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The Future of Lexus Is Here

Much has been written about the Lexus’s new halo car. I will write more about it here. But first, an observation. I have never been a huge Lexus fan—based largely on the fact that I am a bone-deep enthusiast and Lexus has always focused on luxury and dependability over tire-shredding, heart-stopping high performance. However, I hugely appreciate the fact that the masterminds behind Lexus modulate the brand as carefully and minutely as a race car driver feathers the gas pedal.

The first clue that my hypothesis about Toyota’s luxury brand was correct came in the form of the limited-edition LFA supercar—a seriously bad-ass sports car that showed the world that Lexus can engineer any amount of performance it chooses to, thank you very much. The only trouble with that massively sharp stake in the sand was that its highest highs were never engineered to trickle down to real-world Lexus crossovers and sedans.

In the world’s opinion, the LFA took too many years to go from tantalizing concept to killer super car. My guess is that the boss of Toyota and Lexus, CEO and scion Akio Toyoda—now also Chief Brand Officer for Lexus and a master driver—knew he could take as much time as needed to perfect the balance of each and every component and characteristic.

The same is true of the all-new LC 500 and LC 500h, the hybrid variant. The world got its first glimpse of the stunning 2+2 coupe at the 2012 Detroit auto show; the production version will finally hit U.S. showrooms in mid-2017 as a 2018 model.

Was Lexus indecisive? No. Conflicted about choices and priorities? Absolutely not. My gut instinct is that once again, the Japanese juggernaut took exactly as much time as was necessary to perfect every inch, every detail, from the sculptural LED headlights to the 10-speed transmission. The latter is not a dual-clutch automatic, as most of the luxury sports competition use, but instead an in-house designed box that actually shifts more quickly and more rhythmically than any other on the market. Innovation cloaked in simplicity—brilliant. And the perfect metaphor for the LC 500 itself.

On the interior, the cabin is driver-centric, with clean, elegant controls and finishes delivering just the right amount of technology assistance and information without overwhelming. Yet it is also passenger-friendly, with a soothing cocoon of supple, stitched leather to coddle the right seat occupant.

Lexus’s chief engineer on the project, Koji Sato, told me that the benchmarks for the LC included the BMW 6-Series, the Jaguar F-Type, the Mercedes S-Class Coupe and the Porsche 911. Wow—at first blush, what a wildly disparate range. And yet, here is the nut behind Lexus’s thinking: I believe the team actually felt confident enough in their abilities to embrace the best from all of those competitors, rather than having to pick and choose the few characteristics they wanted.

Am I saying the LC is the sum total of all those excellent cars? No, but I’ll argue that it does come close. And Lexus has left plenty of room for high-performance variants above the base model, which is what I recently tested in Seville, Spain.

On the twisty, picturesque back roads from Seville all the way to the Circuito Monteblanco racetrack, the LC 500’s 471-horsepower V8 pulled ridiculously quickly and smoothly, sounding sexy and guttural through every shift—the Luther Vandross of eight cylinders. The car handled predictably, eagerly attacking turn-ins with precise steering; braking came hard and clean under full pedal pressure. Passing through small towns, I smiled as uniformed school children whipped out phones to capture the LC’s shapely form. (On that note, the LC 500 is the first Lexus that wears its hourglass spindle grille well—the shape echoes the car’s sinuous curves.)

On the track I took the six-cylinder hybrid LC 500h out first. With two electric motors and a gas engine, the car felt more ponderous than the V8 had on roads. Not a car built for track duty but brave of Lexus to put it out there anyway—not something every hybrid manufacturer would choose to do given the performance limitations of the system, novel though the Lexus version is.

Next up, the LC 500 in Sport + mode and with electronic rear steering activated. At first, I wasn’t convinced the big coupe would hold up well under pressure, but I was wrong. The V8 snarled and the tires squealed but held the line through sweepers and S-curves alike. The power was immediate, the car’s capability undeniable. And all in a classy, comfy cockpit. Slam-dunk.

With the LC 500 Lexus is making the statement that with enough rigorous and ingenious engineering and time, it can have the best of both worlds—haute performance and true luxury. It believes that neither has to be sacrificed for the other, but rather the two can live in harmony if balanced ever so carefully.

I have to hand it to Toyoda-san and his capable teams: I do believe that they have begun to crack that code, that holy grail of luxury married to performance. And I also believe that they have only just begun. After all, they can’t put out something as competent, intriguing and satisfying as the LC 500 and then stop there.

Akio Toyoda is known to take the long view—the very long view, and such a view surely sees a future full of Lexus models enjoying the best of not just both worlds, but all luxury futures.

Hurry up with the next one, please—even though I know that request falls on unsympathetic ears. We’ll see it when Toyoda and Lexus are good and ready.

Pricing for the LC 500 starts at $92,000. Pricing for the LC 500h is from $96,510