The Lexus LC500 Flies the Coupe

This two-door stunner charts a favorable course for Lexus.

See the Lexus LC 500 on /DRIVE on NBC Sports: National Parks, Thursday, November 2 @ 9:00 pm ET on NBCSN.

At this moment, GT coupes are about as popular as white loafers and men-only private clubs. But automakers, bless them, keep building them anyway. Makers and buyers alike see their aspirations and best selves reflected in a GT’s swoopy body: two doors and dinky back seats seem expressly designed to repel hangers-on, even children, who might spoil the fantasy of louche style and freedom.

As predictably as a sunset over Santa Barbara, classic coupes bring requisite power, luxury, and technology. But we know the real reason most people spend $90,000 or more on these lifestyle accessories, even if few can admit it: to look good, and to affirm hard-earned status and station.

By that measure alone, the Lexus LC500 is a 500-foot home run. This is the hottest Lexus in, well, forever. Committed BMW 6-Series buyers, especially, may take one look at this starlet and cancel their order. Lexus has vividly translated its acclaimed LF-LC concept to the street, even if the gestation took six years. This coupe also bodes well for future Lexus models based on its rear-drive GA-L (for “Global Architecture Luxury") platform. That includes an all-new Lexus LS flagship sedan that will break cover in January at the North American International Auto Show, in Detroit.

And as we learned on sweeping roads and a racetrack in southern Spain, the Lexus drives as well as it looks. Koji Sato, the LC’s chief engineer, deserves a bow from long-suffering Toyota/Lexus performance fans; his LC is ideally tuned for the GT mission—vault-like and serene when you want it, but still eager to lash a scenic road and announce itself with a big-money V-8 burble and the segment’s first 10-speed automatic transmission.

Lexus

This lavish praise is limited to the LC500 and its honking, 471-horsepower V-8, rather than the comparatively tepid hybrid version. Lexus says that hybrid LC500h can sprint to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, just 0.4 seconds behind the LC500. Its Multi-Stage Hybrid System, with 354 total gas-electric horsepower, is an impressive technical feat. Toyota’s first lithium-ion battery hybrid system links a pair of electric motor-generators, a planetary gearset, and a conventional four-speed automatic transmission along the V-6’s output shaft. The result is a virtual 10-speed, paddle-shift transmission that aims, with modest success, to eliminate the surging, rubber-band feel of a typical hybrid CVT transmission. But no amount of lithium-ion juice can disguise the taste (and drone) of the 295-horse, Atkinson-cycle V-6. The LC500h may be a dream for Hollywood types who want a luxury looker with hybrid mileage, but the V-8 whips its overall performance.

In a track presentation before our drive, Lexus says the LC’s design “pursues an avant garde image with a fusion of dynamic proportions and luxury coupe elegance.” For once, the word salad tossed out at a manufacturer introduction—typically, ripe claims tossed with GMO-generic adjectives—is actually spot-on. The Lexus looks more show car than showroom model, and its stunning lines drew non-stop admiration on the streets of Seville. Even Lexus’ much-maligned spindle grille works in this context.

Lexus

The LC500 looks expensive, too, with its nipped waist, flush-mounted door handles, and flanks wide enough to land an F-16. Striking three-projector LED headlamps take up less than half the space of conventional units, packaged below an impressively low hood. Industry-first tail lamps feature a one-way mirror that creates a cool funhouse effect, a repeating image of the L-shaped light graphic.

One LC500 I drove was outfitted in a gorgeous metallic brown known as “Autumn Shimmer,” a name that would be perfect for a Tampa stripper. That LC featured a caramel-and-tan interior, including thick, ribbed wings of Alcantara on door panels. The intimate cockpit, with a tiered instrument panel and top-grade leather hand-stitched by “Takumi” masters, majorly raises Lexus’s current luxury bar. Finally, the Curse-of-Toyota screen graphics, seemingly aimed at the AARP set, are replaced by handsome fonts and high-res presentations. The latest Remote Touch infotainment system finally ditches the wonky joystick controller that made it perhaps the industry’s most maddening in favor of a touchpad that’s easier to use.

