Our Editor-in-Chief, Greg Migliore, perfectly summarized the LC 500's appeal when he drove it recently: "Evening walkers cast curious glances. A guy in an old pickup almost sideswiped me as he gawked while taking the corner fast. It's a celebrity car. It also sounds good; the 5.0-liter V8 growls and rumbles. Style and muscle. An excellent execution."
I just spent a week in it, my first encounter with the car, and it made me think most about how it's positioned in the Lexus lineup. Notably, it's not positioned as the performance extreme. This is refreshing, because not every car needs to attempt a Nürburgring time. If you want to hunt road-course records in this day and age, it takes massive power and massive traction. We're getting to the point, perhaps well beyond it, where that is doing the stopwatch more favors than the driver.
Part of this is decades of marketing putting the sportiest variant of a particular vehicle above the most luxurious in the pecking order of regular vehicles, which doesn't make a ton of sense if you think about it. In the 1960s, the ultimate Mercedes-Benz was the 600 Grosser limousine, which was built like a Rolex bank vault. It had a huge engine, but the point was to move the massive thing around, not for the sheer pleasure of it. Ironically, the Grosser's engine made its way later into the 300 SEL 6.3, turning a large and luxurious sedan into a surprisingly capable bruiser, and then into the Rote Sau race car. Arguably, this was an impetus for the sort of sporty arms race I'm decrying.
(Now, when you talk about supercars, or ultimate luxury cars like a Bentley or Maybach, this distinction makes less sense. But let's limit our discussion to vehicles the well-heeled average consumer could actually purchase — things at the upper end of the ranges of normal car manufacturers.)
This takes us to the Lexus LC 500. Unlike Mercedes, whose Mercedes-AMG cars are on top of the regular car pecking order, Audi's RS line, BMW's M Division, and Porsche's various Turbos, the LC 500 is simply a large, powerful car. It's comfortable, it looks interesting, and it has more than enough grunt to get out of its own way. There are Sport and Performance options packages, but there's no LC F or F-Line trim available.
That's because the LC 500 doesn't need any of that to stand apart from other Lexus products. It may be a slightly played-out line, but the concept-car styling is enough to move the needle. And the fact that Lexus was smart enough to hedge bets, and offer the conventional/traditional 5.0-liter V8 rather than solely the hybrid turbo V6, completes the charm offensive. The RC F, smartly, occupies the sportiest rung in the Lexus ladder, but it's not the ultimate Lexus.
If you think about this, and you think about the type of buyer for each and their presumed income and demographics, that all makes perfect sense. No 30-something track rat is crunching the numbers on a $98,000 Lexus 2+2. An LC F wouldn't change that calculus. This isn't a chassis intended for that purpose. So, it's been positioned more honestly: It simply is. Compare this to the BMW M760i, which is not really much of an M Division car, and not even terribly true to BMW's second-tier M-line. It's a luxury car with M appliqués in an attempt to justify its market positioning, and its higher MSRP.
I think that's a bit nonsensical. A near-M car that isn't much of an M, and wouldn't be even if it was? Who's looking for track prowess in the largest sedan the company makes? Isn't there an alternative?
Those who know BMW history remember that the company used to make the L6, which was a range-topping ultra-luxury version of the E24-series cars and a compliment to the M6, with exclusive extra luxury features and leather everywhere.
In a rational modern lineup, you'd think, BMW would at least give 7-Series owners the option of bypassing the boy-racer M badging and piling on the sophisticated features and extra luxury of an L760i. Heck, make the L version the only one you can get a V12 in, and call it a day. Make it more powerful than any other BMW, and more comfortable, but don't necessarily make it quicker. What's more luxurious than effortless torque? It worked for true luxury brands for generations. BMW also has enough "Ultimate Driving Machine" credibility that the blue and white roundel alone should signal that the car is sporty.
Despite the current LC 500's honest positioning, there are clouds on the horizon. Talk of the V8 adopting twin-turbocharging to better do battle with its competitors seems like backsliding into the performance arms race the LC 500 has so far avoided. At the risk of shaking my fist at the clouds like an old man, there's an intangible brilliance to a big, powerful, naturally aspirated engine that the numbers simply don't convey.
An illustration of this is the decidedly old-school outgoing Aston Martin Vantage V12 S, archaic and brilliant at the same time. It'd take a cold, dead heart to go unwarmed when the 6.0-liter V12 roars. It is just as enjoyable burbling around downtown as roaring around the hills. It's made to please the driver. And it won't even fall apart at a road course, as long as the goal is challenging yourself and having a good time rather than setting the track's lap record. That is the grand touring ideal. Anything more and the Vantage V12 becomes perilously close to confusing itself with a real sports car, and that's a battle it's going to lose to Porsches and McLarens, badly.
It's a battle it shouldn't have to fight. And neither should the LC 500. It stands alone in its lineup, undoubtedly the top Lexus around. It has charisma unlike any Lexus product since the LFA, which was a cost-no-object monster that occupied its own rung of excess. I wish the measure of the LC 500's improvement was driver enjoyment, rather than engine output. It'd already score highly, and I think rather than turbocharging, the company could spend money on bespoke interior treatments, unique options, or a convertible version. All of those things would make the LC 500 more interesting, more unusual, and more enjoyable.
As it stands, a twin-turbo LC 500 starts down on a slippery path, where absolute performance begins to crowd out luxury and refinement. Perhaps the LC 500 will pull it off. But the long play, rather than the short gain, is to recognize that the LC 500 is brilliant because it's not doing what everyone else is doing. Drive one and you'll understand.