For Akio Toyoda, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, the genesis of the Lexus LC 500 grand touring coupe came in August 2011, during the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. As he strolled the famous golf links where hundreds of classic cars from such storied automakers as Bugatti, Ferrari, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche dotted the perfectly manicured 18th green like precious jewels strewn on a billiards table, inspiration hit him. But what struck him wasn't anything he saw (although as a car buff, surely he was impressed with the jaw-dropping array of Ferrari 250 GTOs); no, the inspiration came from what he didn't see. Or rather couldn't even picture. Not. One. Lexus.
Lexus estimates a sub-4.5-second 0-60 blast for the LC. That seems conservative.
Then and there, Toyoda-san took the reins of his luxury brand. Lexus, just a couple decades old and a huge sales success in the U.S., needed a jolt. A revolution. A paradigm shift. It was time for Lexus to build cars as desirable and dynamic as they were reliable and quiet. Cars with equal parts sex appeal and spine-tingling performance—eye-catching to gaze upon and, just as important, eye-opening to drive. Luckily, the man needed to lead the charge was standing right next to him.
Koji Sato, chief engineer of the LC project, looked at the prototype cobbled from a GS sedan and smiled. He had just put it through its paces at Toyota's Higashi-Fuji Technical Center proving grounds and knew his team was onto something special. Eight months prior, he had been at Pebble Beach for the launch of the fourth-generation GS, a car for which he also served as chief engineer. But rather than celebrate the GS' debut, his mind had become overwhelmed with the spontaneous and monumental directive his boss had just handed him. And little did Sato know at the time, but the LC's platform would serve as the basis for Lexus' next generation of premium rear-wheel-drive products.
The Frankenstein GS had had its body cut and sewn—front tires pushed forward, engine lowered and moved aft of the front axle for a front-mid layout, battery relocated to the trunk for improved weight distribution, driver hip point shifted down and rearward for better feel and a lower center of gravity—but the powertrain specs and chassis tuning were left intact. Sato-san's objective was to discern whether the fundamentals of the aptly named Inertia Spec platform were alive and kicking or dead on arrival. "I realized after one turn we were heading in the right direction," Sato said. "The dynamics and feel were so improved from what we had known." The end goal now was to squeeze the Inertia Spec's fundamentals under a body that closely resembled the racy, low-slung LF-LC show car that had wowed attendees at the 2012 Detroit auto show three months earlier. It was that car that Akio Toyoda wanted to someday see gracing the greens at Pebble Beach.
After a stint in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he worked on the designs of the Avalon, Camry, and Tundra, Tadao Mori was assigned back to Toyota City, Japan, where he was given a new task: Shape the LC production car. If Mori-san were learning to swim designing the sedans and truck, he had just jumped into the deep end.
Working off the LF-LC concept, which was penned at Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach, California, Mori aimed to retain the overall taste, surface treatment, and stance of the show car, all while working closely with Sato's team to accommodate the engineering goals. The latter is especially noteworthy because it represents a fundamental shift in Lexus development. Before LC, the process of creating a new platform was a six-year undertaking in which design and engineering predominantly worked separately. For LC, the timeline got fast-tracked to four years, design and engineering coming together as a single team from the start. Less about two groups compromising, more about one striving for a common goal.
Although the production LC bears a strong resemblance to the concept, every surface is new and every dimension changed. The breadth of the show car's rear was deemed too wide for real-world application (6.6 inches wider than a 911 Carrera S), its roof too low to allow for the luxurious feel and space befitting a Lexus, and its hood and front fenders too close to the pavement for a suspension that needed to accommodate some semblance of wheel travel. So Mori stretched the overall length nearly 5 inches, trimmed the width 2.2, and raised the roof 3.1. And to make the 2+2 layout livable for adults, he lengthened the wheelbase 2.8 inches. All said and done, the LC 500 is larger in every dimension than a Mercedes SL550, but it's tidier bumper to bumper than a BMW 650i, narrower than a Jag F-Type coupe, and shorter in height than an RC F.
When asked how much of the show car was carried over, Mori smiles. "I believe 100 percent," he says, "but with 20 percent of originality added." That 20 percent refers to the reworked headlights with three super-small LED units, the revised cabin-to-wheel ratio, and the massaged surfacing and spindle grille. The feature he's most proud of? The profile scoop situated at the lower rear quarter panel. Because the scoop is located "inside the architecture," it required painstaking attention to maintain a pleasing design as well as extensive collaboration with engineering to ensure functional rear brake cooling and an uncompromised structure.
