Lexus LC500h review: Driving through the Alps with hybrid power

Lexus is a brand undergoing a dramatic transformation. Rather than a premium but slightly old-fashioned relation of Toyota, Lexus wants to be known as a luxurious, innovative carmaker that makes truly desirable vehicles. Back in 2010, Lexus boosted its image with the incredible LFA, and now it wants to do it again – this time with the Lexus LC 500h.

Nowadays, if you want to look like a forward-thinking car brand, you build a hybrid car or an electric vehicle – or you just join Formula E.

But just how good is the Lexus LC 500h? Is it a disappointing marketing exercise, or a fantastic car that just happens to be a hybrid? I drove it for around an hour in Ibiza earlier this year, but last week Lexus let me drive the LC 500h across the Alps, from Munich to Milan. I had far more time to understand Lexus’ new flagship, and my opinions of it have changed somewhat. Keep reading for my full review of the LC 500h.

by Curtis Moldrich

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Lexus LC500h: Design

At this price point, most cars are styled with soft, inoffensive lines for maximum appeal – but clearly no-one’s told Lexus. Take one look at the LC 500h and, depending on your opinion, it’s either one of the coolest-looking things on the road or an absolute monstrosity.

When I first saw the LC 500h, I was blown away by the overall audacity of its design, and this impression hasn’t faded the second time around. It’s still one of the most eye-catching cars on the road today, and wherever I stopped on my road trip, it drew attention – including the odd thumbs-up.

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The LC 500h is pretty much unchanged from the concept car it’s derived from. The headlights and vents look like biomechanical eyes and gills, and the entire car seems to be crafted from folded paper. Curious loops, folds and bulges form air inlets and creases in the LC 500h’s body and it looks like nothing else I’ve driven.

The LC 500h’s Marmite design language continues to the front grille, which again looks pretty amazing/awful (delete as appropriate), and the rear of the car is similarly outlandish. Muscular shoulders jut out to incorporate the LC 500h’s rear wheels, making the car look a bit aggressive.lexus_lc500_review_2017_27

The LC 500h’s rear lights are a good example of the attention to detail Lexus has put in. They’re mirrored when the lights are off, and look almost holographic in appearance when they’re on. It’s not a huge part of the car, but add it to all the other little details and the Lexus LC 500h has a special quality.

Lexus LC500h: Interior 

The rest of the Lexus range suffers from pretty dated interiors, but I’m happy to report the LC 500h kills that trend. The LC 500h I drove in Ibiza was finished with a pretty bold orange and blue interior, but the dark blue metallic LC 500h I drove in the Alps was completed with a rich beige leather interior – for me, the far better option.

Regardless of the interior you go for, the LC 500h’s cabin looks stylish. The LC 500h’s controls seem to curl around you, and a stitched leather divider around the dashboard keeps you separate from your passenger. Rotating dials on the LC 500h’s instrument hood make it easy to change the car’s handling modes, and the overall feeling is that the driver is in charge.

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When I first drove the LC 500h in Ibiza, I was concerned by its heavily inset infotainment screen and counterintuitive trackpad system, but after some time with the LC 500h I’ve grown to like it.

Lexus LC500h: Infotainment

Sure, the infotainment system seems weirdly recessed, but it’s actually quite informative. It’s wide, and it uses this width well: split-screen functionality means you can look at a map while browsing music, for example.

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Although it feels a little flimsy at first, the LC 500h’s trackpad system is actually quite impressive. You’ll soon trust it to navigate through the Lexus’ infotainment system, and the experience is way better than I first expected.

Using it is reminiscent of using a controller to navigate through a video-game menu. The trackpad is responsive without being too sensitive, and the system makes it easier to select things by “snapping” to options on the screen. Haptic feedback also lets you know exactly when you’re moving from one option or tab to another, so you can keep your eyes on the road.

Sure, it may be a little fiddly to begin with, but after a few miles, I found using the LC 500h’s infotainment system pretty straightforward. Is it better than BMW’s iDrive or Audi’s Virtual Cockpit? Maybe not, but it’s certainly better than I thought.

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This time, I was able to test the LC 500h’s satellite navigation system, and on the whole it performed well. There were one or two instances where it told me to turn off when a “follow the road” instruction would’ve been more suitable, but it was a useful companion for the majority of the trip.

The LC 500h comes with a Mark Levinson sound system, and it produces solid, if not spectacular sound. With its default settings enabled, it performed extremely well when it came to low-end bass, but seemed to lack the treble and sharpness needed for more vocal numbers. I found that turning off the system’s “surround sound” setting made sound significantly brighter and more detailed – but it still fell short of the sound systems’ in B&O-equipped Audis, BMWs or Burmester-equipped Mercedes cars.

There’s also more emphasis on the driver; the LC500’s controls seem to curl around you, with a vibrant colour scheme and a stitched leather divider around the dashboard keeping you separate from your passenger. Rotating dials on the LC500’s instrument hood make it easy to change the car’s handling modes and the overall feeling is that the driver is in charge.

How does the LC500h’s hybrid system work? 

