Last Saturday I attended the Lexus Experience Amazing Drive Event, which is a hands-on driving demonstration that showcased much of the Lexus lineup and its technology, similar to performance driving events I’ve attended for Jaguar numerous times, and Kia featuring the Stinger head-to-head with direct performance competitors from Porsche, BMW, and Audi.
I’ll be first to admit that, until this weekend, the only hands-on experience I’ve had with any of Lexus’ marque has been briefly sitting in each Lexus on display at the Washington Auto Show each year (including the new (as of 2017) LC 500). So, although this was my first time driving or even riding in a Lexus, it was not my first time sitting in and playing with Lexus’ top-of-the-line car. Nobody I know owns a Lexus; I simply have more experience with their direct competitors such as Jaguar, BMW, Audi, and Infiniti, as these are the brands I and my closest friends own and drive. The day started off with a presentation about Lexus’ history and the emphasis on craftsmanship, and some factoids about the LC 500 flagship sports coupe.
Immediately following the introductory presentation, the group was led outside the tent to a series of ES 300h and LS 500h sedans for a ~2mi suburban circuit test-drive of each model. Driving the cars themselves was fantastic; each vehicle handled sharply but comfortably and predictably, and the interior craftsmanship (with the exception of the UX, which I’ll get to later on) was top notch. Truly refined, with comfortable leather in pleasing colors that coordinated with the dark wood tones found elsewhere in the cabin. The ride was quiet, even with A/C blowing, and the hybrids’ had the only Start-Stop system I’ve found completely unobtrusive - in fact, it was so quiet and gentle I didn’t know it was equipped with one for the first half of the drive until I started paying attention for it specifically (Start-Stop is a major pet-peeve of mine, but I can happily report that Lexus’ is the only Start-Stop I don’t hate). The only negative about a vehicle I can even mention from this demo isn’t really a negative; it’s a nit-pick. The ES 300h is slow. Even in Sport, it’s slow; in fact, I could not tell a difference between Normal and Sport. Even in “manual” (quotes because Lexus does not offer a single manual gearbox) in Sport, my passenger didn’t believe me when I told them I had the accelerator floored; its 8.1s 0-60 felt like my car at half throttle. But let’s be real here; nobody is buying the ES 300h for performance, with its 215hp drivetrain - it is a fuel-sensible luxury appointed mid-size family car, and a great one at that, eating the miles up at 44MPG. The LS 500h, with its 354hp, was impressively fast for its size and hybrid drivetrain, reportedly clocking a 5.1s 0-60 time.
Next was the main event; a hot lap in the LC 500. Lexus’ flagship grand touring luxury sports coupe is equipped with a 5.0 liter V8 producing 471hp mated to a 10 speed automatic transmission produced by Aisin - note, it is not a DCT. The LC 500 goes 0-60 in 4.4 seconds, with a top speed of 168MPH. A 354hp hybrid model is also available, but I won’t be discussing it as it wasn’t present at this event, nor would it interest me unless it were being placed head-to-head against a BMW i8 much like the Kia Stinger was pitted against a Porsche Panamera 4. Sitting in the handsomely appointed interior, the first thing you notice is how incredibly quiet the car makes the world around you; the interior is a truly serene place - quiet, and engulfs occupants in the finest upholstery offered in Lexus’ sophisticated modern design language. The immediate attenuation of the outside world was the first thing I noticed when I sat in the LC 500 at an auto show two years ago, and that incredible soundproofing is still present in the production version. All that quiet allows the driver to enjoy the symphony, be that from the Mark Levinson audio system (which I did not test in any of Lexus’ cars), or more importantly, the LC’s throaty, exotic exhaust note. And it’s quite important to point out that in an age of electronic sound symposers from the likes of BMW, the LC 500 has clear influences from Lexus’ LFA halo car, in that the exhaust note you hear is 100% generated by the car itself, and not faked through the speakers. Surely the LC has undergone some form of sound optimization just like the LFA’s exhaust was tuned by Yamaha to create its unmistakably distinct note. The LC 500’s sound is more Aston Martin than the LFA’s F1 exhaust note, but with a base price of $93,000, you can buy four LC 500s for the MSRP of one LFA (or more, considering the LFA has only gone up in value, and as of this writing, only five of the 178 LFAs in the US are currently for resale), making the LC a bargain exotic.
