Boring it is not. That was Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda’s mandate in creating its upscale Lexus brand’s new flagship coupe, the all-new 2018 Lexus LC 500.
Just before pulling the covers from the LC’s prototype at the Detroit Auto Show last year, Toyoda had rattled off comments he had previously heard about the brand. “Here’s a good one,” Toyoda, who is also Lexus’ chief branding officer, told the overflow crowd in January 2016. “‘My impression is that Lexus cars are well made but boring to drive.’ Here’s another: ‘Lexus should clearly define their brand.’ And finally: ‘Lexus is at a crossroads.’”
Toyoda’s success in bringing more emotional appeal to the staid brand was evident during a drive of the LC 500 – expected in dealerships in May – around the Big Island of Hawaii last week. Everywhere we stopped, locals and tourists alike crowded the car, asking about the sleek, $92,000 four-passenger coupe, a sign that Lexus officials attending the Kona, Hawaii, launch took as proof of their mission’s success.
“We didn’t want to make just a race car,” said Chief Designer Tadao Mori, referring to the $400,000 LFA supercar Lexus built from 2010 to 2012. The LC 500 is more ballerina than bodybuilder, Mori added, a grand touring coupe that blends “seduction and technology,” to appeal to the eye and is fun to drive even at slow speeds. (Most main roads on the Big Island don’t push 35 m.p.h.)
The LC 500 is powered by the same 471-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 engine underlying the brand’s high-performance RC F coupe and GS F sedan, but gets a wider stance, 21-inch run flat tires, and a significant interior upgrade, with nary a plastic surface in sight. The LC 500h, a hybrid version starting at $96,510, gets Toyota’s 3.5-liter V6 and delivers a combined system output of 354 horsepower. The coupe isn’t turbocharged, but it’s fast. Lexus says it can reach 60 mph from a standstill in 4.4 seconds. The hybrid takes slightly longer – 4.7 seconds.
“This is the lens through which we’d like everyone to see the future of Lexus,” said Brian Bolain, the brand’s manager of product marketing. Lexus intends for the LC 500, which supplants the $64,125 RC F performance-oriented coupe as the brand’s most aspirational car, to compete against the BMW 650i and Mercedes-Benz S550 coupe, helping position Lexus as a global luxury lifestyle brand.
The new model is the first to be built on Lexus Global Architecture, the brand’s platform for front engine, rear-wheel drive cars, including the forthcoming and redesigned 2018 LS flagship sedan. That means that more design elements from the LC 500 will eventually trickle down to the rest of the lineup, executives said.
Still, if sales of premium luxury coupes continue to decline in favor of premium crossovers and SUVs, the LC 500 is unlikely to be a strong seller for the brand. Coupes comprised 2.5% of total vehicle registrations in the U.S. for the first 11 months of 2016, compared with 3.3% in 2012, according to data from IHS Markit.
“Two-door coupes used to represent the ‘sporty’ niche, a fun-to-drive variant of a sedate sedan,” said Michael Harley, director of automotive insights at Kelley Blue Book. “Sport sedans, performance-tuned four-doors, pushed most coupes to extinction a decade ago with the exception of a few premium models that survived with lackluster sales.”
Lexus began developing the LC 500 five years ago after the LF-LC concept it debuted at the 2012 Los Angeles Automotive Show, a flashy 500-horsepower hybrid birthed as a design exercise, proved popular. Though Lexus had no plans to turn the concept into a production vehicle, executives began to explore the idea after receiving positive feedback. “That kind of comment gave us that energy,” said Koji Sato, the car’s chief engineer.