FIRST DRIVE | The 2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible is art on wheels
On a crisp afternoon in June 2017 we found ourselves chasing the pleated butt of a Lexus IS 350 around the circuit at Franschhoek Motor Museum.
Our approach was tempered with caution. This is a layout designed to give vehicles in the collection gentle, scheduled workouts and is not really suited to stopwatch-beating, high-speed pursuits. There’s not much run-off either.
Moments before, our itinerary featured a kintsugi session. That’s the Japanese practice of fixing broken pottery, usually with gold, highlighting the fractures and in doing so, embracing the damages in the process to restoration. A rather bizarre way to get warmed up for track activities. But on that day, Lexus went all out to drive home the point of “handcrafted” and “bespoke” — though they didn’t have to. Those in attendance were already sold on the subject of the launch even before the initial drive.
Yes, the LC 500 was instantly striking. With its angular LFA-inspired shape, lengthy dimensions befitting the glamorous grand tourer genre and chrome wheels straight off the 2012 LF-LC concept car shown in Detroit, there was plenty to admire. In the product presentation, we heard that the newcomer had a broad range of intended competitors, from the Porsche 911 to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class coupé. You knew it was unlikely to be as sharp to drive as the car with the golden crest. Nor as cosseting or rich in technology as the three-pointed star wearer, replete with its pneumatic body-control systems. But that hardly mattered, because from visual and charismatic standpoints, the LC 500 was in a league of its own.
In fairness, its texture on road was far from disappointing. The ride, while erring towards firm, was well-damped even despite its massive, gleaming rollers. A fairly direct steering and incredibly stiff body structure afforded the LC assured nimbleness through Western Cape passes. It rode on what was then a newly introduced platform, internally dubbed as the GA-L architecture, reserved for the top-tier luxury offerings from Lexus, including the fifth-generation LS which was imminent.
History reminds us that it was deemed the most sorted Lexus ever made — from a torsional-rigidity metric — at that point in time. Even better than the LFA, according to a release quoting global chief engineer Koji Sato.
Another trump card we gushed over was that soulful power source. The engine, an atmospheric 4,969cc, V8 unit, was paired to a 10-speed automatic transmission. While the output of the motor was not spectacular at 351kW and 450Nm, the thrill was in the muscular delivery and rich acoustics. A pure eight-cylinder rumble unfettered by synthetic belches and pops, spitting back as the tachometer needle bounced off redline before you snatched the next gear.
What a fantastic sound. And a sound that the recently launched LC 500 convertible brings occupants closer to, even if cutting the top means losing the stiffness that made the old car so tidy from a dynamic perspective. Not that owners are going to care. Unless you drive both back-to-back, the difference is unlikely to be noticed. You’ll be distracted by other things, like the exhilaration of hearing that V8 at full chat, while the wind gently tousles your curls and the warm air blowing though the ventilation ports in the head-restraint keeps your neck toasty. The 0-100km/h sprint time of 4.7 seconds is unchanged.
Lexus said that it aimed to retain the distinctive roofline of the coupé model with the fabric ceiling in place. And you can agree that it does look more cohesive than the arrangements of certain rivals, which have the appearance of a bulbous tent when the top is closed. It takes 15 seconds to shed the weatherproofing, actuated via a switch on the centre console, elegantly folded away and concealed in a separate compartment just ahead of the boot.
As before, the interior is a spellbinding mix of curved surfaces, textured materials and supple leather. If it’s your first time in an LC, you’ll be mesmerised by the level of detail and precision, an over-the-top and ornate approach to luxury that you won’t find in the cold, restrained cabins of German alternatives. It’s undeniably opulent. The weakest link is the horrible infotainment system, a well-documented fissure that seems to mar all new products from Lexus. Countless times have we written about the system’s user-unfriendly nature, with its fiddly mouse pad and complicated range of menus. It was to be expected and we got over the disappointment pretty quickly.
On our test drive through Mpumalanga, the LC 500 dispatched kilometres with grace, enthralling driver and passenger with its inherent verve and charm. The moment felt special, memorable. It’s a machine that represents motoring for the sake of pure enjoyment, beyond the rationality of mere A-to-B mobility. The very sight of it rouses the spirit, thawing out jadedness one might have towards the quiet, clinical templates of the modern automobile. We need theatrical expressions like this.
At R2,345,500 the convertible is R187,300 more than the coupé version. Whichever you pick, there’s little doubt that the LC 500 is the true definition of an art car. Two or three decades from now it’ll be spoken about in the same tone as legends like the Toyota 2000 GT. Except, where that took cue from the Jaguar E-Type, the Lexus is a complete masterpiece in its own right, one that’s going to be a challenge to emulate.