2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible first drive review: Indulgent beauty
Now available as a roadster, Lexus' haute couture two-door finally comes into its own.
A famous car designer once told me that styling a convertible is his profession's toughest task. "Droptops force us to leave a big damned hole in the middle, yet we still have to find a way to make them sexy," he said. Admittedly, we were a few cocktails into a launch dinner for a car that wasn't this 2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible, but the man's point stands. For one thing, it's gotta be easier to draw a coupe or a hatchback, because their rooflines not only help provide visual directional thrust, they don't require finding a way to package a retractable top. Perhaps most importantly, designers and engineers of fixed-roof models also don't have to make a convincing visual statement that works two ways: top up and top down.
To be clear, my designer friend has never lifted a pen for Lexus, but clearly, Toyota's luxury division ought to sympathize. Indeed, the brand hasn't always gotten convertibles right (one look at the ill-proportioned 2010-2015 IS droptop would be all the evidence needed for that particular court case). But this 2021 Lexus LC 500? It's something else entirely: an absolute stunner. I'll go a step further. I think this is one of the best-looking cars on the road at any price, and that goes for this new droptop and its fixed-roof relation.
That the LC is so gorgeous is even more remarkable because, for my money, it's the only beautiful Lexus conceived during the company's entire Spindle Grille Era. Whereas other Lexuses too often mistake aggression for beauty, the LC manages to conjure up both traits largely without relying on the easy crutch of exaggerated features and excessive body lines. This is a car whose aesthetics will age very well over time. It's not just its classic long-hood, short-deck proportions and overall form, although those certainly help. From the LC's grille texturing to its mesmerizing infinity-lens taillamps, this car isn't just a snack, it's a proper feast.
Listen, I've spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time talking about the way this car looks, but it's because it's central to the reason customers splash out for expensive convertibles like this. You're going to get noticed, even if your car isn't slathered in this impossibly rich Infrared paint ($595). (To its eternal credit, along with the usual silvers, whites and blacks, Lexus offers the LC in a surprisingly vibrant catalog of colors, including Cadmium Orange, Flare Yellow and my favorite, Nori Green Pearl.)
Now that I've got a few words on appearances out of the way, I have a confession: The first time I drove the LC coupe, it left me torn. I fell hard for certain aspects -- namely its lustrous and vocal V8, as well as its peerless cabin materials and overall aesthetic. But it felt to me like the 2018 model couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a proper sports car or a relaxed, long-legged grand tourer. The coupe's engine noises and driving position suggested the former, but its corpulent weight, periodically dimwitted transmission and its suspension and steering tuning suggested the latter -- even with the optional Performance Pack. I adore a good long-distance cruiser as much as the next guy, but the LC 500's tiny trunk and vestigial rear seats further meant the coupe wasn't a particularly able GT, either.
Finally, the LC came fitted with The Devil's Own Infotainment: Lexus' diabolical Remote Touch system, a shambolic interface every bit as inscrutable as its oxymoronic name. In the end, I walked away from the LC feeling like a great opportunity was missed.
I'm happy to report that for 2021, that opportunity has not only been realized, in dropping its top, the LC 500 has well and truly come of age. It's glorious.
Roadster done right
Let's start with the convertiblization (if that's not a word, it should be). Lexus executed this transformation properly, and the results speak for themselves. Thanks to extensive use of high-strength steel, a convertible-specific torsion box and plenty of additional supports and gusseting around the floor, roof pillars and suspension towers, chassis flex is not an issue. Furthermore, top-down wind management -- an often overlooked art -- is a strong suit.
Importantly, there's effectively no significant aesthetic or spacial penalty to going for the cabriolet, as the cabin is just as roomy. Yes, at a paltry 3.4 cubic feet, the trunk is smaller by two cubes, but that feels academic, as the coupe's cargo area is likewise as shallow and useless as that fling you had in college.
More importantly, when you flip up the discrete leather-bound lid and poke that rocker switch on the center console, the LC's hydraulic top quietly ballets from view, gracefully disappearing entirely beneath its integrated tonneau in about 15 seconds (at speeds up to 31 mph). The LC's well-insulated, four-layer lid looks great up or down, and when erect, the soft top works in tandem with active noise cancellation to deliver almost coupe-like levels of isolation.
That V8 life
Of course, life is better with the lid off. It's also better with a V8 underfoot. Dropping the top affords you the best way to hear the LC's positively orchestral 5.0-liter, naturally aspirated engine -- all 471 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of it. Believe me, the standard automatic transmission -- freshly recalibrated for 2021 -- may have an absurd number of forward ratios for a sporting car, but you still owe it to yourself to grab the shift paddles and rifle through those ten speeds just to hear this turbo-free engine at high revs. Doing so won't get you to 60 mph any quicker than the factory's ho-hum 4.6-second estimate (let alone to the LC's electronically limited 168-mph top speed), but who cares?
