Technology certainly can change in a half-century. The process of erecting the convertible top of my 1959 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite starts with digging its folded steel tube frame out from behind the seats, spreading its fingerlike tubes, connecting all their ends together, gingerly cantilevering it across the cockpit, and then down into vertical slots on the left and right sides. Except everything is misaligned by an inch, so you have to climb up on top of the seats and wrestle it like an Everglades alligator.
This is just the quivering, hair-trigger frame. Any sudden movement will cause it to mousetrap off the car and violently disassemble. Which would be just as well, as I still don’t have the vinyl top that makes getting into the Healey like wiggling into a pup tent. Instead, I just snap the tonneau cover’s passenger side in place and, if it rains, stare straight ahead when stopped at a light.
You can only imagine, then, my reeling at raising the retracted top of the 2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible. There’s a tiny, leather-covered lid on the center console that tilts up with the flick of one finger.
The whole back of the car erupts in such an elaborate fan dance of swinging panels and pole-vaulting fabric, that it’s worthy of musical accompaniment. May I suggest the last 16 seconds of the “1812 Overture,” as that’s exactly how long it takes. Even better, this function can be performed at up to 31 mph, which translates, after a 5-second delay, into myriad Instagram postings from your sidewalk audience. This, my friends, is what 61 years of relentless automotive progress since the Bugeye has brought us.
After briefly admiring this beautifully finished, four-layer fabric top up close, I flipped the top’s switch lid and waited the even-quicker 15 seconds to retract the whole contraption. (Beneath the switch lies an ejection-seat trigger reminiscent of James Bond’s DB5. But unlike the Aston Martin, this one philosophically ejects the oppression of sardine-like confinement, removing the ceiling between you and the stars.)
It’s a mild evening, the sun set a half-hour ago, the air is a cooling ocean breeze. A lot of work has gone into making this car a convertible, and I’m not wasting it. Tonight, I’ll be turning right out of MotorTrend HQ onto Rosecrans Avenue, aiming toward Pacific Coast Highway to head home. Not left, not toward the 405 freeway’s lanes of rushing, lurching Amazon trucks.
Let’s get the big three benchmark specifications out of the way while I crawl through PCH’s stoplights: The LC 500 is 187.4 inches long (midway between a Corolla and a Camry). It weighs about 4,500 pounds (triple that of my Bugeye, no kidding). And as with my old Cannondale, there’s 10 gear ratios in its transmission, fed by a 471-hp, 5.0-liter, four-valve-per-cylinder V-8. Road test editor Chris Walton figures it’ll do 60 mph in about 5 seconds. Rapid, but not rifle-shot. The light turns green. I switch the rotary drive mode selector to Sport + (which should be depicted by an icon of fingers-in-ears).
Its banshee, hounds-of-hell wail will instantly faint everybody in earshot, like the soldiers in Goldfinger when the fake nerve gas was sprayed on Fort Knox. And despite your suspicions that it’s some pre-recorded sham, it’s authentic. Sort of. I quote the manufacturer: “…intake pulses [that] are naturally carried through a diaphragm into a sound pipe that carries the sounds, not the air itself, into the cabin to enhance the V-8’s rumble.” Bookending the intake whoosh are overtones on top of the exhaust note when a valve ahead of the mufflers opens. No electrons up anybody’s sleeve. My Bugeye employs a pipe that runs under the car to the back where it ends.
Gliding south down PCH, the chassis rarely concedes that the upper third of its structure is missing. A slight quake every mile or so—better than most. Actually, the LC 500 Convertible has been noticeably re-architected to counter its lidlessness, with less unsprung weight up front, and its reshaped rear suspension’s towers abetted by new die-casting structures and redialed damping.
At the track, the coupe version of the LC 500 was an agile car for its noticeable weight, with a tail that walks around when you pedal the throttle while rarely slipping on the invisible banana peel. But through Manhattan Beach, we’re doing what these cars really do for their livings: cruising.
The steering is accurate but somewhat artificial. The brake pedal is sensitive to tip-in but indistinct during the last few feet of slowdown before the crosswalk stripes. Twisting that drive mode knob livens things up, with a quick growl of a downshift and intensified gauge graphics. But at most, it solidifies the ride from, say, a 6 to a 7, not to a 9.
