2018 Lexus LC500h Test Drive Review: Should Aston Martin Be Worried?

Test Drive

Lexus seems to have cracked the code and infiltrated the inner circle.

Ask a New Yorker in the middle of midtown rush hour about how they interpret the phrase “time is money” and chances are you’ll be brushed off with a rude look. Even in the city where money talks and sleep is cast into the “nobody got time fo’ that” heap, New Yorkers know that no amount of money can buy back time wasted on unimportant things like our questions. Money can, however, make the short time we have on this Earth a better one, and the Big Apple’s affinity with the LC500h that Lexus lent us is proof of that.

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Lucky boys as we are, Lexus decided to make our time better by loaning us an LC500h in New York while we roamed the 2018 New York Auto Show and then made sure there was another waiting for us in Arizona during a subsequent trip to the Grand Canyon State. The instant we drove Lexus’ new grand tourer—a crack at elevating Japan’s most successful high-end automaker into the upper echelons of luxury segments it's thus far avoided—onto New York pavement, pedestrians did us the due diligence of addressing the grand tourer’s most noteworthy feature, its gorgeous sheetmetal, by wielding camera phones and filter-free Brooklyn accents to laud the designers' work.

The effect the LC's body has on a street-bound audience does wonders to justify its six-figure sticker price. Yes, you read that right. You can thank $11,100 of optional doodads for helping our hybrid test car blow past its $96,510 base price and reach the $100k+ finish line. Included with our LC was a performance package that bathes the interior in alcantara accents, adds rear-wheel steering, an active rear spoiler, variable gear ratio steering, and then replaces the roof and door sills with carbon fiber. A 13-speaker Mark Levinson sound system and a convenience package that bundles driver aids like intuitive park assist, rear cross traffic alert, and blind spot monitoring all ballooned the price further.

Pushing our LC to its $108,605 price tag is a limited-slip differential, heads-up display, gorgeous 21-inch wheels, and the destination fee. We’d have to drive a stripped LC500h next to our loaded tester to know for sure, but our impression is that these features do little to enhance the experience over what a base version could provide. Lexus, it seems, has gotten it right. At its core, the LC uses wicked looks—the first time Lexus nailed proper aesthetics using a spindle grille in this writer’s eye—and an equally eye-catching interior to seduce a driver before they even get inside. Rather than posture with testosterone like a muscle car, the depressed front end hints at assertive class.

It's almost as if the LC could hang its nose in the air inside Buckingham Palace and polish off some Jaguars before the caviar is served. A low-slung roof and contoured midsection gives way to wide rear hips, hinting at the LC’s intentions while framing chrome 21-inch wheels that sit behind a functional air inlet cut into the rear quarter panels. These lead to a rear end that marks the LC as an unmistakably rapid car using a hint of homage to the Toyota Supra. Meanwhile taillamps, infused with infinity mirrors, do their best to mimic the glow of a jet’s afterburners. Whether in New York or Arizona, the effect is the same. Necks turn, assumptions about occupation commence, and while leaving Manhattan, one enchanted driver followed for miles to ask for a picture.

Less fashionable Arizona was hardly different. During one hot day, a Whole Foods parking lot patron proceeded to stand in the middle of the lot and stare at LC (with test driver inside) for an uncomfortable few minutes before realizing the sunburn wasn’t worth it. In the LC, abnormal events become normal, which is fitting for a car that wrestles with a drivetrain as unconventional as they come. In case the “Multistage Hybrid” badges on the rear quarter panel didn’t give it away, the LC500h has a longitudinally-mounted 3.5-liter V6 under the hood that pumps 295 horsepower into the drivetrain while two electric motors provide an additional 59 horsepower of thrust, bringing total output to 354 horsepower.

Just as you’d hope, that all gets routed to the rear wheels, but it’s how the LC accomplishes that task that boggles the mind. That’s because the LC500h gets two transmissions, a CVT like any hybrid in the Toyota/Lexus lineup, and a four-speed automatic gearbox attached to the CVT’s output. Behind the wheel, the most welcome effect of the dual transmission is the elimination of that annoying “rubber band” sensation hybrids get when accelerating as well as the welcoming feel of momentary pauses during a gear change. The dual transmission setup also has the added benefit of expanding the hybrid system’s range of operation, allowing it to feed electron-derived kinetic energy to the rear wheels at higher speeds.