One of many ways the LC 500 demo event could have been improved is by pitting the LC 500 head-to-head against their RC F, which was on static display, but not even a standard RC 300 was available for test driving and comparison the entire event. The two cars are indeed in slightly different classes, with the RC standing as a direct competitor to the M4, Q60, and C63, and the LC 500 is pitted against the 840i, SL 550, and F-Type, and even the i8, NSX, and R8, but in a large way the comparison isn’t far off at all. A head-to-head comparison would have easily solved several event shortcomings with one fell swoop - course familiarization, which was totally absent, would be taken care of, especially with a mandatory “slow” lap, which could be marketed as a lap to try out normal driving dynamics before switching into Sport+ for subsequent performance laps, the RC would actually be represented in Lexus’ lineup, and participants would get more wheel time than a single lap and 5 VERY slow MPH through a chicane.
PS: Lexus, if you’re reading this, pretty, pretty please give the RC F a 6 or 7 speed manual transmission option - you’re losing every manual-loving potential customer to BMW and Porsche!
The LC 500 itself is fantastic. In addition to the interior you’ll never want to get out of, and the exhaust note you’ll never tire of hearing, it handles beautifully, with safe and predictable understeer rather than erratic or temperamental oversteer, and the brakes stably guide the car into corners quickly and evenly. Even the trunk is surprisingly large, and could easily stow luggage for a weekend getaway, or a couple’s golf trip. The back seats are predictably low on headroom, but this is the only comfort gripe, and on a car like this it’s not an actual problem; the prospective buyers who actually care about rear headroom (all zero of you) can wait for the upcoming convertible model of the LC 500. In fact, the only negative about the LC I can even write about is its throttle response, and this seems to be more a symptom of the 10 speed transmission than the engine itself. Even in Sport+ there is noticeable throttle lag when pinning the accelerator, especially coming out of corners; it seems that the transmission, despite its 0.12 second shifts, can’t choose a gear and rev-match quickly enough to match demand. The engine itself revs quite freely, so lag seems to come from the drivetrain. It’s possible Lexus chose to forgo a DCT in order to avoid gear hunting lag they can also sometimes suffer from; shifting “manually” via paddles alleviates some of this throttle lag. At the end of the day, it’s a nit-pick issue, as it’s just a quirk of this car that owners will get used to as they become familiar with driving it, plus this is a GT car - it is a car meant to eat up miles on the highway, turn heads in the city, and drop with the valet. It’s not a track queen; it’s a luxury cruiser with performance capabilities refined beyond most of its competitors. And for the drivers who somehow need even more excitement than the already exquisite LC 500 offers, “an unnamed performance model” is in the pipeline - expect an LC F Sport model to be formally announced in the next year or so with a twin-turbocharged V8 supplying over 600hp.
Next up was an agility demo of the new UX 200h. This course was tight, meant to simulate parking lot maneuverability. Participants were allowed to drive any of the available standard and hybrid UX models through the course as many times as they desired, which meant this demo provided the most wheel-time of any of the models demoed.
To be fully transparent, I didn’t even know the UX existed until arriving to the Lexus Experience Amazing Drive Event; I’d simply never heard of it or ever seen one. Naturally, I knew nothing about it, and while test driving it one of my friends was reading the sticker, and asked me to guess the list price - I was a full $9k over its $34,000 starting price for the hybrid model. At $32,000 for the standard model, I think the UX 200 is extremely competitively priced for what it offers, which is style and comfort in an affordable upscale CUV package, and there’s even AWD available on the higher trim UX 250 with either standard or hybrid drivetrains - that’s a huge deal! The UX is Lexus’ newest and more affordably priced crossover offering, seemingly geared toward the millennial yuppie; it offers a hybrid model, and seems to be the replacement for the CT 200h wagon, which I always admired. Undoubtedly to cut costs, the UX features abundant plastic in lieu of the wood and leather appointed interiors of the rest of Lexus’ lineup, but the supple, supportive seating NuLuxe surfaces feel identical to the leather in Lexus’ higher models, as is the optional premium infotainment and driver’s technology. And let’s just take a second to appreciate how beautiful the Nori Green Pearl paint job is paired with Glazed Caramel seating surfaces; my group couldn’t stop talking about it, because it’s nice to see a luxury marquee with paint offerings beyond monochrome variations. Unfortunately for you readers, since this was the least restrictive portion of the drive event, I spent my time demoing the UX rather than photographing it; you’ll have to check out Nori Green Pearl on Lexus’ website.
