First drive: Lexus LC – a triumph of Japanese craftsmanship

The LC is straight out of an anime dream – and will give European designers nightmares

Make: Lexus

Model: LC

Year: 2016

Fuel: Petrol

Date Reviewed: December 9, 2016

Sat, Dec 10, 2016, 11:24

   

Japan has long bowed to the power of the computer processor, favouring order over the individual.

Yet this is also the land of the Takumi craftsman, such as Yoshiaki Ito. In his 37th year with Toyota and Lexus, Ito is in charge of driving dynamics. All the data from millions of miles of testing can be put into the largest supercomputer, which will spit out the ideal formula for a car’s handling. Yet in this age of the algorithim, it’s the quietly spoken Mr Ito who will then put a car through its paces on the test track and decide if it’s good enough.

So what does he say when he disagrees with the data?

“I explain we have the wrong data set and we’re looking at the wrong criteria. They listen to me.”

Much is made of the converging of our motoring tastes. The Fiesta sells in Texas these days while the Mustang rides in Ireland. From Miyako to Mayo, we munch through Big Macs. So are we really all that different?

Well how many European engineers can fold an origami cat with their non-dominant hand in under 90 seconds? That’s just one of the tests facing any aspiring Takumi. It’s an official title at Lexus, granted to a talented worker after years of dedication to a particular skill. And, of course, nifty fingerwork with a sheet of paper.

Reclusive

Japan locked itself in isolation for 300 years. You can’t turn reclusive for that length of time and not adopt a few side-effects. One of these is a cult-like obsession with perfection. From the tedious tea ceremony to the fixation on the pruning of miniature trees, this is not society as we know it. As anyone who visits Japan will attest, the differences are not just subtle cultural affectations. It might as well be another planet.

You need time to acclimatise. Once you do, you start to appreciate the nuances, the subtleties and the craziness.

So when it comes to their cars, it’s naive to expect them to be like ours. The new Lexus LC is a case in point. In a world of sleek German engineering and sexy Italian styling, the LC boasts a grille that wouldn’t look out of place on a truck, and more creases and folds than an origami cat. It’s seemingly gone straight from an anime movie to production.

Concept cars are meant to be clay-moulded mind maps of designers. These are people who reside at the far end of the spectrum. Engineers take their styling cues and translate them into reality. At Lexus, the LC skipped that step. The car is bold. But then, like Japan, it really starts to grow on you. The more time you spend with the car, the more you appreciate the look. Even the big spindle grille starts to make sense. It’s then that European sports cars like the Porsche 911 start to look a little staid.

The 911 chaser

Not that the 911 is mentioned at Lexus, officially. Lexus is at pains to point out this is not a direct rival to the Porsche 911. At least not for now. Ask about a future top-end F Sport version of the LC, and executives stare at their shoes. I suspect it’s likely and when it comes, it will be the 911 chaser.

For now the LC has its sights set on the BMW 650i. To European motorists, that may seem an oddly specific target, but that’s the 6 Series variant of choice in the US market, where most LC buyers will reside.

Lexus bills this car as a grand tourer, but to most eyes it’s a fully-fledged sports car. In fact the styling, particularly in silhouette, could be considered a modern take on Toyota’s iconic Supra.

On the inside, there are some incredibly delicate touches, features such as the creases on the door lining or even the detailing on the gear stalk. Then again, these are the touches you should expect – but don’t always get – on a €120,000 car.

The LC is the first Lexus to be built on the firm’s new large-car platform. The underpinnings will form the foundation of the next-generation LS flagship, due to be unveiled on January 9th at the Detroit auto show.

Up front is a choice of two powertrains: fuel-sipping 3.5-litre V6 petrol-electric hybrid or snarling 5-litre V8. Both come fitted with a new 10-speed automatic transmission. Let’s focus on that element first. When engineers moved to 8-speed we thought things had reached the limits of logic. At 10-speed the fear is you spend more time between gears than actually engaged in the task of transferring power from engine to wheel.

Change sequence

The reality is the Lexus box manages an incredibly smooth, rhythmic change sequence that maintains great torque levels while mimicking the best points of popular dual-clutch systems without suffering the same level of wear and tear or maintenance. For example, the LC is finished with fourth gear when a “normal” eight-speed is only starting into third gear. In the hybrid version it also answers the so-called “rubber band” effect you find in many hybrids. Power is delivered earlier and in manual mode you can hold onto gears in high revs.

The hybrid powertrain features a new lithium-ion battery pack and can engage full electric-only mode for short periods and cruising. You need to be very light on the throttle, however, to maintain electric mode for even a few minutes. And the temptation to kick down is always too great.

Of the two, the V8 is undoubtedly the most fun, but we are assured he hybrid is going to deliver impressive fuel consumption figures when these are confirmed. The idea of an eco-friendlier sports car thats capable of 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds (compared to 4.4 seconds for the V8) is enticing.

The LC takes its cues from the recent Lexus supercar, the LF-A. That model was one of the pioneers in the use of carbon fibre, and here it has been developed into Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) that offers much stronger protection while at the same time making it more affordable. A downside of the LF-A is that the highly complex material used in its production meant if you were ever in a tip, no matter where in the world, the car had to be shipped to Germany for repair. Hit a stray Capybara in Brazil and you’re still sticking your car in a crate bound for Deutschland. Thankfully, no such issues apply to the LC.

The lightweight materials do benefit the car’s handling, however. The LC has an admirably low centre of gravity. One engineer pointed out that in the LC V8, the centre of gravity is actually halfway up the driver’s quad, close to the hip. And when you’re driving sports cars, it’s all in the hips.

Agile car

The reality is the LC first reassures, then encourages. It’s a remarkably easy, yet agile car to drive. The more time you spend with it, the more charmed you become by its ability. That said, there are features to the car you can do without.

Three grades are on offer with the LC. To summarise, the Luxury specification – aimed at Grand Tourer driving styles – offers a glass roof without rear spoiler. The Sports version offers the rear spoiler and a carbon fibre roof. The Sports + version comes with the Lexus Dynamic Handling system. This adjusts the steering and also offers dynamic rear steering. Testing it on the track and off, I prefer the natural balance of the other two grades. The system is over-engineered and takes from the natural flow and balance of the car. On the test track, particularly in the raspy V8, any rearward slide was smooth and progressive and the motions completely natural and fluid. And on some challenging public roads, the LC’s balance came to the fore, even on 21-inch alloys.

Starting at €120,000, the Lexus LC will only find an estimated 10 or so buyers a year in Ireland. And it faces off against some seriously credible sports cars and Grand Tourers. Yet there is definitely something enamouring about the LC and it’s a sense that grows on you the more you drive the car.

Lexus has put a lot of store in its model expansion, particularly in the sports car arena. That’s partly down to the fact that Akio Toyoda, boss of the Japanese car giant, has taken on the role of Lexus chief branding officer and master driver. The motor racing fan has given Lexus engineers licence to create cars like this. He is relying on Takumi craftsmen like Yoshiaki Ito to mastermind the brand’s greatest challenge to date, taking on the meisters of Munich and Stuttgart.

So far so impressive.