The wildly styled and incredibly complicated Lexus LC500h is the star of our driving week | First test drive review
<i>Early next year Lexus India will introduce the LC500h hybrid luxury coupe to take on the likes of the Mercedes-AMG S63Coupe, upcoming 8 Series and even the Porsche 911</i>
Gone are the days when Japanese cars were boring, and championing the transformation is Lexus with their extravagant designs and focus on driving dynamics. All of this is driven from the top, by Toyota boss Akio Toyoda himself, who is Lexus’ chief branding officer and master driver — and this is the ultimate manifestation of the #NoBoringCars mantra, the LC500h. LC stands for Luxury Coupe and the LC500h goes up against sportcars like the Porsche 911 and Aston Martin DB11 while its pricing will put it on par with Grand Tourers like the Mercedes-AMG S63 Coupe and BMW 8 Series. And when it comes to India early next year, priced in the region of 1.8 crore rupees, it will be offered with a segment-first hybrid powertrain mated to an insanely complicated 10-speed gearbox. But of course the immediate highlight remains the exuberant styling that wouldn’t be far fetched to describe as a work of art.
Lexus LC500h looks like a concept car!
To be honest I think Lexus design is a bit extreme, especially its cheese-grater grille, but there’s no denying this LC500h is ridiculously stunning. You shamelessly ogle at it, tripping over the delicious details that crawl all over the car. The front wings swoop incredibly low over the wheels, so much so that to accommodate the suspension top mounts they had to be angled inwards. The triple LED headlamps are wonderfully compact. The tail lamps spell excess in three dimensions. The door handles sit flush with the sculpted bodywork. And the spindle grille, where no two apertures are of the same size, must have taken thousands of hours to design. In India the LC500h will only be available in the Sport trim which gets concept car-like 20-inch wheels, a carbon roof and deployable rear spoiler, all of which add to the drama, to the sense that this is a very, very expensive car. Which is a good thing because you won’t get much change from two crore rupees when it arrives in India early next year.
Step inside and there’s that similar sense of a very expensive and very well put together car but the detailing is a mixed bag. The gorgeous aluminium door handles seemingly float against an Alcantara backdrop but then the indicator stalk looks and sounds like a regular Toyota. The central rev counter slides sideways to reveal an additional dial for g-forces, the trip computer or which among the ten gears you’re in, but then there’s that infuriating touch pad for the infotainment. The seats are incredibly comfortable but getting even kids to sit at the back is going to be an impossible ask. The Mark Levinson sound system is fabulous but what’s more stunning is the silence.
Starts off in full electric mode
Press the start button and there’s a synchronised light and sound show on all the displays but the drivetrain silence is overwhelming. It starts off on pure electric power, and quite smartly at that. There’s also an EV mode button that will use only electric power as long as reserves are there, though I should hasten to add that this is not a plug-in hybrid and you won’t get much full-electric range. Depress the throttle more than half way and the V6 motor kicks in without a shudder; the refinement is impeccable. Floor it and the gearbox goes down half a dozen cogs and the LC gets a proper move on.
10-speed CVT-cum-torque converter gearbox
Over dinner Yasushi Muto, chief engineer of Lexus International explains the working of the 10-speed gearbox. The engine, as with all Toyota hybrid powerplants, runs on the more efficient Atkinson cycle and in the Toyota universe all these engines are mated to a CVT gearbox to enable the pure EV mode — just like the Camry hybrid or the ES. But a CVT doesn’t have the breadth of a regular torque converter for a sporty application, nor can the rubber-band effect be banished altogether. And so the torque output from the 3-speed CVT is then multiplied by an additional four-speed torque converter (automatic), with the combination of the two delivering one of the ten ratios.
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It’ll be easier to explain this backwards. The first three gears on the torque converter are split into a further three reductions via the (3-speed) CVT. This means you get 1st, 2nd and 3rd via the CVT, then the torque converter shifts to second and you get 4th, 5th, 6th on the gear position indicator, then the torque converter shifts to third and you get 7th, 8th and 9th. The fourth gear on the torque converter doesn’t have any further reduction via the CVT and this is the tall overdrive gear that corresponds to 10 on the gear position indicator.
While we are at it let me quickly touch upon the Atkinson cycle too. Superior in terms of efficiency compared to the Otto cycle it delays the closing of the intake valves during the compression stroke to change the compression ratio for a cleaner burn. But this has clear a performance downside. It is here that the electric assistance from the hybrid system kicks in to torque-fill the holes in the powerband and deliver the seamless performance. And with that I apologise for and end the long winded lecture.
Once you understand how gloriously complicated all this is, the refinement, the seamlessness of the engine kicking in, the switch to full EV mode, the smoothness of the gearshift, all of it is even more astonishing. For instance there’s no difference is the speed or smoothness whether the shifting is via the CVT or torque converter.
Driving the LC500h
Now I did not know how this gearbox worked when I first drove the Lexus LC500h but when I got aggressive with the throttle it did feel a bit like a CVT. Not in terms of shift speeds, that’s very quick at 0.2 seconds, but there is a faint whiff of a CVT to the shifting action especially in the lower gears. And it definitely feels like there are one too many gears. You always find yourself with one, two, three more gears in hand whether going up or down the ’box. And first is so low it defaults to second while starting off.
In any case we were driving round the tight roads of Shika island outside of Fukuoka in Japan and we didn’t have the space to get up to any crazy speeds. Definitely evident though was the chassis brilliance. It feels like, at least in my mind’s eye, what all Japanese cars should— light on its feet, agile, responsive and revvy. Colleague who have driven the V8-engined LC500 say the hybrid-V6 is no patch on the bigger nat-asp motor but, in all fairness, the LC500h feels plenty quick. The V6 engine makes 299bhp and 348Nm of torque which is boosted to 354bhp with electrical assistance (Lexus and Toyota don’t quote overall torque figures). It’s enough to propel the LC500h to 100kmph in five seconds flat, which is actually quicker than the V8. And the chassis makes it plenty involving too without the edginess of the V8.
Verdict on the LC500h
Rivals like the Mercedes-AMG S63 Coupe feel far more powerful, are far more dramatic and when you step on it can bonfire the rear tyres with absurd ease. The LC500h though is cut from a different cloth. It is the Japanese knife to the German hammer, with the hybrid powertrain playing to the green lobby as well. At this price don’t expect to see too many of them on the road. Do expect a crick in the neck as your head spins round on reflex if you do catch one passing by.