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2018 Lexus LC 500 & LC 500h first drive

The 2018 LC 500 isn't another Toyota dressed for the ball, it's Lexus reborn

Comfy enough to cruise, but hot enough to hang loose, the LC 500 screams for attention with both its looks and its exhaust bark.

The Lexus brand was launched in 1989 as the luxury division of Toyota, but rather than creating distinctive vehicles, Lexus has sometimes felt like an expensive re-badge of its mass market parent. Unfortunately, that’s the status quo of many automakers with different “divisions.” Yet here we are, flown to the Big Island of Hawai’i, being fed marketing jargon of the “new Lexus” among the dolphins, whales, and Mai Tais. The funny thing? Lexus didn’t need to go through all the paradisiacal trouble to set the mood because, as it turns out, the LC 500 is a pretty nice performance coupe. And while it’s not perfect, it absolutely makes a case that Lexus is breaking its own pigeon-holed stereotype.

A striking shift

At the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, Lexus debuted its LF-LC Concept, which was intended to be a true concept car with no future production plans. But then design awards came, followed by questions as to when the vehicle would be arriving in showrooms. Ask and ye shall receive, as the LC 500 certainly stays quite true to the original concept’s design — a testament to the open dialogue between design and engineering teams. For example, the vehicle is fitted with run-flat tires, which allowed for the removal of the spare tire. That in turn gave designers more freedom to create its bold rear design.

Now, depending on your point of view, the LC 500 is either breathtaking or barf-inducing — but that’s a good thing. Art is supposed to move you. If you feel nothing, then the artist didn’t do their job. But the Lexus designers did their duty to create a vehicle that evokes emotion. Whether it be bleeding eyes or heart-eyed emojis is up to you.

The front fascia resembles a voracious python, with its fang-shaped triple LED headlamps buttressing the most complex mesh grille known to man (detailers, beware). But while photos tend to capture its angry attitude, the LC 500 is definitely more pleasing in person. This is thanks to exacting strokes and decisive character lines, but those can also make the vehicle appear more slouchy than slender. The fact remains that the LC 500 is indeed low and wide, appearing snug in average-sized parking spaces found at the local strip mall, but against the rolling green hills of Kohala on the island’s north side, this grand touring coupe is a striking slice of sheet metal … and a loud one.

Make some surround sound

The 5.0-liter V8 powering the LC 500 is based on the engine found in Lexus’s GS F and RC F performance models. With an output of 471 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, the coupe reaches 60 mph in 4.4 seconds. A 3.5-liter V6 outfits the LC 500h hybrid model, which itself features a newly developed multi-stage hybrid system. Total system power is 354 horsepower with a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.

Revving the V8 was a nice ice breaker amid the silent symphony of ancient lava flows

Going back to how it sounds, with OEMs increasingly opting for fewer cylinders and turbocharging in the name of efficiency, the growl of a V8 is an aural awakening. My oh my, does the LC 500 grunt and moan for your ecstatic ears. The V6 that powers the hybrid is sufficient in terms of power and for doing what hybrids do best, which is sip gas, albeit quietly. You certainly won’t blow any tropical birds’ ear drums in wide open throttle with the LC 500h, but revving the V8 was a nice ice breaker amid the silent symphony of ancient lava flows. Downshifts also created a welcome backfire note that had road workers handing out shakas like they were going out of style.

An active exhaust is standard along with a special resonance tube connecting the intake to the firewall. You can also adjust the exhaust sound level via the drive mode select system, which offers variations of Eco, Normal, Comfort, and Sport. Admittedly, I stuck with Sport S+, at least when I remembered to make the adjustment. The drive mode reverts to Normal whenever the engine is turned off, which I found annoying.

Seated on an all-new Lexus platform called GA-L (Global Architecture-Luxury), the LC 500 was solid but not stiff. The new underpinnings will be the foundation for the all-new LS sedan and all future front-engine, rear-wheel-drive models. With a 54:46 weight distribution for gasoline-powered models and 52:48 for hybrids, the GT coupe handled itself well overall. Also, the braking system was plenty potent when diving a tad too quickly into valley curves. Those big brakes are needed to stop the 4,280-pound mass (4,435 lbs. for the hybrid) supported by 20- or 21-inch wheel-and-tire packages.

Beverly Braga/Digital Trends

The LC 500 also debuts the first-ever 10-speed transmission found in a luxury car. Shifts were noticeably smooth, even in manual mode. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to all 10 speeds because as big as the Big Island is compared to the seven other main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, it’s just not big enough. Still, I didn’t need much pavement to think the hybrid lacked a noticeable oomph compared to its brawnier brother.

On the other hand, the LC 500h features a four-speed transmission coupled with a CVT to mimic a 10-speed. The two gearsets alter output in four stages to reach the 10 speeds, whether in manual or automatic modes. While the green-light-means-go acceleration is not something to write home about, the LC 500h is the perfect vehicle for no-worry-no-hurry city cruising. Its estimated EPA mpg rating is 26 city, 35 highway and 30 combined. By comparison, the punchy V8 will net you 16 city, 26 highway and 19 combined mpg.

Comfy and cozy

The fit and finish of the cabin is Lexus luxurious but not so mind blowing or aggressive as to match the vehicle’s exterior. “Bespoke” is a buzzword these days, but the LC 500 feels just that. The leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel was a perfect fit with paddle shifters comfortably positioned. Ergonomically, everything was easy to reach and featured high-quality touch points. The available two-tone color scheme also is pleasant and the interior certainly feels premium, but it doesn’t seem as high-end as it could be. And it’s somewhat cozy, just shy of feeling like a fitted t-shirt out of the dryer.

The seats were comfortable but not overstuffed-couch plush. And while the optional Alcantara Sport seats offer adequate support and grip during enthusiastic driving, the LC 500 might feel too form-fitting for those of wider girth. Also, a 10-way power driver’s seat is expected, but having only two adjustments for lumbar and no additional accommodations made for thigh support was a bummer. We expected a little more from a vehicle that starts at $92,000 before options ($96,510 for the hybrid).

The design is clean but, frustratingly, the gray center console buttons’ labels wash out in direct light. And because the 808 State receives no shortage of sunshine, I did push the wrong button on more than one occasion. But the 10.3-inch MID is well packaged and gives you access to the standard fare of music, maps, and miscellaneous. A new Remote Touch Interface touchpad is located below the buttons you can’t read and does its best to offer a tactile feel by pulsing in conjunction to when the on-screen cursor hovers over a command. It’s a bit clumsy and takes some getting used to, but isn’t a deal breaker. After all, humans have been programmed to push buttons, not have buttons push us.

The biggest gripe has to be the small back seat, which exists to either lower insurance premiums or because the mythical Menehune (read: Hawaiian leprechaun) is experiencing a population boon. If you think the front seats are compact, the back bench is claustrophobic.

Conclusion

On sale in May, anticipate the Lexus LC 500 to be cross-shopped with a variety of German competitors, such as the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class roadster, BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe and Porsche 911 GTS. With its eight cylinders, two doors, four seats, and rear-wheel-drive composure, the LC 500 doesn’t fit into a specific group. This is all the better for the Lexus brand to further break out of its boring shell, however. And while the LC 500h is fine for a sporty hybrid, it’s the V8-powered, gasoline-drinking LC 500 that is the real winner. With an estimated 80 percent of sales to be outfitted with the rumbling engine, Lexus is sure to be turning heads again for fun reasons. Mahalo for that.

Highs

  • Unmistakable design
  • New, quick-shifting 10-speed transmission
  • V8 deliciousness

Lows

  • Heavy on pounds
  • Light on features
  • Hybrid not as engaging