Three supercoupes battle it out in a half-million dollar showdown

The Lang Lang proving grounds host a three-way supercoupe face-off but which sub-$200k GT is the last one standing?

Jaguar F-Type P380 Lexus LC500 Mercedes-AMG E53 Comparison test
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“Your car is on fire, mate.” That wasn’t what I really wanted to hear while inching a Jaguar F-Type through a McDonalds drive-thru, ordering a bacon and egg McMuffin. I wondered if I’d be able to take the restaurant with me in the resultant conflagration. I hear those grease traps can flare up like an angry pack of haemorrhoids. “My car is on fire?” I felt it was important to clarify the on fire/not on fire thing. I didn’t want to be Romain Grosjean. At least he was racing semi-competently and not trying to post lightly spiced mechanically recovered meat into his mouth part. “YOUR CAR IS FIRE,” came the disembodied reply through the tinny speaker. I’ve never felt so old.

But then being of a certain age seems a bit of a prerequisite for entry into this particular club. If you’re not over the age of 40, and seconded by two people with gout or minor prolapsed discs, you probably shouldn’t bother. After all, GT coupes tend to be too compromised and too expensive for those with a full complement of hair, teeth and principles. They’re one of the few things that make ageing seem worthwhile and the cars gathered here are three of the very finest occupants of that $150-$200k netherworld just below that price point at which the Porsche 911 makes most rival efforts seem vaguely perfunctory.

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At the sensible end of this intriguing triptych is the Mercedes-AMG E53 coupe. It’s based on an E-Class sedan chassis, has functional back seats, a huge boot and comes with both a five-year warranty and the reassuring comfort blanket of all-wheel drive. It also has the most technically interesting powertrain of the bunch, a 3.0-litre straight-six with an e-motor good for 250Nm, a turbocharger and a 48v-powered electric compressor, in effect acting as a zero-lag bottom-end supercharger. It’s also the cheapest car here, retailing at $164,800 before on-roads and options.

The next most expensive is the $173,100 Jaguar F-Type R-Dynamic P380. This resides at the other extreme to the AMG, offering no back seats, a firmish ride, short-wheelbase jinkiness, a 3.0-litre V6 supercharged powerplant and an engine note to die for. Preferably not in a grease fire.  It’s a car so good looking that you’ll never be able to walk away without casting a look over your shoulder. If you think that paying $100k extra for the range-topping V8 model seems smart, then Pete Evans has a COVID-curing BioCharger with your name on it.

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"Drama follows the F-Type. The theatrical flare of revs on start up will soon have you struck from your neighbours’ Christmas card list."

Wedged into the middle of this trio is the Lexus LC500. Retailing at $194,757, this is comfortably the most powerful car here and achieves that feat with no forced aspiration whatsoever, just 4969 cubic centimetres of swept capacity, which gets compressed into eight Yamaha-designed combustion chambers. Despite all of the carbon-fibre parts on this elegant 2+2, I suspect the chassis must be made of depleted uranium or something similar to tip the scales at 1970kg. That’s almost 400kg heavier than the Jaguar, which shares an identical 178kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio.

Now before we roll the sleeves up and dive headlong into this one, can we get one thing straight? Nobody needs a $200k coupe. They’re pure indulgences and, yes, your indulgences are your business. In that regard, you probably already have firm ideas as to which of these cars are more you, so this may well be an exercise in personal confirmation bias. That’s a maybe, but stick with this because it’s not your typical three-car comparison.

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The first requirement in the morning at the proving ground is to eke some numbers out of these vehicles and that presents us with something of a challenge. There isn’t a smooth, straight stretch of bitumen long enough to accelerate the vehicles safely up to 400m and then brake them back down to zero again. We guinea-pig a couple of runs on the handling pad but it’s clear that even when starting at the far extreme, the numbers suggest that the vehicles will still be travelling at around 65km/h when they disappear off into the bushes at the other end. So we test over a 350m course instead, running the vehicles to a maximum of around 150km/h in the process, which is more than enough to give us an indication of relative speed, if not a quarter mile time. We’ll have to save that for the Heathcote strip.

We expected the AMG to be the quickest off the line, leveraging its all-wheel drive advantage and instant e-boosted torque. What we didn’t expect was that the car with the feeblest power-to-weight ratio would then never be caught. Even from 80-120km/h, where traction isn’t really an issue, the cheapest car here pipped the others. Only in the next 30km/h increment did the LC500’s sheer power tell, recording 120-150km/h in 3.09s, with the AMG a tenth back and the Jaguar a further tenth behind.

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The stock zero to 100km/h increment? The AMG will demolish the more exotic-looking rear-drivers every time. It’s worth noting that none of the cars featured a launch-control function. The Mercedes was idiot-proof off the line anyway, the Lexus was easy to chirp cleanly away, but the Jaguar required  more trial and error to squeeze the best time from. Its Trac-DSC mode – a slackening of the stability and traction control settings – yielded the most regular results.