In practice, the multistage system works well—we never noticed the droning revs that plague most hybrids—but it does have its kinks. Forgo the magnesium paddle shifters that mimic a 10-speed gearbox while in Sport or Sport + and the LC becomes confused with abrupt throttle changes, stumbling for gears as it sorts out how much torque the driver wants. These effects are rare and not too pronounced, especially since aggressive drive modes get enhanced by an aural amplification of the 3.5-liter V6 via the speakers. Along with variable steering, the Torsen limited-slip diff, and the immediacy of electric torque upon corner exit, the LC can play the role of speedy canyon road carver and do so convincingly.

Unfortunately, despite a hard bite from the comically large 15.7-inch front rotors and grip from 275mm-wide tires at the rear (the fronts only go 245 mm wide), the mass of this behemoth luxury grand tourer begins to come out from behind a camouflage of clever engineering as corner speeds become a priority. Lexus hides the LC's weight well, but engineers can only do so much with a car that features two powerplants, two transmissions, a slew of heavy insulation and leather, and accessories like rear axle steering. Put the LC500h on the scales and it weighs in at 4,435 pounds, as much as a fully-loaded Toyota Tacoma and enough to confirm that the carbon fiber is really only there for aesthetic value.

Not for a second, though, does it feel like that mass is traded for driver pleasure. Around town the LC feels as comfortable as a BMW 7 Series with added serenity. Outside noise hardly penetrates the cabin and the greenhouse strikes a perfect balance between privacy and good visibility while the hybrid drivetrain reduces the guilt associated with driving the 5.0-liter V8 alternative in rush hour traffic thanks to a 24 mpg average in New York and 29 mpg average in Arizona. Our only complaint about the LC’s proficiency around town are the brakes, which have been plagued with the hybrid/EV disease of abruptly lurching when the disc brakes take over for the regenerative braking system. Good thing the LC’s looks can make one forgive murder.

Our two testers shared a lovely shade of Nightfall Mica yet came with different interior colors, but it was the Toasted Carmel leather cabin of our Arizona coupe that won our hearts over the black color scheme of our New York LC. The youngest members of Lexus' family have been benchmarks for interior quality, and that sentiment isn’t lost in this grand tourer. Leather-wrapped touchpoints and swaths of Alcantara form oceans dotted by islands of solid metal buttons and contrast stitching. Except for missing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, the LC has enough tech toys to get an Amish convert back up to speed on the spoils of modern living.

Aside from the infuriatingly difficult touchpad that's used to control the infotainment system, every conceivable control is intuitively placed at a driver’s fingertips including a drive selector knob that sits to the right of the gauge cluster paying homage to the Lexus LFA. It contains six modes—Eco, Comfort, Normal, Custom, Sport S, and Sport S +. Each setting varies throttle response, damper settings, steering ratio, the amount of engine noise coming into the cabin, and of course, tinkers with both transmissions’ settings so that fuel-sipping modes make more use of the CVT and sporting modes rely on the four-speed automatic for emotional effect.

Like some of its pricier competitors—think the Aston Martin DB11 or Mercedes-AMG GT, the Lexus LC500h reserves the right to show a patch of pavement that its stealth fighter looks are more than just sex appeal by shutting off all nannies—traction control and variable steering ratio included. Do that in sport mode and the low down electric torque breaks traction as if the set of Bridgestones had turned to butter. States of elation are only reached once a driver realizes this is all happening in a hybrid without a Ferrari, McLaren, or Porsche badge. The ability for Lexus to place fate in the hands of the driver is a small touch but it reinforces the notion that even as the segment’s “budget” pick, the LC does absolutely no posturing.

Whether it sells well or not, the LC is proof that Lexus is (and has been) in a new era. Criticize the spindle grilles on lesser Lexus’ (Lexi?) all you want but Toyota’s luxury offshoot wants you to know it's now in the big leagues and handling itself nicely. And if it's latest entrant just so happens to be one of the first hybrid grand tourers in its segment and manages to uphold its Lexus quality well into six-figure odometer readings, then maybe that six-figure price tag doesn’t look so bad.

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