Performance art

Talking about the Lexus LC 500.


WORDS BRIAN M. AFUANG

Intersect by Lexus sits on a quiet corner of Tokyo’s Aoyama district. Lexus’s first boutique store is a modestly sized cube structure wrapped in intricate latticework and glass. It’s easy to walk past it, or notice it from across the narrow—well, we’re talking of Tokyo—two-lane street as it competes for attention with the storefronts of a number of global luxury brands. But if discovered (a discreet sign atop a black stonework doorway announces its existence), one enters a place of high style and hipness.

Lexus’s paean to pulchritude and pricey coffee—Norwegian coffee bar chain Fuglen “curates” the caffeine served at the ground-floor space shared with a “garage,” which can be converted into an exhibition room—Intersect by Lexus pitches the brand’s “The Pursuit of Perfection” mantra via luxury and design. The boutique in Aoyama was followed by another in Dubai while a third, at the time of this writing, is set to open in New York City’s meatpacking district.

The Tokyo place is detailed with monochromatic ceramic tiles and wood paneling and metal surfaces. Artsy books and framed artsy pictures appear randomly arrayed, but these are likely as meticulously curated as the coffee supposedly is. The designer apparel and other items sold at the shop—not necessarily branded or even co-branded with Lexus—swank about in high style. On the wall by the stairway stands an all-white, glass-encased bas relief sculpture fashioned out of various car parts—chances are the most tasteful bit of automotive-theme art there is. Simply, every square inch of Intersect by Lexus seems it has been lavished with thought.

It is easy to say the same about the LC 500, Lexus’s new grand touring coupe.

The car that debuted at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit arrived in US showrooms earlier this year, and at Lexus Manila in August (priced locally at a little over Php9 million). It started out life as the Lexus LF-LC concept model. But unlike some concepts that are clearly a few tweaks and a license plate away from becoming a production model, the LF-LC was more of a design exercise, an apparent flight of whimsy, with little to nil chance of ever turning a wheel on its own. From 2012, when Lexus showed the LF-LC to the world (also at the Detroit gig), the car provoked audiences with styling marked by strakes and slashes, complex contours and sharp creases, blinding jewelry and completely illogical, ornate details. It challenged consumers’ perception of Lexus, and—as subsequently proven—pointed the direction Lexus models’ styling would take. “No more boring cars,” Toyota chief Akio Toyoda declared earlier this year, referring to Toyota’s and the automaker’s premium brand Lexus’s produce. But, looking at the LF-LC, it isn’t hard to believe the brief was sent to the company’s studios years ago.

Equally bold is that the LF-LC had morphed into the LC 500 with little styling changes. It also turns a wheel quite excellently now.

Platform for perfection

Lexus credits a new platform for this (the platform itself is a product of a “new development process,” according to corporate prose), which the LC 500 shares with the freshly released LS—Lexus’s flagship sedan. But while the LC 500 is explicitly billed and correspondingly proportioned as a comfortable grand tourer instead of a supercar in the manner the brand’s former halo model—the LFA—was, the car still needed to attain a certain degree of athleticism to go on top of its capacity to reel in the miles in comfort (not to mention pack some serious sybaritic stuff) for it to earn its place alongside its snooty German ilk. The LC 500, as a grand touring coupe, or GT, cannot only be luxurious but has to be sporty as well.

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The LC 500’s driver-centric cockpit features magnesium paddle shifters and LFA-inspired digital performance gauges.

A good start in this pursuit is the platform’s inherently low center of gravity and its rigidity—the LC 500’s structure is reckoned to be stiffer than that which propped the hyper-performing LFA. The former ensures the car remains planted and balanced, the latter provides a sturdy base that allows for a wide range of suspension tuning, as well as aid in keeping all unwanted noise, vibration and harshness from entering the cabin. The way Lexus did all this was by mixing high-strength steels, aluminum and carbon fiber bits to build the platform, then allocated the mounting points of heavy components lower and toward the center of the car.

The suspension pieces that bolt to the frame are as finicky—necessary in the LC 500’s intent to handle twisty roads while remaining comfortable. Lexus turned to aluminum in fashioning the various control arms, and opted for a set-up that negates the numb response with which most electrically boosted steering units are afflicted. The LC 500’s chief engineer noted his team spent “triple the time” tweaking the car’s steering, which should be quick, precise and “natural,” while at the same time providing drivers a “feel” for the road. Computer wizardry also does its part here; the Lexus Dynamic Handling system mandates the electric boost to work with the variable gear ratio steering and the active rear steering so the LC 500 can switch directions as well as a proper sports car could. Staggered-width footwear, which comes in either 20-inch or 21-inch combo (tires are run-flat), is also a key component in this package.

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Placed aft of the front wheels—improving the distribution of weight between one end of the LC 500 to the other—is a 5.0-liter V8.

Exploiting the balance built into the platform is a potent power plant. Placed aft of the front wheels—improving the distribution of weight between one end of the car to the other—is a 5.0-liter V8 that eschews the current trend on small, turbocharged engines. Employed in other high-performance Lexus models, this naturally aspirated, direct-injection, 32-valve eight-pot has turned brawnier in the LC 500 as it churns out 471 horsepower and 539 Newton-meter of torque. Like the platform, the engine benefits from numerous lightweight bits like forged connecting rods and titanium valves, which allow for higher revs. And because the engine does not rely on a turbocharger, its grunt is better spread throughout the rev range.