The Lexus felt most implacable under braking, the huge eight-piston front monoblocs offering the greatest swept area of its big 400mm discs, helping combat 1945kg of physics. The Mercedes’ left-hand pedal also feels reassuring but lacks the Japanese car’s pure retardation power. The Jaguar never feels quite so planted, its braking matching the drama of its power delivery. Stamp on the picks and it feels like the car’s corrugating behind you in a cartoonish fashion, as if the rear axle’s trying to climb into the cabin with you.

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Drama follows the F-Type. The theatrical flare of revs on start up will soon have you struck from your neighbours’ Christmas card list, the supercharged V6 sounding even more strident in Dynamic mode when the exhaust butterflies open. Shunt the gear lever into manual mode and chase the 6800rpm redline and it’s one of those cars that so saturates you in sound and juices your adrenal glands that after a while you’re left gritty-eyed and spent, as if you’ve been up for 48 hours and you’re on your sixth Red Bull of the morning.

I’m following the Lexus LC500 through the testing twisties of Lang Lang’s Hill Route. There’s every radius of bend here, with purposefully awful surface changes mid-corner and one corner where a carefully cultivated mud patch right at the apex sends cars into sudden and eye-widening understeer. The show car lines of the Lexus catch the light in curious ways, the wheel spokes strobing crazily in the low sun while the nearside rear lights reflect the grey kerb stones like a rheumy glaucoma eye.

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Alex Affat has figured out that the Lexus needs to be kept in manual, above 5500rpm and in its most focused Sport S+ configuration to give the impression of shucking off weight via the application of horses. The Jaguar needs no such prescription to get up onto its toes. Even in its default drive mode it feels alive, with less of an abrupt transition through its damping stroke than the Japanese coupe. The steering offers a decent facsimile of feel without getting syrupy. If you haven’t driven a Jaguar for a while, it’ll be a revelation compared to the awful fingertip-light hydraulic systems that blighted so many of the company’s sporting wares for so long.

Forget the revised front end. It’s the steering that represents the biggest change in this  F-Type. It’s blessed with crisper on-centre feel and more initial effort on turn-in, with a more pronounced caster effect and there’s even a very subtly engineered vibration pathway through the column to give it the feel of being alive in your hands. It works.

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There’s also a good deal more stability when accelerating out of tighter turns. Jaguar poached Tanmay Dube from McLaren, where he’d worked as integration manager on the 720S, and his team identified an area of compounding instability in the old car’s rear suspension. By using huge die-cast aluminium rear hub carriers, beefier wheel bearings and upgraded upper ball joints, camber stiffness has increased by 37 per cent while toe stiffness elevates by 41 per cent. Being able to more precisely manage the rear tyre contact patches reduces the complexity of variables affecting the front tyres and, in turn, the steering.

I swap into the Lexus and attempt to replicate the F-Type’s speed and line through each corner, unsuccessfully. The LC500 ladles out big stabs of stability control to combat roll oversteer. Switch out the electronic nanny and the Lexus, with 250mm more in the wheelbase than the Jaguar and a creamily progressive powerplant will slide predictably and lazily. It’s probably not a habit you’ll get into, on dry bitumen at least, as the 275/35 RF21 rear Michelin Pilot Super Sports are around $500 a hoop, so you could easily chew through a grand’s worth of rubber in minutes if you get a bit overenthusiastic.

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The stability system delivers a gentler intervention than the Jag’s somewhat snitchy system with the new Active Cornering Assist providing more sophisticated braking control to the inner wheels when cornering hard, but then the electronics blot their copybook with an unacceptably slow re-authentication of any meaningful throttle request.

This current LC benefits from an update which sees around 9kg of unsprung weight shorn from the aluminium suspension structures and lighter 21-inch wheels, with that weight being reintroduced into the chassis in the form of additional rear bracing. The LC will still roll and the 2020 update to imbue the front suspension with a longer, softer stroke are thrown into stark relief by the comparative sophistication of the F-Type’s delightful front end.

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The answer to any cornering problem with the AMG is more throttle, right up to that point when it isn’t. The combination of nine-speed automatic transmission and an electro-mechanically controlled centre clutch allows for fully variable torque distribution. In other words, the E53 can be a pure rear-driver if it wants to be, in theory at least. Power out of a corner and it’s impossible to detect the diff apportioning drive from front to rear.

The engine also undertakes a baton relay, the electric motor delivering a 16kW/250Nm boost from step-off to 2500rpm. At this point, it’s in its handover phase to the 48v-energised e-turbo which gets moving at just below 2000rpm, spooling up to 70,000rpm, and delivering its services in the time it takes for another 1000rpm to register on the TFT tacho. At this point, a head of exhaust gases have spun up the old-school turbo and the AMG is shifting. With so much going on down low, it’s a bit of a shame that peak power arrives at a lowly 6100rpm, as the straight-six has the genesis of a decent howl developing.

