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Lexus LC 500 thoughts and questions

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Four years after the 2012 debut of its LF-LC concept predictor, the production Lexus LC 500 range-topping 2+2 gran turismo coupe was unveiled at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show, and promptly became the star of a show that admittedly was a somewhat tepid and low-key affair as far as significant or surprise unveilings. No unexpected show-stoppers like last year’s Ford GT, and the rumored Chevrolet Corvette E-Ray concept was no-show vaporware. Some pundits felt that Buick’s Avista concept deserved the best in show title, but, attractive and tasteful as it is, it ultimately came off as a Camaro rebodied to look like a 2-door Tesla Model S coupe.

16-01-14-gallery-lexus-lc-500-2-4The biggest pleasant surprise is how closely the production Lexus LC 500 hews to its LF-LC concept forebear. Particularly unexpected is that one of the lowest front fender and hood lines ever for a front-engined car emerged almost seemingly intact for production, no mean feat in an era of European pedestrian crash safety laws (expect a hood with a pop-up design upon collision impact as on the current Lexus IS). Looking at the production car in isolation, in fact, reveals just two major departures from the concept prototype. One is the flush oval Jaguar F-Type-like external door handles (which pop out to reveal a hidden Lexus logo, as shown in the photo at right by Kevin Watts of Lexus Enthusiast). The other is the LC 500 badge on the center of the rear bumper (itself an apparent homage of sorts to the centered rear badge on the original Lexus SC coupes as shown below left). Put photos of the LC 500 and LF-LC side-by-side and, of course, more differences emerge, such as in the front grille surround, outside mirrors, taillights and rear bumper. And, as Ron Kiino of Motor Trend reminds us

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Although the production LC bears a strong resemblance to the concept, every surface is new and every dimension changed… (LC 500 chief designer Tadao) Mori stretched the overall length nearly 5 inches, trimmed the width 2.2, and raised the roof 3.1. And to make the 2+2 layout livable for adults, he lengthened the wheelbase 2.8 inches.

When asked how much of the show car was carried over, Mori smiles. “I believe 100 percent,” he says, “but with 20 percent of originality added.” That 20 percent refers to the reworked headlights with three super-small LED units, the revised cabin-to-wheel ratio, and the massaged surfacing and spindle grille.

Disappointments? Again, only a couple. One is that the 2UR-GSE 5-liter V8 in its LC 500 application is no more powerful than in its RC F and GS F siblings, implying that the LC is no lighter than the F versions of RC and GS. The other is the standard fitment of run-flat tires (they were optional in Lexus’ SC and IS C convertible lines). Here’s hoping that the improved run-flats described in Lexus and Michelin’s news release makes them more palatable.

Thorough and informative as Lexus’ full official LC news release appears at a glance, it still leaves a number of questions unaddressed or not fully answered. Here, we will explore, speculate, ponder and comment upon what we don’t yet know about the Lexus LC 500.

Where’s the hybrid version? Didn’t Lexus register an LC 500h trademark?
Indeed it did, as we reported in early December 2014. As to why the LC 500h didn’t appear at Detroit, we should point out Lexus’ recent strategy of spacing out the debuts of different engine/model variants of a given car line through multiple auto shows and events on different continents. Perhaps the best example of this is the protracted launch of the 4th-generation (L10) Lexus GS, starting in August 2011 (GS 350 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California, USA); followed by the GS 450h reveal in September at Germany’s Frankfurt Motor Show; then November 2011 unveilings on both sides of the Pacific for the GS 350 F Sport (at Las Vegas’ SEMA Show in the U.S.) and GS 250 (at China’s Auto Guangzhou). April 2013 saw the first appearance of the GS 300h at the Shanghai Motor Show in China. Its antithesis, the GS F V8, broke cover at the January 2015 Detroit Auto Show in the U.S., followed by the full-circle return to Pebble Beach, California the following August for the GS mid-life facelift that included a new GS 200t variant.

An extreme example, we know, but it definitely supports the notion of an LC launch spread among various locales. With no Lexus press conference scheduled for the upcoming mid-February Chicago Auto Show, the next stop on the A-list auto show tour is Geneva, Switzerland, with March 1 and 2 press days. That, we’d say, is a pretty safe bet for the world debut of the Lexus LC 500h hybrid.