As for when you're just slogging through traffic and can't be bothered to DIY, the gearbox now operates more obsequiously when left in "D." Either way, this rear-wheel-drive powertrain is a treat, specially when optioned with the Torsen limited-slip differential ($460) to help get power down in the corners.
Never great to begin with, the fuel-efficiency figures for this heavier convertible dip by a single mile per gallon on all cycles, now totaling 15 miles mpg city, 25 highway and 18 combined. Speaking of efficiency, one thing that hasn't made the transition to roofless life is the V6 hybrid powertrain found in the LC 500h. That's just as well, because while that model is markedly more parsimonious than this car's V8, it's also not a particularly smooth operator, nor is it anywhere near as engaging to drive. As much as I applaud the intent, I don't recommend the hybrid powertrain in the coupe, and I wouldn't endorse it in this convertible.
At 4,540 pounds before options (as hefty as some Ford F-150 models, not to mention 200 pounds more than the already overweight Coupe), Lexus has wisely retuned LC's suspension just for the convertible. Changes range from unique bushings to new dampers and coil springs. Plus, there's a redesigned and relocated Adaptive Variable Suspension system and a special Yamaha damper housed between the rear subframe and chassis that curbs body flex, adding further refinement.
These changes come on the heels of a number of subtle-but-crucial updates implemented over the LC's lifespan. For 2019, the coupe received a retuned, more compliant suspension and a revised transmission, both of which did it some favors. Like 2019's softened-up hardtop, this convertible's model-specific suspension fits a droptop's inherently more relaxed demeanor more accurately. Remarkably, this setup doesn't send shudders through the bodywork despite huge rolling stock. I'm not sure how the thin-sidewalled Michelin Pilot Sport ZP run-flats fitted to my tester's optional 21-inch forged wheels ($2,650) don't deflate just glancing at Greater Detroit's martian roadscapes, but they don't even ride that roughly.
Beautiful cabin with one wart
As before, the LC's cabin is a swoopy, stylish and sybaritic masterstroke, especially when outfitted with premium leather like the Toasted Caramel hide shown here. The semi-aniline leather is part of the $5,200 Touring Package, a big options bundle that also includes a sonorous 13-speaker, 1,950-watt Mark Levinson audio system. With one notable exception, the LC boasts one of the auto industry's nicest interiors, chock full of interesting shapes and stitchlines all rendered in the finest materials.
That one notable exception? You guessed it: infotainment. Lexus' reviled Remote Touch remains, trackpad and all. The good news is that unlike with early LCs, you no longer have to use the 10.3-inch screen's mouse-like interface as often. Yes, this pointer system still puts the "curse" in "cursor," but life has been greatly improved because now, not only is Apple CarPlay offered, Android Auto compatibility joins the fray for 2021. Both offer far more intuitive menu systems than the native software. If all else fails, there's a pretty decent Amazon Alexa voice-control system as a backstop. While this patchwork setup still makes for a deeply compromised experience, the LC's dashboard tech is no longer as disagreeable as a system that's singlehandedly prevented me from recommending past Lexus models.
Like the aforementioned audio gear, the climate control system plays along with the convertible theme, automatically adjusting its settings to account for the roof being open or closed. And thanks to the indulgently named "Lexus Climate Concierge with Upper Body Heating" feature (part of the Touring Package), the climate controls and various heating elements (seats, wheel and neck warmers) work in concert to keep occupants comfortable.
Even the coupe's token rear seats are still present, and yes, they're still laughably small. Handbags? Definitely. Pomsky or Chorkie approved? Sure. Schoodle? Toy or Miniature only, please -- no Standards. Frankly, it's best to think of the rear seats as an extension of the trunk.
On the safety front, there's plenty of advanced driver-assistance smarts. Lexus Safety System Plus is fitted as standard equipment, and it includes precollision automatic braking with pedestrian detection, along with blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure and lane-keeping systems, plus adaptive cruise control. Additional safeguards include pyrotechnic pop-up hoops for rollovers and a helpful head-up display ($900).
The 2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible starts at $102,025 including $1,025 for delivery, with my nicely optioned tester ringing up at $111,920. Obviously, that's a lot of cash, but with its concept-car looks, addictive noise and gorgeous interior, the LC comes across as worlds more desirable than the poorly aging Mercedes-Benz SL-Class and more attractive and special-feeling than BMW's 8 Series Convertible. It feels worth the money.
It's taken a few years, but the Lexus LC finally knows what it is, and what it should've been all along: a beautiful, thrilling and virtuous luxury convertible.