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This naturally aspirated, direct-injection, 32-valve eight-pot allows the LC 500 to churn out 471 horsepower and 539 Newton-meter of torque.

Boosting this capability is an automatic transmission that boasts 10 forward gears—at least a couple more than what is usual for high-end cars. The added ratios let the engine spin at a speed that’s ideal for any situation and also make sure a lower gear or two can instantly be summoned—by tugging at paddle shifters, if desired—to send more power to the rear wheels.

Performance driven

All this tech talk begins to make sense from behind the wheel of the LC 500. When left in Normal drive setting, the car behaves like a luxury cruiser, relaxed in rowing through the gears, silken in responding to throttle, brake and steering inputs, and indulgent in the way it rolls over nasty road surfaces. Actually, the car can feel like its LS sibling if it were not for the muted burble of its V8 and the ever-present sense of copious power straining at the leash. In this drive mode, the LC 500 shines as a genuine GT.

Now opt for the Eco setting and the car suddenly feels it was given a shot of Novocaine—the throttle pedal starts to need a couple more centimeters of travel to respond, and the steering turns all sluggish. Saving the planet—if not being an utter bore—is the sole goal of this setting.

But switch to the polar opposite Sport S+ mode and everything becomes frenzied. The transmission bangs in the next gear, the steering quickens and weights up, the suspension stiffens like it had just swallowed a handful of blue pills. Flick the wheel and the car alters paths sans the slightest lean on either side. From a dead stop, floor the go pedal and the LC 500 takes off as if it were a car half its heft (despite going on a diet, the car’s appointments have kept it on the portly side). All right, the acceleration may not be brutal, but it’s very persistent in its objective of hurtling the LC 500 down the road. Plus, the act is scored by a V8 soundtrack that’s at once raspy and resonant, as much a product of mechanical movements as it is of trick acoustic engineering (Sport S+ mode opens up taps meant to silence the engine when it’s in Eco or Normal setting).

Now hit the anchors and six-piston calipers in front, and four-piston ones in the rear, grab huge discs as they put up a heroic effort to get around the car’s mass and make the LC 500 come to a stop in the shortest distance allowed by physics. And, like when it’s cornering, the car hauls itself down to a standstill with the least body movement, a result of both the platform’s stiffness and the PhD-level electromechanical components governing over the suspension system.

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You can opt for a lightweight carbon fiber roof that lowers the LC 500’s center of gravity while providing rigidity equal to that of steel.

Posh package

The LC 500’s driving prowess is matched by posh. As Lexus literature puts it, the cabin of a GT “must strike a balance between function and comfort, sporting intent and luxury.” And so in the LC 500 this place is a leather-swathed, Alcantara-lined, metal trim-lavished office from where the act of driving is to be indulged, rather than merely something to get over and done with—like Sunday mass.

One sits low in this car, a deliberate move as such perch allows the driver to better get a feel of what this GT is up to. But unlike in other sports car cabins from where one could acquire claustrophobia, in the LC 500 the low instrument panel, hood and slim A pillars liaise to guarantee a good view out. Plus, the dashboard’s shelf-like design (whose horizontal lines flow into the door panels’ décor) creates an illusion of airiness not even the high center console can spoil. The seats, meanwhile, are heavily bolstered to keep those lucky enough to land in this Lexus securely in place, and adjust in multiple ways to fit a variety of body cuts.

It is one tech-laden cabin, too. The gauges may read out analog info but these are actually a digital TFT screen that would even change color schemes and graphics to identify which drive mode the car is set to. Other information can also be summoned by flipping through several “pages” on the screen. The multimedia unit, besides providing readouts for sundry controls and navigation, pumps out tunes through a 13-speaker Mark Levinson audio system. This is a truly nice place in which to spend an inordinately long time. 

The sheet metal that drapes over all these goodies isn’t half-bad. Despite its obvious nod to high style, a number of elements that mark the LC 500’s body are functional. Surface contouring directs airflow into various holes, cooling mechanical parts and aiding in keeping the car stable at speed. An active rear spoiler automatically rises at speeds above 80kph. The entire underside of the body is nearly flat so it won’t disturb the passing air. Even the tailpipes are angled a certain way so these may clean up the car’s wake. Obviously, touting a concept model for five years gave Lexus the chance to iron out kinks.

Fact is, the transition from the LF-LC concept to the LC 500 was limited to deleting illusory details (like “air vents” that stream down from the headlamps and tail lights) while polishing up elements to a higher level—the cluster of round projector lights in front gave way to a trio of more sophisticatedly shaped LEDs, and the trim surrounding Lexus’s signature Spindle grille has become even more rakish, for example. But the planted stance, ample scale and classically GT long hood/short deck proportion—the visual language, in short—have been retained in the car’s move from fantasy to reality. On the road, there is no question this is an imposing car over which good design rules.

It’s safe to say that, unlike Tokyo’s Intersect by Lexus boutique, the LC 500 is difficult to miss.