The Cuesta Grade humbles.
The steepest section of the 101 Freeway in the state, it ribbons through a series of craggy rises just north of San Luis Obispo.
Econoboxes struggle along in the far right lane, their thrashing motors no match for the 7% grade. Big rigs are forced to pull over to the side of the road, engines overheating amid the assault.
But in the Lexus LC500, the Cuesta Grade is nothing more than another scenic byway, and a chance to flaunt the sleek coupe’s prodigious power. Made in the mold of a classic grand tourer, the LC500 is a performance- and luxury-oriented ride that seems perfect for a high-speed coastal jaunt.
Nevertheless, the four-seat Lexus suffers from an identity crisis — one that could perplex prospective buyers of a car with a base price of $92,200.
The LC500’s seriously aggressive styling actually outpaces its performance capabilities. The looks say, “Flog me at the track,” but the driving dynamics say, “Take me on a road trip through Santa Barbara wine country.” (I did neither, though I did have a great lunch at Jocko’s Steakhouse, a Nipomo, Calif., haunt where all manner of meat is cooked over an oak-burning pit and the wood-paneled bar’s walls are dotted with big-game trophies.)
Launched in 2017, the LC500 is based on the LF-LC, a concept car from 2012 that turned heads upon its debut at the North American International Auto Show. What’s amazing about the LC500 is that it manages to retain the concept car’s wild styling — an extravagantly sculpted nose and a radically tapered greenhouse give it real presence. So often, such details go by the wayside when a car is readied for production. Coming from a brand known for mostly making sedate if not extremely competent cars, it’s a refreshing turn.
The LC500 I drove for a week cost $105,710, the result of several add-on features, including a limited-slip differential and a performance package that offers a carbon fiber roof. These are items that suggest a single-minded pursuit of speed.
But that’s not how the somewhat portly, 4,280-pound coupe drives. The naturally aspirated V-8 puts out 471 horsepower, good for an estimated 0-60 time of 4.4 seconds. It’s fast, of course, with the power delivered linearly through a smooth 10-speed automatic transmission. But competitive vehicles from several German and other Japanese automakers are faster, and certainly feel more lithe. For the most engaging experience, put the LC500 in Sport Plus mode, which sharpens engine response and tightens suspension and steering settings. In manumatic mode, shifting is handled via pleasing-to-the-touch magnesium paddles that rest behind the compact steering wheel, though this is still no substitute for rowing gears with a traditional manual transmission, which is not offered here.
For that drive up the 101, best to leave the car in Normal mode, ignore the paddle shifters and watch the ancient oak trees blur by. A quibble: A car with a 10-speed transmission should deliver better than 19 miles per gallon combined.
Inside, Lexus nailed the grand tourer vibe: There are artful touches that connote luxury, such as Alcantara-trimmed door panels that gracefully sweep up into the dashboard. And there are some daring choices, too, like the door handles, which aren’t set in familiar bezels. But as with the exterior, there are touches that suggest a single-minded mission of speed that the car doesn’t deliver on — like the two grab handles provided for the passenger. There’s one in the center stack and another in the passenger door, and they’re there, presumably, so that a copilot could take hold of them during aggressive cornering. In practice, they are useless.
There aren’t many roughly $100,000 coupes that the LC500 could be compared to, but I found two conceivable alternatives to drive. Both of them are big four-seaters boasting a lot of power, though they fall on either side of the LC500 on the grand tourer spectrum.
The Nissan GT-R, whose base price is $99,990, provides supercar performance for a relative bargain: It accelerates to 60 miles per hour in an estimated 2.9 seconds, eye-watering speed that typically costs a lot more (a Porsche 911 Turbo matches that 0-60 time but starts at $161,800). Like the LC500, the GT-R is not offered with a manual transmission, requiring the use of paddle shifters if you want to change gears yourself. But with a hard-edged dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive expertly routing 565 horsepower to the ground, shifting via the paddles is actually really fun, and pretty addictive. (This is a big concession for a traditionalist like me.)
The GT-R I drove was the premium version, and came outfitted with additional luxury features that sent the price skyward to $119,885. Yes, this upgraded model offers a hand-stitched interior; even still, the GT-R can’t compete with the LC500 in terms of refinement. But the point here is the performance — the GT-R knows exactly what it is, and it delivers.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe also knows exactly what it is — a traditional grand tourer. The car starts at $124,500, though I drove the AMG S63 version, which swaps in a turbocharged V-8 that puts out 603 horsepower. Sure, there are performance-oriented features like $8,950 ceramic brakes and a $6,500 carbon fiber package in this high-end edition, but there also are Swarovski crystal headlamp accents and a cabin fragrance system that infuses the interior with a choice of four scents. (I liked Freeside Mood, which Mercedes describes as “an unobtrusive but present citrus scent, very rounded, without any rough edges.”)
The thing is, the Mercedes-Benz and the Nissan — which cater to very different audiences — have a much better sense of what they are than the LC500. And that rigid adherence to brand DNA is a selling point. After all, potential buyers comfortable with a six-figure outlay are likely to have extremely particular wants and desires when it comes to their rides.
No, I don’t think buyers in this segment want to compromise. They either want a grand tourer, or not. And the LC500 is something in between, however capable it may be.
Times' take: A head-turning and compromised coupe
Highs: Concept car looks; architectural interior
Lows: It’s got power, but it’s not as fast as it looks
Vehicle type: Two-door, four-passenger sports car
Base price: $92,200
Price as tested: $105,710
Powertrain: 5.0-liter V-8 gasoline engine
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Torque: 398 pound-feet