AS MUCH as I’d like to think I’m immune to the common human failing of making poor decisions, the arrival of this rather beautiful red Lexus LC 500h proves that alas, I am not.
Having spent the last three months in the burly, brilliant and rather boisterous V8-powered Lexus LC 500, the decision to swap it for the hybrid version for the final month of the LC’s long-term loan seemed a smart one.
After all, the two cars are identically priced and the hybrid’s complex drivetrain intrigued me. Can an aspirated V6 petrol mated to a lithium-ion battery and electric motor really compare to the character, noise and fire-and-brimstone performance of the V8? And if it couldn’t, would it deliver enough of an efficiency boost to justify the sacrifice?
It doesn’t take long to realise that, despite its identical exterior appearance, the hybrid is a very different proposition to the V8. The changes are subtle at first. The starter button, for example, is a bluey-purple colour, not silver like the V8’s, and prodding it doesn’t bring the deep burble of internal combustion I’m used to, but eerie silence.
This continues as I roll out of the carpark but then, as I feed in more throttle to join the traffic flow, the charmless drone of the V6 ignites with a jolt. The brake pedal feels different too, with that trademark Toyota hybrid fizzing sensation at the top of the travel.
Even the steering, which is darty in comparison, takes some adjustment, thanks to its variable-ratio rack that comes as part of this particular car’s optional Enhancement Package.
The $15K pack also adds four-wheel steering, an active rear wing and some interior tweaks, such as replacing the V8’s sublime leather seats with heavily bolstered cloth pews, which for my frame at least, aren’t as comfortable. Small differences, sure, but combine them and the hybrid feels a noticeable step backward from the V8; a feeling magnified by the fact that the rest of the car feels so familiar.
Further exploration of the powertrain as I accelerate onto the freeway only solidifies the realisation that I’ve made an error in my decision-making process: I should have driven the hybrid first, then the V8.
While much of the LC core goodness remains – head turning looks, brilliant build quality, surprising value and excellent ride comfort – constantly comparing the hybrid to the V8 only highlights its shortcomings. Had I driven them the other way around, perhaps I’d be less disappointed.
Weeks of familiarisation haven’t softened my resolve either. While surprisingly swift, especially off the line, thanks to its instant electric shove, the 264kW/348Nm hybrid lacks the theatre and rush that makes the LC 500 so engaging.
There’s none of the V8’s effortlessness either, with squeezes on the throttle exposing the V6’s lack of torque (the 500h also weighs about 50kg more) and slower downshifts from the hybrid’s complex gearbox, which combines a conventional four-speed automatic with a CVT. It has little of the crispness or intuition of the V8’s 10-speed torque converter automatic and occasionally delivers unnatural feeling, slurring upshifts where revs don’t quite match the road speed or throttle position.
I’m not convinced by the $15K Enhancement Package either. The standard seats are better, so is the variable rack and I could take or leave the four-wheel steering, which does deliver a welcome manoeuvrability boost at low speed, but can feel a heartbeat behind the rest of the car when driving quickly.
So the V8 is the LC to buy, but even with the hybrid’s less satisfying powertrain, both models retain an appeal and personality that’s quite unlike any other car. Core to this are those outlandish looks, which, even after four months, still deliver a thrill every time I walk up to the driver’s door.
The only real LC negatives are the overly complicated infotainment system and the shallow boot (172 litres in the hybrid; 18L less than the V8), but even these can’t detract from what is a unique, soulful and engaging sports coupe that, like most Lexus performance cars, only gets better the more time you spend with it.