Identity is a funny thing for car companies, especially in the luxury business. Do it right and you can coast on it for years (BMW), but lose your way and you'll wander through the wilderness for an equally long period, shedding buyers along the way (Lincoln).
The all-new 2018 Lexus LC coupe makes a compelling argument for automakers to do it their own way rather than simply trace the familiar lines on a map already worn down by the competition. It also proves that sometimes ignoring the prevailing winds makes for a more interesting journey for driver and brand alike.
Fortune favours the bold
For the Lexus LC—the company's first flagship coupe since the limited-edition LFA supercar—it starts with sheet metal that is so distractingly gorgeous, and so true to the LF-LC concept that sparked its production, that it serves to overshadow even the gorgeous natural beauty of Hawaii's Big Island, where I was invited to drive the 2-door grand tourer for the first time.
Set amongst the stark, black magma fields frozen in time against the backdrop of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano, the LC 500 illustrates—along with its hybrid twin, the LC 500h—what becomes possible when designers are free to move away from the “one sausage, fifteen different lengths” philosophy that has guided premium German styling for the past 15 years. It also doesn't hurt that the LC rides on a fresh new platform, one that will be co-opted later in the year by the next-generation LS sedan.
It was also smart of Lexus to make sure that badging (on the rear quarter) serves as the only real tell when differentiating between the LC 500h and the V8-powered LC 500, with each featuring the same exhaust tips, wheel designs, and even factory options. The latter list includes a carbon fibre roof panel in place of the car's sunroof, a wing that automatically deploys above certain speeds, and performance-enhancing tweaks to the car's handling that fall under various “Sport” headings.
Inside, it's a similar story, with the same decadent leather-and-Alcantara trimmings only marred by a surprisingly plain gauge cluster (with a moveable tachometer, as found in members of the Lexus F family) and the use of the Remote Touch infotainment system's frustrating touchpad and jarringly plain LCD graphics.
Heavy metal thunder
With looks that could kill, it would be reasonable to expect the 2018 Lexus LC 500 (if not the hybrid) to pack enough firepower to blow the top off of Mauna Kea and get the lava flowing once more down to the hungry, lapping waves of the Pacific. Surprisingly, it turns out that the LC's secret weapon is the inspired decision by its engineering team to avoid engaging in the all-out war for turbocharged autobahn supremacy that has been waged between BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi for most of this decade. Instead of an overboosted lump, the LC 500 boasts a naturally aspirated 5.0L V8 rated at 471 horsepower and 398 lb-ft of torque, a motor that can be also found in similar tune under the hoods of the Lexus RC F coupe and GS F sedan.
Is that enough grunt to have a good time? Most definitely, as evidenced by the broad smile plastered across my face while accelerating up from the volcanic lowlands and into the Big Island's interior. Sure, the LC 500 is down on torque compared to almost every one of its competitors, but what it lacks in low-end explosiveness is more than made up for by the thrilling and unsweetened soundtrack of its large-displacement 8-cylinder engine and the way the car comes alive above 4,000 rpm—something its Teutonic cruise missile antagonists simply can't reproduce. Even the V6-equipped LC 500h sounds like it means it when you step on the throttle, while its electric motor assistance (354 total system horsepower) keeps this model within two tenths of the LC 500's 4.5-second surge from 0-100 km/h.
The rear wheels on the latter are driven by a 10-speed automatic transmission, which is a first for Lexus and a component that represents perhaps the only real flaw in the drivetrain with its propensity for stiff-legged shifts, particularly when using the steering wheel-mounted paddles. The LC 500h, which makes use of a unique CVT/4-speed tranny that splits itself into 10 discrete ratios of its own, avoids this unnecessary roughness while delivering surprisingly pleasing performance.
Smooth, not satanic
It's also clear from driving the 2018 Lexus LC 500 at speed through the twistier bits of Hawaii's admittedly unchallenging road network that the Japanese automaker was focused on delivering GT enjoyment over outright sports car responsiveness. The active suspension system is good at keeping the coupe flat through corners as well as absorbing the chatter of broken pavement when set to Comfort mode, while the availability of active rear steering adds novelty to the driving experience and reduces the driver's perception of its true mass. Still, at no point did I feel compelled to slide the LC 500's back end over the ragged edge of the car's limits, nor did I entertain the thought of adding it to my list of aspirational track toys.
All of the above is no faint praise for what is an exceptional achievement by Lexus. That the LC 500 exists at all in a world where large coupes have seen their numbers decimated by buyers more interested in fat, bloated luxury SUVs is a minor miracle—plus its close resemblance to the concept that inspired it is grounds for the canonization of the members of the Lexus design team. More importantly, however, giving the car its own distinct personality and leaving the rest of its rivals to squabble over who can spill the most gaudy ink on a spec sheet allows the Lexus LC to carve out its own uniquely satisfying niche in the rarefied realm of $100,000 automobiles.