Want a sneak peek at the next-gen Lexus LS? Take another look at the LF-FC concept HERE.
The LC's interior is the nicest to date of any Lexus. Warmer than the LFA's, finer than the LS', more advanced than the GS F's. Interior designer Manabu Ochihata likes to think of it as a place of both driver focus and hospitality, and the small-diameter flat-bottom wheel with magnesium shift paddles mixed with acres of leather and Alcantara and real metal back up that view. The attention to detail is stunning. "Even the smallest switches took a lot of work," Mori says.
On game day, the Rose Bowl can house more than 95,000 people, its 20,000-plus parking spots packed as if cars were sardines. On this winter day, though, the stadium is silent and the parking spots empty, save for an autocross of orange cones and a camouflaged LC prototype wearing chopped LS bodywork. Our resident pro racer, Randy Pobst, is here, eager to shake down the mule and give Sato invaluable feedback.
The stage-two prototype represents the first trial of the Inertia Spec structure and the all-new Aisin 10-speed automatic, which sports a heat-treated aluminum gear train (for less weight) and the lightest torque converter ever in a Lexus automatic. Sato says the 10-speed weighs less than the eight-speed it replaces, and it can shift gears in as little as 0.23 second. The automatic's highest priority is shift speed, not smoothness.
"We are breaking many Lexus rules," Sato says, noting that some shift shock under wide-open throttle is not only acceptable but also desirable.
There will be three more prototype stages, so this mule and all that it encompasses are to be assessed with that in mind. The main purpose of the exercise, Sato says, is to validate body stiffness, which, by the way, has already been measured to match the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in torsional rigidity.
Pobst makes a few runs in the prototype and then returns to the group. "The prototype turns very well with minimal understeer," he says. "It was a little bit soft on transitions, leading to a tendency to oversteer on exit when going aggressively through a chicane. It needs a bit more damping for support and to slow the roll in the rear."
Notes jotted down, Sato thanks Pobst. The next time they'll meet will be at a proper racetrack with a proper car.
Right about three years after that momentous trip to Pebble Beach, Sato is back on the Monterey Peninsula, though on this visit the corkscrew he's about to sample has nothing to do with wine. The stage-three LC prototype sits in pit lane at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, doors swung open, a team of engineers doing their best impersonation of an ALMS pit crew, jumping in and out of the seats, scampering hastily around the car, and holding laptops and test gear. Sato assures Pobst and me that the mule's upper body resembles that of the forthcoming production car, but the swirling black-and-white zebra camouflage wrap leaves everything to the imagination.
Twenty-inch alloys wearing BMW-spec Goodyears straight from a 650i coupe fill the LC's wheelwells nicely. "Control tire," Sato says, informing us the production LC will have forged 21s shod with next-gen run-flats from Michelin, Bridgestone, and Dunlop. Parked farther down pit lane are a 911 Carrera S, a Maserati Gran Turismo, and the 650i. Pobst will get a handful of laps in the LC only, but Sato's team will sample the others—the BMW as the main target, the Maserati for engine and exhaust reference, and the 911 as the ultimate dynamic benchmark.
Pobst straps in and starts the engine, essentially the same naturally aspirated, 5.0-liter V-8 as in the RC F, though output is up slightly to 468 horsepower at 7,100 rpm and 391 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. It fires up with track-fitting authority thanks to a pair of exhaust sound control valves that open momentarily for full auditory effect. There's even a sound generator in the engine bay to amplify the engine's natural tune under acceleration, achieving a spectral map that approaches that of the V-10 LFA supercar but with more NASCAR rumble, less F1 wail.
After four laps, Pobst returns to pit lane. He's smiling but shaking his head. "Car's really good," he says, "but is there any way to turn off the stability control?" Sato checks with his team and seems a bit dismayed when he has to report that for now VSC cannot be switched off. Otherwise, Pobst walks away full of praise. "Steering effort and feel are very good—European with some weight but not too much," he says. "The car's front is strong with excellent steering response and very little understeer at the limit. Turn-in generates a small amount of yaw then the car takes a well-balanced set mid-corner. The ride over the minor bumps of the curbs was very good with no vibration, implying a strong body structure." As a racer, Pobst never forgets the brakes. "Brake feel is excellent. Firm pedal, strong bite, smooth ABS. Stable with no noticeable dive."