The final demonstration, on a 3rd course, was of the NX and RX’s agility and driver assistance and safety technologies. The course was, again, meant to simulate neighborhood and parking lot maneuvering, which is where these models thrive, as stereotypical soccer-mommy-mobile family-grocery-getters. These mid-size SUVs are ubiquitous in the parking lots of Whole Foods, World Market, Pottery Barn, and the like, and for good reason, as Lexus has made an exceptional family SUV product - after driving and riding in them, I now see why they are so popular. The RX is SO. COMFY. Although I was expecting the RXL to have a reclining rear seat, I was pleasantly surprised it also adjusted fore and aft, which meant that my already plentiful legroom expanded to an even larger expanse of flat floor surface area - and this RXL didn’t even have the optional rear captains chairs. The NX offered a sportier road feel through the steering wheel, and the RX was more plush, but both were equally pleasant to either drive or be driven in.
The key demo for this portion of the Experience was the Pre-Collision System, which will automatically fully deploy the brakes in the event that front or rear sensors detect an object or pedestrian in the vehicle’s path, even if your foot is completely off the brake. To demonstrate this, participants back into a parking spot containing an obstruction, and are instructed to leave the vehicle to brake on its own (touching the brake will override the system, indicating that the driver is in control, and will allow objects to be struck). My group tried this several times, from a stop, at a single car-length from the obstruction, which meant vehicle speed was low enough that the Pre-Collision System emergency-stopped the SUV before striking the barrier - this can be seen in the video at the end of this blog. Next, someone tried testing the system at a slight angle to the flat barrier - the Pre-Collision System did stop as intended, but struck the barrier, knocking it over, before stopping in time. Finally, I chose to test the system at idle speed (the RX won’t reach idle on its own in a single vehicle distance), simulating the inevitable idiot driver who will buy one of these and think this system means they don’t need to use the brake while parking anymore; the Pre-Collision System again, predictably, stopped on its own, but not before striking and knocking over the barrier. Some of the event staff didn’t believe us when we said we were completely off the brakes when it hit the barriers, but to be clear, the Pre-Collision System worked completely as intended (and advertised on Lexus’ website), and this behavior isn’t entirely unexpected; the laws of physics always apply - greater kinetic energy requires greater stopping distance. While one staffer seemed annoyed and disbelieving, another who was much more helpful and informative was genuinely curious how we got the system to actually hit the barrier, and it sounded like they were going to try stress-testing it out more themselves after participants had left - we were all happy to describe the different things we had tried and the results for them to try it for themselves.
That was it in terms of driving opportunities, but static displays of the UX, RC F, LC, ES, and LS were open to explore, but not powered on for tech demonstration like at a convention center auto show - a simple generator running power to all the cars could have solved this. The static displays provided the opportunity to try out the rear seats of the ES and LS, and the back seat is where you want to live in the LS. I have to say, I’m not a sedan person, and personally, in terms of the Lexus lineup, am most realistically interested in the RC F, but the LS 500h made the biggest impression on me. I have always and will always love grand touring coupes, so while the LC 500 was my favorite car of the day, it was exactly as great as I expected; the LS, however, is the one that really surprised me shaped my impression of Lexus. As someone unfamiliar with Lexus, but more familiar with most of its competitors, I’ve always thought of Lexuses as “fancy Toyotas.” I’ve been wrong this whole time. Very wrong. Pitted against the Jaguar XJ, the Lexus LS holds its own, and really just leaves buyers with a choice - do you prefer shiny British style, or modern Japanese aesthetic? The LS 500’s executive rear seats have adjustable recline, headrests, bolsters, lumbar, and the standard climate controls expected in an executive luxury sedan, all controlled through a touchscreen monitor in the armrest.
I have a deep love of Jaguar’s emphasis on performance, but for an executive saloon, it’s hard to say no to that 354hp hybrid V6 that gets 28MPG. If you like the XJ’s Supercharged V8 470 ponies, Lexus offers the LS 500 F Sport with 416hp and still manages 21MPG for the AWD model; the XJ only offers AWD on the 340hp Supercharged V6 that only manages 21MPG, not the RWD-only 5.0L V8 that averages 18MPG. This comes down to a fundamental difference in direction the two manufacturers have taken - both are competing against German luxury frontrunners BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but have taken on the fuel economy problem in different ways. Jaguar has focused their efforts on all-electric vehicles, with the introduction of the I-Pace, and instead offer more economical Diesel engines on select models. Lexus fights the gas pump through its hybrids, and Toyota has always been the kink of hybrid technology. Hybrids are the immediate future of cars, and the fact that Lexus has so finely mated luxury, build quality, and performance out of a hybrid drivetrain - it’s impossible to ignore that.
I’m looking forward to Lexus returning to DC next year for another installment of the Lexus Experience Amazing Drive Event, hopefully with an RC F, and eventually the LC F, which is rumored to be on sale for the 2022 model year. And next time I’m behind a Lexus in traffic, I’m sure to pay a lot more attention.