The LC’s element is when it’s just maintaining momentum, giving you time to contemplate, and there’s a lot of material for that. For a car with such a tech vibe, it isn’t the feature-fest you’d expect. There’s the climate control system, which works to keep your desired temperature regardless of the top’s position and includes neck heaters and air targeted at the backs of your hands, when it’s down.
There’s featured Android Auto and integrated Apple CarPlay, as well as the Lexus-Alexa app for infotainment. The Lexus Safety System+ includes lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, and PreCollision that detects pedestrians. A clear wind blocker discourages passing air from backtracking and blowing your hair straight forward.
That’s not a 4th of July show of feature fireworks—though it does have a few actual pyrotechnics, such as a hood that explosively pops up to cushion phone-zombies wandering into your path, and detonating roll-over posts in the rear seats in case you flip your lid.
But the window into the LC’s soul is its slot for inserting CDs. I couldn’t believe that a car still came equipped with such a 1990s feature until I dug out an old Chet Baker disc, the slot sucked it from my fingertips, and the Mark Levinson sound system began playing Baker’s wispy vocals on “My Funny Valentine.”
I know this car. My dad—who drove a 1956 Thunderbird and a Lincoln Mark V and preferred flashy “personal luxury cars”—loved this kind of thing, a two-door meant more for boulevard cruising than tail-out tracking. It groups better with Cadillac’s old XLR than a Jaguar F-Type. Through Redondo Beach, I got shoutouts from some young guys in Camaros yelling, “Cool ride!” (appreciating their punctuating it with “dude” instead of “sir”). The LC 500 is a showboat that swivels more heads than a chiropractic clinic.
I’d seriously challenge you to come up with an interior that’s as complex, detailed, and well-finished as this Lexus’. It’s an explosion of Nike swooshes and ruler-straight lines, with door panels and seats with more pleats than Mick Jagger’s cheeks. Everything draws your face closer to examine it. But the cockpit’s overriding goal seems to be exhibiting craftsmanship, with design a close second. Its buttons may be in curious places, but the leather and its spiderweb of stitching is simply terrific. Do the accommodations work? The rear seat’s legroom won’t fit kids, but the trunk is big enough for a golf bag. So, apparently yes.
From any perspective, the bodywork has an angle for you, and all of them spew from the grandest, Steven Tyler grille in the business (though it has a competitor in the BMW 7 Series’ pair of jumbo kidneys). With the Coupe’s roof removed, the Convertible has been visually rebalanced with a kicked-up tail and a widened spoiler. But the main optic feature is the crazy-long hood that I stare down, as I burble along the oceanfront through Huntington Beach—the waft of the sand-pit bonfires entering the cabin. This is the moment I most love in open cars.
Many years ago, I walked into a friend’s business, R. Straman Co, as Richard (he’s the R) was circular-sawing the roof off of a Ferrari Daytona Coupe. I watched as the blade’s teeth hungrily chewed through the roof’s base. If Hannibal Lecter were a car buff, there’d have been a glass of Chianti on the workbench. But in the world of convertible conversions, Richard was the diamond cutter you’d take the Hope to. The Daytona was reborn from sparks as a very sensual and valuable Spyder. And like diamond-cutting, everything depends on where you place the cut.
Staring at the LC, I wondered if Richard would have separated the roof quite where Lexus has. The amputated base of the Coupe’s B-pillar has a visual purpose when the top is up, but when it’s down it resembles a low tree stump that subtly trips the eye. Maybe it’s a necessary pivot location.
Before I bought the Bugeye (for the second time … long story), I asked Richard for his opinion. “Have you driven a car that old lately?” he asked, tilting his head. “Modern cars are just so much easier to live with.” The LC 500 Convertible’s one-finger, 16-second top-raise at 31 mph certainly makes his point. But despite the birthdate on my driver’s license, I’m not quite ready for my dad’s car—even if I have a Chet Baker CD close at hand.
|2021 Lexus LC 500 Convertible|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door convertible|
|ENGINE||5.0L/471-hp/398-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,500 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||187.4 x 75.9 x 53.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||15/25/18 mpg (MT est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||225/135 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.06 lb/mile|
|ON SALE||Summer 2020|