CAR CONNOISSEURS, it is time to put away your knives. To cease the mean jabs. "It's pretty good . . . for a Lexus." Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota and Lexus brand ambassador, listened, politely, as you told him that his cars were a bore. After a research trip to the United States in 2011, he returned to Japan and issued an executive edict: Banish the boredom.
The result, more than five years on, sits in front of us today, in the Spanish sun, and we can say unequivocally: You ain't gonna yawn.
The LC 500 is the production version of the LF-LC concept car shown in Detroit in 2012. It is a big-boned, rear-drive coupe, slightly shorter than a Mercedes E-class coupe but wider and lower. The Lexus uses its size to make a definite impression, athletic and purposeful. It fills a parking spot commandingly.
The company was able to pull off this trick because the LC 500 isn't based on any other Lexus or Toyota vehicle. It's a clean-sheet design on an all-new platform that will also underpin the next LS sedan. The LC is the first Lexus to wear the spindle grille as a resplendent crown rather than a design oddity. With its extra-long hood, two--two seating, and an interior that uses expensive materials playfully, the LC 500 comes off as upscale and potent, a shiny toy in the best of ways.
The details are a marvel. The mesh on the grille is tight near the hood and then loosens as it waterfalls down the nose. The lines along the sides dance in sunlight. The rear is a cheeky reinterpretation of the nose. The cabin has beautifully designed grab handles on either side of the passenger, and the seats, with origami-inspired bolsters, beg you to climb into them.
And we do, setting off on a day that begins in Seville, the cultural capital of Andalusia, and takes us to a racetrack and miles of weblike roads. The car comes in two varieties: one a V6 hybrid and the other a naturally aspirated V8—the same engine found in the RC F coupe and the GS F sedan. The hybrid, with a combined 354 hp, is balanced and likable but can't keep me from spending most of the day with the V8. (Lexus estimates 85 to 90 percent of customers will make the same choice.)
The 5.0-liter V8 produces 471 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque and delivers all the happy sounds one expects from a naturally aspirated V8. An attentive driver can tip in and out of the throttle in a nuanced manner that a turbo engine just won't accommodate. The LC's downside is a claimed 4280-pound curb weight, so the 5.0 liter has its work cut out for it. Regardless, Lexus estimates the LC hits 60 mph in a respectably quick 4.4 seconds.
The car's engineers spoke to us at length of their desire to create a car that pivots around the driver's hips. To that end, the vast majority of the engine's mass is behind the front axle, the center of gravity is low, and the driving position was painstakingly thought-out. Smart engineering, but none of it can hide that the LC is very much a grand-touring car, even when outfitted with options like a carbon-fiber roof, limited-slip differential, and rear-wheel steering. Those many pounds inevitably translate to a wandering nose when you head into a corner too hastily. The coupe doesn't exit slow corners explosively, so maintaining momentum is a matter of compromise and patience, but the rear steering helps get the car turned into a corner and is the option most worth having.
While the LC is not a track car, laps around the Circuito Monteblanco racetrack showed off strengths. In a straight line, revs pitched high, the LC gathers velocity with bravura. It should play well on the autobahn, as it is incredibly stable at speed. The steel-rotor brakes hold up under repeated laps, and the car tracks true even under full-threshold braking, a relief when I come in too hot at the end of a long straightaway. The electrically assisted steering murmurs about asphalt quality and is firm without feeling artificial. It's as if Lexus engineers benchmarked German cars of old. Even the actual wheel feels good in the hand, the kind of detail that matters.
The 10-speed, torque-converter automatic transmission is less ideal. With this many closely spaced gears, the transmission hunts. On a back road, where you might normally just hold one gear—a single note rising and falling with tremolo and urgency—the car shifts between multiple gears busily. It is distracting, fussy. It's even odder when the driver puts the system in manual mode. Trying to find the gearing's sweet spot is nigh on impossible.
And while cabin materials, like the gorgeous leather lining the doors, are first-rate, the mouse controls for the infotainment system are nearly unusable. Some of the concept-car ideas have been translated to production in odd ways—passenger-side vents are located in a strange extrusion that cantilevers under the glove box, and the center-console storage is difficult to access.
The V8 LC will start at $92,975. Considering the car's exotic looks and the design and quality of its cabin, that's a value. Lexus execs regard the BMW 650i, the Mercedes-Benz S-class coupe, and the Jaguar F-type as competitors. The Lexus is far more agile than the similarly priced 650i and generally feels more athletic than the much more expensive Mercedes. The F-type, although smaller, is more apt. Both are meant to impress friends and future girlfriends. Of course, the LC does have rear seats, even if they are mostly ornamental.
Away from the back roads and onto the highway's fast lane, the LC 500 flashes past dozens of cars, gathering as many looks. Then I realize the Lexus is reminiscent of another highly competent GT, the Bentley Continental. The LC serves the same purpose, but at a remarkable savings. And it will initially be nearly as exclusive, as Lexus plans to sell only 400 a month. The LC 500 might be the most interesting car that Lexus has ever made. Toyota's luxury division just needed some extra encouragement from Mr. Toyoda himself.