What do we know so far about LC 500h?
Not much. Predictions have centered around a hybridized version of one of Lexus’ GR series V6s, either the 1GR 4-liter iteration or, more likely, the 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE tweaked well beyond the current GS 450h’s 338 hp total system rating. Bear in mind how closely the production LC hews to the LF-LC concept, and that the latter’s hybrid powertrain was rated at 500 hp.

14-12-04-lexus-lf-lc-hybrid-badge-2Are any more LC variants beyond 500 and 500h being contemplated?
Paul Eisenstein of The Detroit Bureau, citing several Lexus sources, suggests “a convertible version due out late in 2018, most likely as a 2019 model”.

More unsettled is the fate of a potential LC F. Famously rumored by Motor Trend‘s Jonny Lieberman back in July 2014, this would be powered, per the rumor mill, by a twin-turboed version of the LC 500’s 5-liter V8 producing somewhere between 600 to 640 hp if the one-off Lexus LS 460 TMG Sports 650 is any indication. Since then, the rumors have died down some (although both Kiino and Eisenstein mention them in their articles) and we should note that, to date, Lexus parent Toyota has not filed for an LC F trademark.

Why isn’t the LC 500 any more powerful than the RC F and GS F?
As we’ve stated before, Lexus’ true performance bogey for their V8s is to make them as powerful as possible while producing no worse than 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined numbers on the U.S. EPA fuel economy cycle and thus barely avoid paying the Gas Guzzler Tax. For the RC F and GS F, this means a 2UR-GSE version 2 5-liter V8 with dual Otto/Atkinson cycle capability, a higher compression ratio and an output of 467 hp and 391 lb/ft of torque in vehicles with curb weights ranging between 3958 lbs (RC F with standard Torsen limited-slip differential) and 4034 lbs (GS F with standard TVD torque-vectoring differential). This is good for EPA fuel economy ratings of 16 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined for the RC F and a slightly lower 24 mpg highway for the GS F (city and combined GS F numbers match the RC F).

Back in December 2014 we optimistically wrote that the LC coupe

…appears to be a smaller and lighter car than the RC F, which is heavier than necessary because its super-stiff architecture was designed to accommodate a probably stillborn convertible variant. Also, an LC 500’s higher price point may allow for expanded use of aluminum and/or carbon fiber in its construction, further keeping weight down. And this, in turn, may allow for higher-than-RC F horsepower and torque figures while still avoiding the U.S. Gas Guzzler Tax.

Alas, now that the LC 500 is a reality, it is no more powerful than its presumably larger and heavier F siblings, and Lexus officially estimates 0-60 mph acceleration at “under 4.5 seconds” essentially matching the official 4.5 second time of the GS F and 4.4 seconds of the RC F. But why? For one thing, bear in mind the production LC’s growth spurt versus its concept forebear, detailed in the third paragraph of this story. Except for its lower height, the LC 500 is actually a larger car than the RC F. To be precise, the LC 500 is 2.2 inches longer, 1.7 inches lower and 3 inches wider, while riding on a 5.5 inches longer wheelbase than its less expensive RC coupe sibling. And, if rumors of a convertible LC are correct, then its platform may also be heavier than necessary for a coupe as it incorporates some of the extra bracing and structural rigidity needed for an open-top variant.

All of this, of course, begs the obvious question…

16-01-12-gallery-lexus-lc-500-official-51Just how heavy is the LC 500?
Curb weight is conspicuously missing from the initial LC 500 specifications released by Lexus, but there are a number of…um…numbers being bandied about. The most optimistic ones come via Andrew English, one of the few super-privileged journalists given access to all manner of pre-production LC mules and evaluation prototypes over the past year or so. His account for the United Kingdom’s Telegraph cites an 1800 kg curb weight, which in his separate Autoblog story becomes 3968 lbs, just 10 lbs heavier than a base, Torsen LSD-equipped RC F.

From there, the numbers rise past the 2-ton mark, with The Detroit Bureau‘s Paul Eisenstein stating that “the target is around 4100 pounds, though it may actually come in ‘closer to 4200’”. Automotive News‘ David Undercoffler says that “the automaker is aiming for 4200 pounds”, while Motor Trend‘s Ron Kiino cites the manufacturer as the source for a 4300 lb curb weight.

What do we know about the new Aisin 10-speed automatic transmission?
Ten speeds is a notion still more closely associated with bicycles than with car and light-duty truck automatic transmissions, but, make no mistake, they’re on their way. The first-ever to go on sale is expected to be on the 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck in autumn 2016, followed by the first car with a 10-speed RWD automatic, the 2018 Lexus LC 500 due to go on sale in the first quarter of 2017. As to the first 10-speed automatic transaxle for FWD-centric platforms, it seems that Honda and its Acura luxury brand will do the honors in larger V6-powered models for the 2018 model year.