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Riding on air, the AMG feels all of a piece up until about eight-tenths, beyond which some of the calibrations feel a little ham-fisted. That shouldn’t detract from its appeal as a pure road car, for which its ride and handling are largely well judged. Wicking the E53 into Sport+ mode stiffens the front end quite markedly and this roll resistance compromises grip somewhat, making the Mercedes the biggest handful through the dried mud understeer exercise. Leaving the transmission to figure out things for itself results in the software kicking down several gear rather clumsily on corner exit. Try shuffling cogs by using the reprofiled lug-shaped shifters and you realise that due to its low-end complexity, the E53’s lump isn’t the easiest to drive by ear and the gear indicator is so small it can only be registered by a superior brand of scanning electron microscope, and to make that task even harder, it’s hidden from view behind the steering wheel boss.

The Jaguar’s ride compromises are an acceptable trade-off for the handling accuracy delivered, but the Lexus is always both louder and firmer in its Comfort mode than is ideal as a GT cruiser. The Mercedes isn’t entirely vice-free either, with significant tyre noise and, in this example at least, at least three separate and persistent squeaks and rattles. The seats are wide and flat in both cushion and squab, but space in the rear is excellent. The cabin, with its new S-Class wheel, MBUX infotainment and bold sweep of lumber is dramatic, but is overburdened by irksome nuisance factors. These can manifest via superfluous warnings or the ultra-sensitive capacitive pads on the steering wheels that, with an errant pass of the thumb, seems to be able to trash your main dash readouts from the usual speedo and tacho to something that tells you the exchange rate of the Vietnamese dong against a basket of Micronesian currencies. I may have made that last bit up.

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Therein lies the surprise with this test. None of these three convincingly answers the call as a satisfying gran turismo. The Mercedes’ control interface is too fussy and the materials quality at this price point aren’t as resolved as we’d like. The Lexus’ recent pivot to a more dynamic focus is a bit of a head scratcher, offering neither the ride finesse to satisfy as a long-distance mile muncher nor the focus of a scalpel-sharp corner carver. Only the Jaguar nails a particular brief, but you may tire of its jostling ride and histrionics and wonder where the money’s been spent as you sit and wonder what happened to the development budget for heated seats, wireless phone charger, adaptive cruise, head-up display or any one of a number of features you’d expect on a vehicle a third of the F-Type’s price.

Viewed objectively, the Mercedes-AMG E53 coupe is easily the best car on test. It’s the most generously equipped, it’s the cheapest, it’s the fastest and it’s the most practical. You get the best warranty (five years, five years recovery, 12 years corrosion) and although the Jaguar claims a superior fuel economy figure, don’t believe it. The AMG is the only one of this trio that will return single digit l/100km numbers from without you feeling as if you’ve catastrophically missed the point of the car. That leaves the squabble for the minor positions. But not so fast. Let’s circle back to why you’d choose to buy one of these coupes. After some consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the defining metric of success here is in how far removed the car feels from the mainstream; how special it makes you feel. On that score, the Mercedes-AMG has to come third, struggling to shuck off the German airport taxi DNA of its E-Class underpinnings. It’s undoubtedly a lovely and worthy thing and it possesses a powertrain that borders on genius, but neither your eye nor your heart is drawn to it when either the Jaguar or Lexus is within its purview.

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Both of these cars are so good looking that you’ll get up at night and wander into your garage, coffee in hand and just gaze at them. It’s the Lexus that seems as if it has a gorgeous and magical otherworldliness about it. Some of the demented focus that was the hallmark of the LFA program suffuses the LC. The 2UR-GSE engine feels as if it ought to be crafted from the periodic table’s noble metals, with reciprocating elements of palladium, iridium and platinum rather than anything with a lowlier atomic weight like aluminium or iron. It’s something that keen drivers will adore and its appeal never wanes.

The LC500’s cabin is at the same time beautifully built and yet, on occasion, so gnawingly frustrating to use that it again feels as if it’s the work of beings who’ve made a valiant fist of understanding humans but aren’t quite there yet. The screen ought to be touch-sensitive but is built beyond arm’s length, forcing you to use the klutzy touchpad. Even faults like this feel somehow acceptable in the LC500, as if conforming to ergonomic heuristics was never particularly high on the design brief.

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It’s still by some margin the most absorbing character here. It engenders a feeling of joy and wonder that this creation, which must surely never come close to turning a profit for Lexus, even exists. It’s time here is destined to be short; the terminal supernova of the normally aspirated internal combustion engine before the whole concept collapses on itself. Get it while it’s hot.