First, it’s worth explaining how the LC500h works, as it’s pretty complicated. As with other hybrid cars, the Lexus LC500h is powered by a petrol engine and electric motor. So far, so good. Unlike the BMW i8, though, which makes do with a three-cylinder, 1.5-litre combustion engine, the LC500h has a more powerful 295hp 3.5-litre V6 and couples that with an electric motor to boost power up to 354hp.

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That might seem a similar setup to the other Lexus hybrids but the technology involved here is more mature. Lexus says the lithium-ion hybrid battery is 20% smaller than the nickel-metal hydride battery used in the Lexus LS; so small, in fact, that it fits between the boot and the rear seats.

The most interesting part of the Lexus LC500h isn’t its engine, though – it’s the gearbox. When I drove Lexus’ hybrid range last year I felt the cars were sluggish and the noise of the engine didn’t translate to the actual road speed. To combat this, Lexus has introduced a new “multi-stage” hybrid system and it’s probably the most important aspect of this car.

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Lexus LC500h: A Multi-Stage Hybrid 

Previous Lexus hybrids employed a CVT (constant variable transmission) gearbox. Essentially, this provides one long gear and, in theory, it’s a great idea – because it’s designed to give the best acceleration and traction at any one time. However, it doesn’t give you the same sense of control or feedback as a manual gearbox – not great for a sports car. Often, the revs don’t match the amount of throttle you’re putting down so the car feels and sounds disconnected from your driving input.

To give the Lexus LC500h a sportier, more energetic feel, Lexus has tacked a four-speed gearbox onto the CVT. In simple terms, the LC500h’s gears are now set out like those on a mountain bike, with a four-gear auto box at the pedal end, and a CVT box at the back. 

The first three gears of the auto box combine with three artificial gears on the CVT to give a total of nine gears, while the fourth and final gear of the auto box acts like an overdrive – giving you a total of ten gears. Lexus says that offers the perfect blend of response, efficiency, and driver control; but it seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

Lexus LC500h: Drive

The LC 500h’s hybrid system is its defining feature, and that comes with both pros and cons. The multi-stage hybrid system makes for awesome performance: the LC 500h has a powerful 295hp, 3.5-litre V6 and couples that with an electric motor to boost power up to 354hp. As you’d expect, that makes it rocket-ship quick, and gives it a 0-60mph time of just 4.7 seconds.

And now for the drawbacks. The LC 500h’s complex mixture of CVT and secondary gears means engine sound isn’t great. Every gear sounds identical, and when you put your foot down, the LC 500h lets out a strained drone, almost as if you’re in the wrong gear. When you’re trying to enjoy some of the best roads in the world, it’s a little unsettling, and takes away from the awesome performance of the car.

Lexus has also made every gear ratio the same length. Lexus engineers say this gives the car a rhythm, and makes changing up gears intuitive – but I felt it made the car less engaging to drive, and a little less fun. Listening for when to change gear and make use of the revs is a key aspect of fast driving, and I think turning it into something more routine is a bit of a shame.  

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That’s a a huge shame, actually, because the LC 500h is a joy to drive. On twistier roads around Lake Como and the Bavarian Alps, the LC 500h felt pretty agile – and even more responsive in Sport+ mode. The car is solid and planted at all speeds and, when you throw in fairly stiff suspension and mostly direct steering, the Lexus feels built for performance.

However, the LC 500h isn’t a supercar: it’s a rather opulent 2+2 GT car and it handles like one. There’s reassuring grip, and the LC 500h’s hybrid powertrain makes it far from sluggish, but it lacks the razor-sharp precision of the BMW i8. And you know what? That’s absolutely fine.lexus_lc500_review_2017_44

The car has four driving modes to choose from via a rotary dial in the cockpit, and each slightly changes the characteristics of the throttle, gearbox and suspension. There’s Sport S+, Sport S, Eco and Comfort, and as you go from left to right, each mode gradually ramps down the intensity of the driving experience, dragging the LC 500h towards the grand-tourer end of the spectrum.

Granted, with Sport S+ mode enabled and the paddles at my fingertips, I could hustle the LC 500h to an extent, but it’s clear this car is for enjoying and pushing through roads rather than attacking them.

On motorways, the LC 500h is composed at even Autobahn speeds, and the ride is far more comfortable than you’d expect.

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Updated verdict 

So, what to think of the LC 500h the second time around? Overall second impressions are better. It’s still an incredible piece of technology, and combines innovative tech with bold design – and other areas of the LC 500h have grown on me. The infotainment system takes a while to get used to, but it’s easy to use when you know how, and the interior has an interesting, unique look about it. 

The LC 500h handles well, too, and although not designed to be a supercar, it offers engaging handling. Its gearbox makes driving far less of a sensory engaging than it should be, however.

Sure, the Lexus flagship costs a rather steep £76,595, but it has a very high level of standard trim: the only things you can add to the car are a rather small heads-up display, Mark Levinson sound system and metallic paint.

So the LC 500h is a fascinating car, with unique looks inside and out, and it’s a engineering masterpiece under the bonnet. But should you buy it? If you want the best driving experience or tech prowess, the LC 500h isn’t for you. However, if you want a car that does both of those things admirably well, and looks like a sci-fi prop while doing them, then the LC 500h is worth checking out.

The Lexus LC500 and LC500h are available now from £76,595

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