things stand, in this format the LC is a red carpet hottie whose Oscar potential rests more on looks than pure talent.