It is no surprise that Toyota and Lexus have turned to their minority-owned affiliate Aisin for their first 10-speed RWD-centric automatic transmission. But it is so new that there is currently zero mention of it on Aisin AW’s Product Lineup page. Given that Toyota and Lexus’ current 8-speed RWD-centric automatic transmission is Aisin’s TL-80SN unit which bears a Toyota AA80E transmission code when paired with a RWD V8, we’ll hazard a guess that the new one will be Aisin TL-100SN / Toyota AA100E. Lexus tells us that

Helping power transfer to the rear wheels is a newly developed 10-speed automatic transmission—the first ever in a luxury automobile—with shift times rivaling those of a dual-clutch transmission. The component is smaller and lighter than some current 8-speed transmissions. The wide bandwidth of shifting afforded by 10 closely spaced gears is ideal for all forms of driving, providing an optimal gear in all conditions. This transmission is matched to a new electric control system with software that helps anticipate the driver’s inputs by monitoring acceleration, braking and lateral g forces.

In other words, G-force Artificial Intelligence (G-AI) shift control, which downshifts in response to G forces and restricts gear changes during cornering, or “holds the automatic transmission to a single gear as you move through a tight corner, which helps prevent automatic-shifting surprises” is present and accounted for in the new Aisin 10-speed unit. Motor Trend adds that it also

…sports a heat-treated aluminum gear train (for less weight) and the lightest torque converter ever in a Lexus automatic. (LC chief engineer Koji) Sato says the 10-speed weighs less than the eight-speed it replaces, and it can shift gears in as little as 0.23 second. The automatic’s highest priority is shift speed, not smoothness.

“We are breaking many Lexus rules,” Sato says, noting that some shift shock under wide-open throttle is not only acceptable but also desirable.

Is this Toyota’s rumored new automatic transmission with locking gears?
On August 2015, Automotive News‘ Asia editor wrote initial and followup articles on Aisin Seiki and Toyota suppliers in general. The latter said that

Among Aisin Seiki’s planned product pitches: a new automatic transmission that employs locking gears for a more direct, efficient transfer of power through the drivetrain, similar to a manual. It will be deployed in one of the automaker’s vehicles in 2016.

(Aisin Seiki president Yasumori) Ihara declined to give details of the new transmission. But the technology could be similar to the direct-shift gearboxes deployed by Volkswagen AG or the eight-speed direct-shift transmission in the Lexus RC F, which uses clutch lockup.

It is unclear if Aisin’s new 10-speed automatic is the transmission in question. Could very well be, but we should note that much of the articles were written in the context of the front-wheel-drive-centric TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) that made its debut with the latest 4th-generation Toyota Prius. Also, the Lexus LC 500 doesn’t go on sale until calendar year 2017.

16-01-12-gallery-lexus-lc-500-official-52Why didn’t Lexus used a dual-clutch (DCT) gearbox instead?
A notable segment of the automotive engineering and enthusiast world has become quite enamored with dual-clutch transmissions, but Lexus is having none of it. When designing the seminal LFA supercar, the carmaker noted that

The incredibly quick-revving nature of the LFA’s V10 engine demanded a single ultra-light and responsive clutch, a move that effectively ruled out a double-clutch transmission. The engineers also felt the ASG transmission’s positive and direct shift quality – as opposed to the almost artificial smoothness of current double-clutch transmissions – significantly enhanced the driving experience, making the driver aware of machined parts working together in harmony when changing gears for a satisfying sense of mechanical engagement.

Over half a decade later, Lexus’ opinion hasn’t budged. Andrew English asked Hideo Tomomatsu, LC’s transmission project manager the obvious “Why hadn’t Lexus produced a dual-clutch transmission like most of its rivals?” question. His reply:

“I don’t understand why a DCT gearbox is necessary. They say it is for a sporty feel, but we can achieve that with our 10-speed and although dry twin-clutch transmissions can be quite efficient, the wet clutch systems for high power [applications] introduce a lot of drag and can overheat. More to the point, American and Japanese customers expect a degree of low-speed refinement that a DCT simply can’t deliver.”

