Of all the things you don’t want to hear while on an Alpine road trip, “there’s been a land slide” is surely right up there. It turned out a cliff edge had dumped a load of rocks all over the Julian Pass up ahead of us, just a few miles from the lunch stop on the second day of a road trip in the new Lexus LC.
It threw a massive spanner in the proverbial works, and pretty soon, we found ourselves in a tiny car park crammed full of similarly stranded LCs. That’s when we got the bad news: plan B involved heading straight to the Milan Malpensa airport, eschewing the mountain pass shenanigans for a motorway-heavy run into northern Italy. Damn.
Thankfully, we had a little taster of twistiness earlier in the day, where the LC 500 revealed itself to be a far better driver’s car than I’d been expecting. Lexus went to great lengths to hammer home that the stupidly striking coupe is “absolutely not” a sports car during our trip, but for something that’s not supposed to be a sports car, it’s, umm, pretty good at being a sports car.
The near two-tonne brute can’t entirely disguise its weight nor size, but it’s pretty bloody handy. The steering has a nice weight to it, and does give some degree of feedback. It’s rather lovely, on the whole, as is the rest of the package. It’s stable, secure and pointy rather than boisterous and frenetic, but has a knack for making you feel warm, fuzzy and satisfied inside when you successfully nail a set of bends.
Lexus has thought rather hard about how to make this a capable, satisfying car to drive. An obsessive approach was taken to make sure the driver is slap bang in the middle of the car, and the engine has been pushed back behind the front axle to give a front-mid-engined layout. The body structure is also mega stiff: it has the best torsional rigidity of any car Lexus has ever made, and yes - that includes the LFA. It’s been done by using a strategic mix of high-tensile steel and carbonfibre reinforced plastic, as well as welding done using frickin’ laser beams, and box structures used in place of welded plates at certain points.
Away from wavy bits of tarmac and the chance for its tech-fest, ultra-stiff body to shine, though, this big chunk of Lexus is still massively loveable. Why? Because it made what should have been a boring amble down to the airport an utter riot. Every slip road. Every blast away from a toll booth. Every tunnel. Each provided a chance to stamp on the throttle and unleash the throaty howl of a naturally-aspirated, 471bhp V8.
Yep, the LC 500 is the last of a dying breed. It’s one of only a handful of cars I can think of still for sale in the UK that packs an atmospheric eight-banger, and it makes the car. As someone who spends a lot of time in modern, turbocharged performance cars, there’s a real joy to going back to something sans forced induction: the noise, the snappy throttle response, the feeling of hitting a high-RPM power band: it’s all glorious. Not to mention something which can be enjoyed however interesting or indeed uninteresting the road you’re on.
It also sounds incredible. Sure, as a cross-plane V8 unburdened by turbochargers it probably should do, but it isn’t disappointingly muted like it is in the RC F and GS F. From the outside it no longer disappears into the wind within a few seconds of the car passing you by, and it makes a filthier noise on the inside too, thanks to special ducts that lead from the engine to a pair of resonators in the bulkhead. It sounds almost as good as a Maserati Gran Turismo, and that’s just about the highest praise possible for a V8.
The V8 is hooked up to a 10-speed auto, which sounds like far too many ratios, but the new transmission is a big step up from Lexus’ clunky eight-speed. It’s doesn’t have the immediacy of a dual-clutcher, but it’s an enjoyable box of cogs to use, and I like the way Lexus has deliberately kept second, third and fourth the same length, to give you a nice rhythmical feel when charging through the ratios.
The LC is just as impressive when you drop the aggression. It rides well, is eerily quiet when the V8 pipes down, and has some of the most comfortable seats my buttocks have ever called home.
I could wax lyrical about the loveable V8 model all day, but there’s an elephant in the room that must be addressed. A V6 hybrid elephant.
I’m talking about the LC 500’s brother, the LC 500h, which is a car of completely different character. The day before the rock slide of doom was set aside for sampling the hybrid LC and the hybrid LC only, and it wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as the V8. At no point did it make me smile. At no point did it encourage me to drive faster and make more noise.
It’s fantastically clever, of course. It has a CVT gearbox, but with the addition of a four-speed automatic gearbox module. The result is 10 ‘simulated’ gears in Sport and Sport+ mode, intended to counter the much-maligned ‘rubber band’ feel of conventional CVTs.
In manual mode it does - to an extent - work, but in drive you still get the engine speed rising and falling in weird and unpredictable ways while the transmission seems to be figuring out exactly what it wants to do.
It doesn’t have the kind of immediacy you want from an electrically-boosted performance car, and to cap it all off, the 3.5-litre V6 makes a thoroughly disappointing din, almost like it’s sad to be an engine. It’s probably the weakest-sounding V6 I’ve ever heard.
It’s a shame as on paper at least, it the 500h sounds like an appealing prospect. It packs 354bhp, does 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds - just a few tenths off the V8 - and should return a mid-40s MPG figure, depending on how you drive.
There are things that are wrong with both cars, of course. The 197 litre boot is pretty pitiful for what’s supposed to be a GT car, and that figure shrinks further to 172 litres if you get the hybrid.
It also has a track pad-style device for using the infotainment system, and while it’s better than the wayward joystick thing found in other cars from Lexus, it’s still fiddly - it’s not something I’d feel particularly comfortable using on the road. And finally, if you’re tall, don’t even think about sitting in the back, unless you have a particularly flexible neck.
The thing is though, the foibles become much less noticeable in the heroic V8 version. The V6 is only really recommendable to those who want a pretty coupe to mosey about in at lower speeds while reaping the company car tax and economy benefits. If you want to enjoy the drive, it has to be the 5.0-litre.
It marries old-school V8 thrust to a modern, advanced chassis, looks like nothing else on the road, and has the ability to make any journey exciting. There are plenty of more conventional GT car choices out there, but this angular, shouty coupe makes them all look boring. Lexus has its fast car mojo back, folks…