Hybrids are slow? Forget it - here's a hybrid tuned for performance as much as economy, and one of the year's best-looking new cars. We test drive the Lexus LC 500h coupe.
In the metal
I think the only appropriate reaction is 'wow.' Lexus first showed off the LF-CH concept coupe at the Detroit Auto Show in 2012 and here, with only minimal exterior changes, is the finished item, the new LC coupe. Lexus' styling language has not found favour in all corners, and it's probably fair to say that it's more dramatic than it is pretty, and a touch over-complicated in places, but it's most certainly, unquestioningly stunning at which to look - low, and very lean, with hints of Ferrari here, of Alfa Romeo there, but with an overall style that is now distinct to Lexus with one or two lifts from the insanely expensive LFA supercar. Well, that's only fair - they are built in the same factory.
Inside, if anything, it's ever better. Lexus has long been renowned, rightly, for its quality and comfort levels, and to that you can now add style. Buyers can choose from some pretty eye-watering colour schemes (blue and yellow ochre anyone?), but the way the dash sweeps up and around you, the way the metal interior door handles emerge, frameless, from the doors, the way the high-tech instruments look and move about, the comfort of the seats, the sheer milled-from-billet solidity really do take some beating. There are few bum notes - really only the control graphics for the big 10.3-inch central infotainment screen, which have improved from Lexus of old, but which still look a touch cheesy. Space in the back, by the standards of pricey 2+2 coupes, is actually not bad, but the boot, at just 172 litres, is tiny.
Beneath the skin, the LC is all new, the first car to use Lexus' new GA-L platform that will underpin the new LS luxury saloon later in the year, and which will form the basis for much of the Lexus range in the future. It's low (the centre of gravity is about the same height as your hip when you're sitting in that oh-so-comfortable bucket seat), very stiff (the stiffest chassis in torsion ever made by the company, says Lexus), but surprisingly not very light. Thanks to the weight of the hybrid system, and in spite of using carbon fibre for the roof and inner doors, and aluminium for the bonnet, boot, and outer doors, the LC 500h tips the scales at just a shade under two tonnes.
That weight does include a pretty impressive technology manifest though. The 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine is familiar from the GS 450h and RX 450h, but the transmission is all new. Lexus has sought to eliminate the old 'rubber-band' feeling you get from a CVT transmission with a new design that it calls Multi-Stage Hybrid. That consists, in its simplest possible terms, of an electric CVT (two contra-rotating electric motors, not cones and rubber bands as in CVTs of yore) connected to a three-speed automatic transmission, with an overdrive. The idea is that the CVT bit multiplies each of the fixed ratios by three (giving, effectively, nine speeds) and the tenth 'ratio' is the overdrive.
All of that adds weight, so Lexus has countered that by fitting the LC with its first hybrid system based around a lithium-ion battery, as opposed to an older-tech nickel-hydride battery, as used by the current RX and GS ranges. The difference is that the battery, for the same power output, is around 20kg lighter and its power delivery is more aggressive, which is better for performance.
So, has Lexus managed to use all of that tech to deliver a true GT car, something that can be driven for enjoyment? Or is it just tech overkill with a pretty face? Well, it's mostly the former, actually, but there are a couple of wrinkles.
First off, it's bloody quick. The way the new eCVT hybrid transmission and lithium-ion battery combine with the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine makes for some seriously rapid acceleration. In fact, so quick is it that with a 5.0-second 0-100km/h run time, it's only 0.3 seconds behind its non-hybrid brother, the 477hp 5.0-litre V8 version. That's serious performance by anyone's standards, let alone a hybrid.
Tickle along at low speeds and the LC is wonderfully refined. The cabin's inherent comfort is tied to a (mostly) impressive ride quality and a lack of engine noise for some proper waft-ability. The electric boost from the hybrid system makes low-to-middling speeds effortless, and those who care about the environment will revel in the way the LC can coast on just electric power even at motorway speeds, and its relatively low 145g/km CO2 figure.
The only problem comes with the way the CVT makes the engine react when you're pressing on a bit. Now, older, simpler CVTs just let the engine moo and whine away at peak power, with no change in the sound, for as long as you want acceleration. The Multi-Stage system does reduce that, quite a lot, but it doesn't eliminate it entirely, and in Sport or Sport + modes, an extra valve opens between the engine and the cockpit to allow more V6 noise in. Nice when you want it, but it does become wearing when the engine is allowed to drone along, singing one continuous note, for too long. Pull the paddle shifters behind the wheel to try and get the transmission to give you another 'gear' and you'll only get it to do something about half the time.
It is, in fairness, night and day better than an old Prius or an early RX 400h, but it's still not totally in keeping with the character of a high-performance coupe - the soundtrack just needs more peaks and troughs and less of a steady hum - and damn the efficiency. Still, if that's the only price to pay for a stunning looking coupe that's genuinely fast and which has such low-impact emissions, then perhaps it's well worth it.
Certainly, the LC's handling and deportment would convince you that the transmission is worth acclimating to. It's not the last word in agility nor feedback, but it does have steering with near-perfect weighting and a totally linear relationship to the way the car moves. It feels as if it's been set up to be very predictable and safe, but with a healthy streak of precision and of smooth movements. You can certainly hustle it as hard as you like, and it will respond well, but perhaps it prefers a slightly more balanced series of inputs - keep it smooth, and the LC rewards with immense grip, lovely balance and no little fun. It's not going to give a Porsche 911 any sleepless nights, but it's an exceptionally well-sorted car. Possibly, the optional Lexus Dynamic Handling pack, which includes rear-wheel steering, a limited slip differential and a variable steering rack for the front wheels, would be sharper still, but it wasn't fitted to our test car.
The ride quality, as alluded to earlier, isn't perfect. Even on the ultra-smooth German and Swiss roads where we were testing the LC, there was a touch of occasional fidget, especially from the rear. Mind you, we were on the optional 22-inch wheels, and it's probably much less of an issue on the standard 20-inch items. Even so, this is a car better suited to big, broad roads and not bumpy little byways - a proper, long-haul GT.
What you get for your money
It's an expensive car, the LC, albeit one rather more affordable than many of its key rivals. Lexus asks €110,950 at minimum for the LC, although it will come absolutely rammed with equipment including a leather and Alcantara interior, active cruise control, lane keeping assist, autonomous emergency braking, the big infotainment display, LED cabin lighting and more. The only options are the Dynamic Handling Pack, a choice of standard or Sport models (the latter ditches the standard car's glass roof for a carbon fibre one, and has slightly more aggressive styling), a Mark Levinson stereo and a head-up display. In the UK, both the LC 500 and LC 500h are sold at exactly the same price, but Irish tax laws mean that the petrol-only model is considerably more expensive here.
It's not cheap, and that eCVT gearbox still takes some adjusting to, but Lexus has created something truly impressive, here: a car that looks this good and drives this well, yet would garner a smile from Al Gore for its eco-credentials, and a thumbs-up from Bill Gates for its high-tech. Add to that quality that makes most other expensive cars look like bangers and you've got a fascinating combo - a luxury GT, with legislation-proof tech, that looks as good as a Ferrari and which (almost) drives as well as a Porsche.