What are the Lexus LC 500’s direct competitors?
Lexus’ LFA turned out to be an iconoclastic supercar, whose direct rivals are hard to pigeonhole. As I noted on November 2009:

How, then, to define which of the supercar(s) the Lexus LFA is most directly aimed at?

Cylinder count? The LFA’s V-10 cylinder configuration is shared by the Dodge Viper, Lamborghini Gallardo and its Audi R8 V10 derivative. The Dodge Viper, however, is a far cruder device. The Lamborghini Gallardo is smaller and, in all-wheel-drive LP560-4 trim, heavier than the LFA. Its Audi R8 V10 cousin is, like the LFA, a stretch into unchartered supercar territory for the brand, but its easier-to-drive, more comfort-oriented demeanor also give it a less favorable power-to-weight ratio than the Gallardo, not to mention the LFA.

Hmmm…power-to-weight ratio, then? The Lexus LFA’s 552 hp V10 in a 3263-lb car give it a mere 5.9 pounds per horsepower to move around, an exemplary figure that is bested by very few cars. Among those that do is the aforementioned Dodge Viper, the RWD-only LP550-2 Valentino Balboni version of the Gallardo, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, the ultra-rare $1.4 million+ Aston Martin One77 and, just barely, the…Ferrari 458 Italia.

Mid-front engine with rear transaxle layout? The Lexus LFA shares this with all current Aston Martins, Chevrolet Corvettes, the (then-new) Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano. Given the latter’s just-north-of $300,000 base price, this author concurs with Mark Gillies of Car and Driver magazine that “in many ways, its closest natural rival is the Ferrari 599 GTB, although the Lexus is more visceral and exciting and better balanced and more nimble”.

Similarly, the Lexus LC 500 goes its own way versus the potential competition. Mark Templin, executive vice president of Lexus International, told Automotive News’ Hans Greimel that he expects the car to go up against Aston Martin, Porsche and Maserati, leapfrogging Germany’s Big 3 altogether. We wholeheartedly agree, yet he’s only half right, as we shall soon see.

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Just as the LFA skews closest to the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, the Lexus LC 500 also looks to Italy for its nearest, most direct rival, the aging but still breathtakingly beautiful Maserati GranTurismo coupé. Both have 2+2 seating, are powered by naturally aspirated V8 engines in a front-mid-engined position (the engine sits right behind the front axle line, inside the wheelbase) driven through torque-converter automatic transmissions and both strike a similar sports-luxury balance. Dimensions are similarly close, with the Maserati being 4.8″ longer overall on a 2.8″ longer wheelbase, with width and height within a few tenths of an inch of each other.

Per Motor Trend, however, Lexus’ engineering team only benchmarked the Maserati for its engine and exhaust. Their main target? The BMW 650i. (So much for leapfrogging the German big luxury 3). Although the BMW appears to be a bigger car overall with less Grand Touring panache and cachet than either the Lexus or the Maserati, it is, in fact, within a few tenths of an inch of the Maser’s exterior dimensions save for the Bimmer’s 6.4″ shorter wheelbase (unlike the others, part of the BMW’s engines are hanging in front of the axle line).

For good measure, Lexus also used the Porsche 911 Carrera S as “the ultimate dynamic benchmark”. A commendable goal, no doubt, but an apparent apples-to-oranges comparison as even the latest “991/2” 911 is a far smaller, lighter, more nimble and sports-skewing car than the Lexus LC. On the other hand, Lexus’ Corporate Manager for Product Marketing & Marketing Communications Brian Bolain quite aptly described the LC 500 as “a grand touring car with the heart of a sports car.”

Andrew English also mentions the Mercedes S-class Coupé as a benchmark, but that one strikes us as significantly larger, heavier and more luxury-leaning than the others. In fact, nothing in Mercedes’ ample coupe, GT and sports car repertoire strikes us as a true Lexus LC rival. Not the C-Class Coupe (too downmarket), nor the E-Class Coupe (essentially a rebody on the old W204 C-Class Coupe whose days are numbered), nor the SLK / SLC and SL (smaller strictly 2-seater convertibles). Perhaps the new Mercedes-AMG GT comes semi-close to being a Lexus LC rival, even though it’s a sportier, smaller and lighter strictly 2-seater. At least both share a front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout, with the engine inside the vehicle’s wheelbase. And, hold that thought, for the Lexus LC’s new GA-L (Global Architecture – Luxury) Inertia Spec underpinnings deserve more ample discussion in a separate article. Stay tuned…

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