The Jaguar muscles into second by sheer force of personality which leaves the ‘best’ car here, the AMG, cradling the wooden spoon this time round. None of this makes a great deal of sense, but then neither does paying $200k for a supercoupe. You do it to grant yourself a singular experience only a vanishing few will ever enjoy. And the Lexus LC500 understands that better than anything else here.

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PREMIUM ECONOMY

The updates to the 2021 Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe’s cabin tickle the car smartly up to date and introduce the very powerful but deeply complex MBUX infotainment architecture. Equipment inclusions on this model comprise 20-inch alloys, the AMG Night Package, a 13-speaker Burmester surround-sound stereo, nappa leather trim and a panoramic glass sunroof. Twin 12.3-inch screens handle infotainment and the binnacle clocks, plus there’s a head-up display with virtual-image windscreen projection which is visible through polarised sunnies.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

The 0-100KM/H stats we know. 4.49s for the AMG, 4.87s for the Jaguar and 5.12s for the Lexus. Beyond that, things start to get interesting. Because none of these three cars share the same number of gear ratios, the delta between the quickest car here, the AMG, and the other pair has a rhythmic rise and fall. The gulf between the E53 and the LC500 is greatest at 110km/h (0.82s) after which the Lexus begins clawing time back.

The Jaguar is only three-hundredths behind the AMG at 10km/h and, again, 110km/h is where it lags, standing 0.45s back from the German car. By 140km/h however, it has narrowed the gap to a mere 0.05s. In the real world, the E53 Coupe is the quickest car. If you buy your cars by quarter-mile times, it could well be the slowest of our trio.

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2021 LEXUS LC500 SPECS

Body: 2-door, 2+2 coupe

Drive: Rear-wheel

Engine: 4969cc V8, DOHC, 32v

Bore x Stroke: 94.0 x 89.5mm

Compression: 12.3:1

Power: 351kW @ 7100rpm

Torque: 540Nm @ 4800rpm

Power-to-weight: 178kW/tonne

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Weight: 1970kg

Suspension: Multi links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f) / multi links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)

L/W/H: 4770/1920/1345mm

Wheelbase: 2870mm

Tracks (f/r): 1631/1636mm

Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion

Brakes: 400mm ventilated discs, 6 piston calipers (f); 358mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (r)

Wheels: 21.0 x 9.5-inch (f); 21 x 10.0-inch (r)

Tyres: 245/40 RF21 96Y (f); 275/35 RF21 99Y (r) Michelin Pilot Super Sport

Price: $194,757

Pros: Concept car vibe; awesome engine; quality

Cons: Odd ergonomics; weight

Rating: 8.0/10

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JAGUAR F-TYPE P380 SPECS

Body: 3-door, 2-seat coupe

Drive: Rear-wheel

Engine: 2995cc V6, DOHC, 24v supercharged

Bore x Stroke: 84.5 x 89.0mm

Compression: 10.5:1

Power: 280kW @ 6250rpm

Torque: 460Nm @ 4500-5000rpm

Power-to-weight: 178kW/tonne

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Weight: 1572kg

Suspension: A-arms, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f) / multi links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)

L/W/H: 4470/1923/1311mm

Wheelbase: 2622mm

Tracks (f/r): 1584/1628mm

Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion

Brakes: 380mm ventilated discs, six-piston calipers (f); 325mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (r)

Wheels: 20 x 10.5-inch (f/r)

Tyres: 255/35 ZR20 (97Y) (f); 295/30 ZR20 (101Y) (r) Pirelli P Zero

Price: $173,100

Pros: Handling verve; angry soundtrack; styling

Cons: Interior dating fast; ride firmish

Rating: 8.0/10

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MERCEDES-AMG E53 SPECS

Body: 2-door, 4-seat coupe

Drive: All-wheel

Engine: 2996cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v, turbo, s/c, e-motor

Bore x Stroke: 88.0 x 82.1mm

Compression: 10.5:1

Power: 320kW @ 6100rpm

Torque: 520Nm @ 1800-5700rpm

Power-to-weight: 169kW/tonne

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Weight: 1895kg

Suspension: Multi links, air springs, adaptive dampers (f);  multi link, air springs, adaptive dampers (r)

L/W/H: 4964/1852/1449mm

Wheelbase: 2873mm

Tracks (f/r): 1628/1598mm

Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion

Brakes: 370mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers (f); 360mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r)

Wheels: 20.0 x 8.0-inch (f); 20.0 x 9.0-inch (r)

Tyres: 245/35 ZR20 95Y (f); 275/30 ZR20 97Y (r) Yokohama Advan Sport V105

Price: $164,800

Pros: Practicality; quick off the mark; clever engine

Cons: Not special enough in this company

Rating: 7.5/10

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