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Lexus LC: interview with chief engineer Koji Sato

This year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed marked the high-profile UK debut of the forthcoming Lexus LC. It was chaperoned by chief engineer Koji Sato, who also got the opportunity to race it up the famous hill climb course.

Between runs we caught up with Sato-san to ask him about its development, the relationship between design and engineering, and ways in which it sets the standard for further new Lexus models.

LC 500 at Goodwood

Blog: When Akio Toyoda first unveiled the new Lexus LC at Detroit, we all remember him being very enthusiastic about it. How does it feel to have put together a car that draws such strong emotions from the boss of the company?

Sato-san: At that moment the development team members felt like it was a dream. We had worked for almost four years to build the car, and Toyoda-san said that this was just the beginning of a new era for Lexus cars. We were very proud of that.

Even though I had attended his rehearsal sessions at Detroit and knew what he was going to present, when it actually happened and the stand was filled with people, his comments brought a tear to my eye.

Blog: And now the car stands centre-stage for Lexus at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed…

Sato-san: Yes, I’m very proud of that. In fact, 13 years ago I came here with Toyoda-san and understood then how fantastic and important this motor event is. So I’m very proud to come back again with our new ‘baby’.

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Blog: You have likened the development of the LC to that of the original LS in its attention to detail. In what ways can we experience that for ourselves?

Sato-san: We spent three months modifying and tuning the surface treatment of the exterior design. It’s unique and has design details that make a big difference to your emotional link and feelings toward the car. These may seem small but they make an important impression. It’s all about great design with great engineering behind it; beauty with functionality. Such a close collaboration between designers and engineers is the new development style for future Lexus models.

Blog: The Lexus LF-LC concept that inspired this car was beautiful to behold but wasn’t necessarily honed for aerodynamics. Yet this production version had to be both beautiful and aerodynamically efficient. How did you balance this while retaining its concept car looks?

Sato-san: The dimensions of the LF-LC and production LC are totally different but the conceptual feeling of the design hasn’t changed. So I feel the design team has done a great job with the surface treatment. Let me give you some examples.

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This side area [he points to the lower rear flanks around the air vent] makes a beautiful line but it also improves the driving dynamics, especially with regards to making airflow towards the tyre area more efficient. Also the front fender [he points to the front of the car above the wheel arch] appears very low when viewed from the side. It took a lot of effort to develop a suspension system and new geometry that offers high performance within such a shallow space.

Another example is the door mirror. Its shape helps us create good aerodynamics but its position was carefully thought out to enhance the car’s weight distribution. So in every aspect, beauty is balanced with performance and function.

Blog: How have you balanced the pure engineering of your background with the increasing focus on electronically controlled systems in modern cars?

Sato-san: For the Lexus LC we used the new GA-L platform and adopted the key phrase Back to Basics for the development programme. That meant fundamental qualities such as weight distribution, handling, inertia specs and crash safety are all connected to the quality and rigidity of the platform. When you get these fundamental conditions right, the environment is there to improve the car’s overall performance, which then makes it easier to develop good electronic systems.

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Blog: Thinking about that new GA-L platform, was this created before the LC or at the same time?

Sato-san: Actually, the platform development began slightly before the development of the LC. But we understood from the beginning that the platform and car would be based on the LF-LC concept, so you could say that they were both developed together. In this way we were able to concentrate on design and performance at the same time.

Blog: We’re told that the GA-L platform will be used in other future models, so does that mean you had to develop the platform with these unannounced cars in mind as well?

Sato-san: That’s the point. The LC uses the new FR [front engine, rear-wheel drive] platform, so it is not going to be unique to this car. It will be used for all future FR Lexus models. So you can imagine that if the platform can meet the performance of the LC, it will help us elevate future models like the LS or GS.

Blog: Is there a particular part of the car that you are most proud of?

Sato-san: Of course the beauty of the car – its design – is one of the biggest and most emotional points for me. But on the other hand, I’m very proud of the driving style of the car, which is very natural and responds as you intend. It’s a result of the key phrase Even Sharper, More Refined we used when developing the chassis.

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Blog: The 5.0-litre V8 in the LC 500 is shared with other Lexus models, so how have you have tried to inject an individual personality into the car?

Sato-san: One way is through the 10-speed automatic transmission. Even though it has a torque converter the shift speed is around 0.2 seconds on full throttle – the fastest of its kind and as fast as a dual-clutch system. Also the engine sound was tuned to have similar properties to that of the LFA. Of course, the LC has a V8 not a V10 but the philosophy and harmony are the same. We are trying to generate a particular Lexus sound.

As for the hybrid LC 500h, we developed the Multi Stage Hybrid system. This is totally different to our current hybrid systems, which focuses the driver on being more efficient. But this one is designed for people in the mood to really drive, where the electric motor and transmission are combined to enhance power output… and fun.

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Learn more: How does the Multi Hybrid System in the LC 500h redefine hybrid performance?

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