Seats are handsomely rendered but less all-around supportive than the thrones in German makes. Strangely, a single on-off lumbar support is the only powered extra; there’s no thigh extender, bolster controller, massager, or multi-adjustable lumbar that you find in many rivals.

Lexus

Lexus is calling this is a full-size coupe, but it’s more a big midsize. Stretching 187.4 inches, the Lexus is about 10 inches shorter than a Mercedes S550 coupe, 5.2 inches shy of a 6-Series, and just two inches longer than Mercedes’s midsize E-Class coupe. Slide the front seats well forward and you can force adults into the sculpted rear buckets, but be prepared to do so at gunpoint. Headroom, especially, is severely limited for anyone much over five feet tall.

Sato guides us through his handiwork. A cutaway of the LC’s chassis shows its sophisticated engineering, including a compact, forged aluminum multi-link front suspension; high-strength-steel engine braces; and beautiful cast-aluminum front shock towers. Lexus claims higher overall torsional rigidity than its old LFA, the $375,000 supercar unicorn from the same Motomachi plant in Japan that will ship the LC beginning in May.

Lexus also claims a class-low center of gravity. A balanced front-midship design shoves the engine entirely behind the front axle and relocates the battery to the trunk. A carbon-fiber roof is part of a sport package, likely paired with a Torsen limited-slip rear differential and a rear spoiler that rises above 50 mph. A dynamic handling package combines a variable-ratio steering rack with rear-wheel steering.

At Circuito Monteblanco, a road course near Sevilla, we learned that the LC500 isn’t really a track car. For one thing, it’s too heavy, at nearly 4,300 pounds (and closer to 4,450 for the hybrid) and prone to understeer. Yet the LC500 didn’t embarrass itself, offering zesty throttle response and oodles of grip through 20- or 21-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport or Bridgestone Potenza tires.

Lexus

Set loose on the coiling roads of Andalusia, the LC500 found its element. I went out alone for a nighttime blast in the countryside, where I made a point of stomping the brakes to ensure no surprises heading into fast sweepers. Those binders are excellent, including opposed six-piston front calipers and 13-inch rotors. Steering is creamy, but surprisingly generous with feedback, and adaptive dampers combine a supple ride with pleasing body control.

The stirring induction song of the naturally aspirated V-8—a descendant of the 5.0-liter originally designed by Yamaha—is piped through the cabin’s firewall via a membrane-lined tube that amplifies favorable frequencies. (There’s no artificial audio-system enhancement here, as in the Lexus GS-F.) The rich burble is perfect, forceful but not obnoxious, right to its 7,200-rpm redline, aided by exhaust flaps that open under hard throttle. Lexus played coy, but it’s tempting to imagine the brand developing an LC convertible with even more sensory stimulation—the perfect foil to the Mercedes SL.

The electronic console shifter, finely wrapped in four hand-stitched pieces of leather, is less prone to get hung up in reverse or neutral than BMW's or Benz’s units. Oversized magnesium shift paddles are perfect for DIY types.

Yes, the Aisin unit’s 10 speeds (three grears being fuel-saving overdrives) puts this car in Schwinn territory. That’s a lot of speeds. But the 10-speed’s big advantage, as Sato tells us, is its rhythmic, natural and efficient gear spacing: Floor the gas, and I could actually count the identical number of beats as the engine peaked, shifted and rose to redline again: Whaaaamp ... Whaaaamp … Whaaaamp. Left to its own devices, the 10-speed delivered an occasional driveline lurch at low speeds, but it never seemed to hunt for gears, as in Chrysler’s obnoxiously obtrusive nine-speed.

Lexus

Cruising back to the darkened track, I knew that Lexus has a winner on its hands. Imprecisely, Lexus says that the LC500 will start somewhere below $100,000 in base trim, with the hybrid LC500h priced slightly higher. (Good luck with the hybrid costing more.) More precisely, Lexus says it will be pleased to find 400 buyers a month in America, with at least 80 percent choosing the V-8.

For any luxury brand, a flagship coupe is less about sales than image and reputation. The LC sits on an impressively raised pedestal, yet it's exactly the kind of car Lexus should keep building, the inspiration for even its most-affordable and practical models. If that happens, even BMW and Mercedes may not stop Lexus from reclaiming the American luxury sales title it held for years.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.