Sato appears pleased with Pobst's comments, which jibe with the "precise, sharp, and natural" signatures he's aiming to instill in the production car. He leads us through a walk-around of the prototype, pointing out the features he's most proud of. The hood, he says, is lower than the 650i's, a testament to chassis engineer Hiroyuki Masumo, who spent six months perfecting the geometry of the multilink suspension so it could nestle under the steeply raked aluminum yet still deliver accurate, sporty handling. Sato taps the front fenders and doors, noting that both are aluminum, too, as are the front bumper and suspension towers. "We adopted many lightweight items," he says, also calling out that the inner doors and roof are carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic and the trunklid is resin with a sheet-molded-composite inner. Finally, he gestures to the lower middle of the driver door. "The heel-to-hip point is 200mm for a low driving position, and that point is 138mm behind the car's center of gravity." Translation: The driver's hip point sits 7.9 inches above his heel point and only 5.4 inches aft of the center of gravity. For comparison, a Jag F-Type's hip point to center of gravity is 14.0 inches. The best? The Porsche Cayman, at 0.
Southern California isn't known to be cold in December, but out at the high desert grounds of Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, the early morning temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Luckily, Pobst and I don't need to arrive until the warmer lunch hour, as Sato and his crew are using the morning to work on the performance of the 10-speed auto and to allow their guests from Bridgestone, who have brought the latest iteration of Potenza S001 run-flats, to have a go with the car.
Now in stage-four prototype form—basically stage three with next levels of suspension and transmission tuning—the LC mule looks as chilled as it does tired of wearing zebra camo. But the forged 21-inch wheels with right-size tires (245/40 front, 275/35 rear) lend the car a meaner stance. Sato is quick to point out to Pobst that the VSC can now be switched fully off, which along with the improved shift logic and new tires should significantly improve performance.
Lexus estimates a sub-4.5-second 0-60 blast for the LC, and watching Pobst rocket up Streets' long, uphill section through Turn 1, that seems conservative. Ten laps logged, Pobst pits. "It has made great progress since my first track drive at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca," he says. "The transmission program is far more refined and smarter with still a bit more to go. It's light on its feet for its mass, and the brakes impressed with their power and lack of fade. At this point, the car is soft on track and still bottoms easily, bounding over heavy impacts." Sato and his team nod, noting that the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) with next-gen dampers is about 70 percent there. "It's a no-fear car at the limit," Pobst continues. "I enjoyed the balance and stability and the car's grip under acceleration, my fundamental favorite trait in race cars."
As we part ways with Sato, I tell him, "See you in a few weeks," referring to the 2016 Detroit Auto Show, where the production LC 500 makes its world debut. For Sato, the journey began nearly five years ago at Pebble Beach. For us, it was at the Rose Bowl parking lot. Either way, it's been a thrilling ride. After the stage-five prototype is built and later validated for final tuning, production will begin in late 2016, with sales commencing in early 2017.
"[Akio Toyoda] drove it six laps at Fuji Speedway," Sato says, "and he was very happy with the natural feel and sharp precision." If we're lucky, we'll be back in Detroit in a couple years for the unveiling of the rumored 600-horsepower, twin-turbo LC (LC F, anyone?). But hey, Akio might just save that for a surprise reveal at Pebble Beach.
|2018 Lexus LC 500|
|BASE PRICE||$90,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINE||5.0L/468-hp/391-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,300 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||187.4 x 75.6 x 53.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.3 sec (est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||17/26/20 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||198/130 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.96 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Spring 2017|
The Next LS
At last October's Tokyo Motor Show, Lexus showed the LF-FC concept, a strong indication of the style and size of the next-generation LS flagship. When it makes its debut sometime around fall 2017, the LS will be the second vehicle to use Lexus' new Inertia Spec platform.
Measuring 208.7 inches long, 78.7 inches wide, and 55.6 inches tall, the LF-FC concept is longer (+2.2 inches) and wider (+3.9) than the Mercedes-Benz S550 but noticeably shorter (-3.1), suggesting the Inertia Spec's lower hip point allowed Lexus to drop the roofline without sacrificing headroom. Lexus didn't release the FC's wheelbase, but it will likely grow from that of the current long-wheelbase LS (121.7 inches) to a span closer to the S550's 124.6, to ensure back-seat room is on par with that of the benchmark Benz.
Although the concept uses a hydrogen fuel cell with trick in-wheel motors, the production car will launch with a gas V-8—likely naturally aspirated to start with a twin-turbo variant to follow—though Lexus hints that a top-tier fuel cell LS is in the cards. Expect some level of the concept's gesture control human-machine interface and much of its L-Finesse design language to carry over to production.