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With the LC 500, it's time to show Lexus some respect

Lexus

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

Lexus is the Rodney Dangerfield of the automotive world. No matter what the company does, it never seems to get any respect.

The company revealed the LC 500 sports coupe yesterday at the Detroit Auto Show. This two door, which has two small rear seats, has been in the works since the LF-LC concept was presented in Detroit four years ago. It will go to production as a 2017 model.

As usual, some critics will probably discount the spindle grill and overall design as too busy, painting the LC 500 as just another too-fancy Toyota. To them, I say: get over yourselves. Lexus is producing kick-ass sports cars these days — though precious few are willing to admit it. It’s time to give this brand some respect. And general consensus at the show has been positive. Even many naysayers are suddenly admitting that the brand is going in the right direction with the LC.

The LC 500 attempts the tricky mix of refined sport and aggressive luxury. As such, Lexus is seeking out the low-six-figure price territory of sports coupes like the BMW M6 and Maserati GT, with the Bentley Continental GT and Aston Martin DB9 looming overhead.

(A brief note about the Detroit show: Buick, of all companies, took some wind out of Lexus’s sail when it showed the Avista earlier in the week. It too is a 2+2 coupe, and will be based on the Chevy Camaro’s platform, with a promised 400 horsepower. But it is still only a concept, while the LC 500 is a fully baked car.)

I expect that the LC 500 — and the eventual hardcore LC F version — will be the real deal

I expect that the LC 500 — and the eventual hardcore LC F version — will be the real deal, because I’ve driven the company’s latest sports cars. Historically, the company’s sporting ambitions have ranged from poor to pathetic. It passed off the most recent SC coupe and roadster as a sports car, a prissy slope-backed thing that never managed more than 300 horsepower despite a V-8 engine. Eventually we were given the IS F, which had plenty of brawn but little in the way of fine handling. The game changer arrived with the LFA, a supercar with a $375,000 price tag attached.

Any true course correction in a ship the size of Lexus can only come from the top, and in this case it did: Akio Toyoda, the CEO and president of Toyota Motor Company, is a true automotive believer who races cars. He was determined to make Lexus’ cars interesting and fast. He also made his first appearance at the Detroit show yesterday, personally presenting the LC 500.

The LFA’s decade-long development was pushed by Toyoda, who demanded that they get it right. The car had a carbon-fiber tub, carbon-ceramic brakes and a 552-horsepower, naturally-aspirated V-10 engine. Top speed was 202 miles per hour. In true supercar fashion, only 500 LFA models were produced.

I test drove a prototype in 2010. The interior was coated in crazy-supple red leather, the seats were narrow and the cabin tight. It had the same nav system found in the LS executive sedan.

Lexus LC 500 photo from the Detroit Auto Show

But the rest of it? Straight up racecar. I drove it on a racetrack in New Jersey, and the engine crackled behind me like an F1 racer. It was seriously quick, and demanded real skill. You could get in trouble with this car, and that’s a compliment. Actually, I was struck at just how hardcore it really was. Many owners would never take it to a track, and it seemed unlikely they would love its sharp-elbowed nature while tooling around Beverly Hills.

Interestingly, values have remained pretty strong: about $335,000, according to McKeel Hagerty, the CEO of Hagerty, which insures and helps valuate collector cars. "Despite having DNA that is non-traditional, the LFA meets and even exceeds the object-of-desire test," he told me when asked about the LFA and Lexus’ general credibility. "In this case that includes limited production, a sense of the unexpected, and an active and professional brand behind it. Lexus will be building onto their performance brand, and this will forever be the start of it."

There’s no arguing that it is bold and will be noticed

A supercar is one thing, but a car that can compete with the likes of the BMW M4 is another — and there, too, Lexus has a contender. The RC F is a $63,000-plus coupe with 467 hp, and it is infinitely better — and more fun — than any of my colleagues tend to let on. It uses real torque vectoring to help the car turn. And if you choose the right setup of the sport and traction control settings, you can transform the car into a fabulous, sideways-drifting plaything. I took it out for a long day at a racetrack in New Orleans last year, and thoroughly burned up a set of tires doing some pretty nutty tricks.

It is telling that the LC 500 will use the same naturally breathing 5.0-liter V-8 as the RC F. Lexus could have gone the route of a hybrid, like the new Acura NSX, or a twin-turbo unit like everyone from Cadillac to BMW.

But the unassisted engine, with 467 hp and 389 pound-feet of torque, gives the best level of finite control. Power builds naturally and a driver can make very small modulations. It sounds great, too. To me, it shows that Lexus remains serious about the lessons it gleaned from the LFA.

For the same reasons, the LC will be rear-wheel drive rather than all-wheel drive. At 187.4 inches, it’s a bit longer than a BMW M4, but shorter than the Bentley Continental GT. Its body is mainly built from high-strength steel instead of using high-tech materials du jour like aluminum or carbon-fiber. That’ll save costs, but keep it from playing in the $200,000 category.

Reaction seems to be positive

As for its styling, it is a matter of opinion. In and around Detroit’s Cobo Center this week, the home of NAIAS, reaction seems to be positive. The production model hews surprisingly close to the original concept, and there’s no arguing that it is bold and will be noticed.

And maybe, just maybe, it will be the car that finally wins Lexus some respect.