2018 Lexus LC 500h First Drive: The hotshot hybrid
– Kona, Hawaii
A well-designed car serves a purpose. It can be functional, or emotional, or perhaps it just has to look good. But the key to a car with meaning is that is can say, "hey, I do this one thing incredibly well." Toyota's Prius lineup, to cite an obvious example, served the purpose of green car king for many years. The Honda Fit serves as an entirely practical hatchback. And a pickup truck is there to haul stuff around. So, what is the 2018 Lexus LC 500h for?
That's a tough question.
It looks great, that's for sure. Rational people can disagree about its gaping grille, but the LC 500h is a looker in person. An elegant, low hood line sets the stage for a 2+2 luxury coupe that's both striking and (for a sports car) practical. Getting in and out is easy, visibility (except over the broad rear haunches) is great thanks to a wide rear view mirror and expertly designed side mirrors, and there's plenty of room for two. What the seat-shaped things in the back of the cabin are for, I have yet to determine.
An elegant, low hood line sets the stage for a 2+2 luxury coupe that's both striking and (for a sports car) practical.
Before we get too far into this review, I recommend reading our thoughts of the standard LC 500 in order to get a feel for what the non-hybrid can do. I found a lot to agree with in that review, including one throwaway line that is going to haunt me. More on that later.
Sitting in the comfortable driver's seat – available as a 10-way power seat standard or as a Alcantara Sport seat in higher trims – the LC 500h promises a lot with its tech-of-the-future-vibe. To change some of the settings, for example, you push a button that moves the entire speedometer over a few inches to reveal more real estate on an LCD screen. The first time this pointless-yet-cool thing happens, you think that perhaps you might just find the button to enter the Batcave if you look hard enough. The optional carbon fiber reinforced plastic composite roof and 13-speaker Mark Levinson premium sound system give you more reasons to be impressed. Sadly, Lexus still manages to use an entirely frustrating touch-sensitive pad to control things on the eight-inch infotainment screen, which makes me wonder if this thing isn't a Joker-mobile after all. But enough about all that. Since the only non-powertrain differences between the LC 500 and the LC 500h are some badges and an Eco Driving Indicator on the screen, I will once again point you to the LC 500 review to learn more about the look and feel of this car. Let's get to what's different.
The LC 500h uses a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine (premium fuel only, naturally) and an electric motor to deliver a combined output of 354 horsepower. Technically, there are two motors (called MG1 and MG2) involved, but only Motor Generator 2 can actually send any power to the rear wheels (it also captures regenerative braking energy to send back into the lithium-ion battery pack). MG1 is there as a primary generator, to start the engine, and to control the engine speed. It's the latest iteration of the hybrid powertrain that Toyota has been improving ever since introducing the Prius back in 1997.
Lexus has not been able to completely eliminate the rubber-band lag that anyone who's spent time in a Toyota hybrid will be familiar with.
The most interesting part of the powertrain is the new Multi Stage Hybrid Transmission (MSHT). The design lets the 500h speed up using "rhythmic shifting," in which the gears advance in an expected manner, mimicking a normal automatic transmission. But there's nothing normal about MSHT, since (at its most basic) what Lexus has done here is marry a CVT to a traditional four-speed. Within each of the three bottom speeds of the physical transmission, the CVT sets three virtual gears with ratios that depend on the driver's request. The top gear in the four-speed, then, is basically tenth gear. This gives the LC 500h tremendous variability in gears to operate efficiently but with power, while also giving the driver the feel that her actions are having a real impact on the powertrain.
From behind the wheel, the truth is that Lexus has not been able to completely eliminate the rubber-band lag that anyone who's spent time in a Toyota hybrid will be familiar with. The way the powertrain operates in the LC 500h is enjoyable, and it's not too different from the way the standard LC 500 feels. The hybrid's 0-60 time is only 0.3 seconds slower than the gas model's time, 4.7 seconds vs. 4.4, for example. But you still have that indeterminate momentary pause between pounding down on the gas pedal and feeling the car react. The delay, short as it may be, is highlighted by the fact that the engine starts filling the cabin with its boisterous noise well before you tear off down the road. Even in Sport S+ mode, reaction times aren't amazing. As someone who's completely fallen in love with the instant torque of all-electric powertrains, the LC 500h felt like a step backward.
Compared to the non-hybrid LC, the 500h thankfully delivers on its main purpose: to give you better fuel economy. The non-hybrid offers 16 miles per gallon in city, 26 on the highway, and 19 combined. The LC 500h gives you about 10 mpg more in every category: 26 city, 35 highway, and 30 combined. To hit those numbers, you're going to want to keep the LC 500h in Eco mode, which naturally neuters the throttle response and softens the suspension some. Eco mode doesn't turn the LC 500h back into a Prius, but it comes close. At least it's the prettiest and most fun Prius yet.
Why would you pay at least $4,510 extra to get less of the thing that gives this car its purpose?
Steering is not totally precise in the 500h, but is improved when in Sport S+ mode. This is where you can best appreciate the coupe's 52/48 front/rear weight distribution split and the Lexus Dynamic Handling system. The real challenge will be to win over buyers who are also taking test drives in things like the BMW 650i, Jaguar F-Type, and Mercedes S550 Coupe.
So we get back to the original question here. The LC 500 has a purpose: good-looking Lexus performance. What does the LC 500h add to the mix? Fuel efficiency improvements, obviously. But the sad part – well, sad if you're a green car fan like me – is that I don't think it make much sense to buy the hybrid. Just like Seyth said when he reviewed the gas-powered LC. The LC 500 is meant to be sporty. It succeeds, in its Lexus luxury way. The 500h, though, takes a little bit of that sportiness away. Why would you pay at least $4,510 extra to get less of the thing that gives this car its purpose? The ~10 mpg benefits are nice, but in the end, they don't add up to enough.
Maybe that's why Lexus doesn't have the highest of hopes for this coupe. It expects to sell only 400 units a month in the U.S. – which would put it at the bottom of the company's sales list – and only ten percent of those will be hybrids. Seems kind of pointless, no? Well, that's only true until we look outside of our borders and realize that the purpose of the LC 500h is only noticeable on a global scale. Thanks to government incentives for low-CO2 vehicles in Europe, Lexus thinks that over 90 percent of the LC 500s sold there will be hybrids. And so, finally, we see what the purpose of this car is. When you add together the looks, the efficient performance, and the target market, it's clear that Lexus succeeded in its challenge. You just have to look at it from the right angle.
Photos: Michael Shaffer / Lexus