Remember the days when Lexus was an unassuming, refined Japanese import, with champagne glasses stacked on its bonnet, showing the world how civilized it really was? I remember that advertisement, and it was impressive to see a car on a dyno going 145 miles per hour all while not disturbing the breakables on its hood.
But a lot has changed in the last 25 years, and Lexus now offers an entire line of performance-oriented luxury machines instead of refined options for senior citizens. Lexus’s slogan ought to be, “Screw the champagne glasses, let’s just keep the 145 miles-per-hour bit for now.”
Take the new RC line of cars for instance. They offer luxury, technology, and reliability, along with a certain level of sophistication that one has come to expect in a Lexus. But pop a 350 RC into “Sport Plus Mode” and hop on the throttle, and suddenly this little coupe becomes a snapping Schnauzer whose heart is set on keeping you on your toes.
Get behind the wheel of the 467-horsepower RC F and you aren’t dealing with a Schnauzer anymore, but a full-blown Bull Mastiff with some serious anger issues.
I had the privilege of driving both of these vehicles the other day, when long-time Lexus general manager Dan Kommeth of Performance Lexus suggested that I test them back to back. After talking with Dan a bit about the cars and getting the inside scoop on the dealership itself — this being one of the original dealerships from 1989 — he set out to show me the facilities.
After my tour had come to a close, Dan tossed me a set of keys to an AWD RC 350 F Sport. I was curious to see what the similarities were between the RC F Sport and the NX 200t F Sport I drove a month prior. I had thoroughly enjoyed driving the little turbo-powered compact crossover, and Lexus has obviously upped its game when it comes to appealing to the younger generation of luxury auto enthusiast.
But for some reason, I still had this nagging feeling in the back of my brain that kept me wondering if Lexus really is on the right track, and if heavily pursuing the performance aspect of the auto world is the right direction for a brand that is based around being comfortable and reliable.
Let’s address the biggest issue with the RC coupe: styling. While the NX 200t has aggressive, angular lines up front, the RC favors a more curvaceous approach, and critics and consumers have been quick to call foul over the small fog lamps, oddly angled ducting, and bulging bonnet.
I tend to agree with these objections, and feel that the retired IS F sedan had a far more clean and commanding approach to aerodynamics. There also is quite a bit of chrome trim up front, which, sitting beside the permanently mounted node-like headlight washers, makes me feel like Lexus might need to go back to a “less is more” styling approach with this car.
But get past the bubbly bonnet and let the smooth lines and well-molded wheel arches lead one’s eye to the back of the RC’s perky posterior. Say what you will about the RC and its odd styling cues, but I like the protruding tail-lamps, the duckbill spoiler, angled exhaust tips, and blacked-out rear under-tray and styling vents.
The RC F Sport also has an interior with bolstered leather-wrapped seats, a sliding gauge bezel, video game-inspired gauges, a rearview mirror that actually conforms to the rear glass, and a very quiet cabin.
However, it does have this strangely split sunroof shade, an ugly center speaker featuring a strange “crest” in the middle, a super shallow center console, plastic knobs that needed to be weighted, and Lexus’ remote touchpad, which we still have yet to grow accustomed too.
The car also has a small back seat, a shallow trunk, and some pretty large blind-spots, but it’s a coupe. What do you expect?
The AWD version has a six-speed gearbox, and the rear-wheel-drive versions come with an eight-speed option, which threw me for a loop, because while the paddle shifters responded quite quickly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated at higher speeds.
Having a 306 horsepower V6 in a two-ton coupe also sounds ill-advised, but I found that the RC delivers solid power, especially while in Sport Mode. My only real complaint — outside of not having more gears — was that the car occasionally bumps you out of manually controlled Sport Plus Mode, which led me to eventually disengage the setting and test out the other driving modes.
Just like the NX 200t F Sport, the RC F Sport features a control knob that allows drivers to select Eco, Normal, or Sport driving modes on the fly, and I found that all of these settings performed flawlessly.
Overall, I really enjoyed driving this car. I found the “Adaptive Variable Suspension” worked quite well in the corners, even when in the softest setting, and that the 14-inch front rotors snubbed sharply without showing too much forward pitch.
But much like the 200t F Sport, I felt like something was missing from the equation, and I think the RC F Sport needs a bit more “oomph” before it can be truly classified as a contender. Who knows: Maybe Lexus will snag a turbo off a NX 200t one afternoon and slap it on an RC to see what happens.
I soon realized that I was grinning uncontrollably. Lexus has gifted us with its RC F for an afternoon, and this 467-horsepower orange menace is reason for any BMW M3 owner to sweat. So with a grin still firmly plastered across my face, I hopped behind the wheel and took her out.
What struck me first about this car is that it has the exact same control knob that allows drivers to select Eco, Normal, or Sport driving modes on the fly. I flipped it over to Eco Mode out of curiosity and was immediately dazzled by a glowing blue ring in the gauge cluster that made me feel quite environmentally conscientious behind the wheel of a 5.0-liter V8 sports car.
But that did not last long, and after 15 minutes of saving the ozone, I tossed her into “Sport Plus Mode” and hit the throttle.
Most people don’t know this, but the RC is actually a blend of three different cars. It has the front end of an IS, the center section of a GS, and the stiff rear-end of an IS convertible. This last section of the equation comes into play when driving the RC F, and man was I glad Lexus opted to up the rigidity in the back of this coupe!
Tail-happy when you want it and controlled when you don’t, this car is a shining example of what fun and functional looks like in a reliable road racer. The Z-rated tires offered fantastic traction under duress, and the eight-speed gearbox gave me everything I was missing in the F Sport.
The ride was surprisingly smooth even when in Sport Mode, and the clever steering system on the RC F always kept me pointed in the right direction, even when the Mastiff acted like it wanted to eat its own tail in a hairpin.
But perhaps my favorite aspect of the RC F was its massive slotted Brembo brakes. They handled every ounce of abuse I threw at them and didn’t threaten me with a smidgen of brake bias. I also loved the gauge cluster — even though it did not slide like the F Sport model — and keeping my eye on the coupe’s illuminated RPMs became more of a joy than a chore as time went on.
But even though the RC F delivered solid power at high speeds, I felt that it still needed some tweaking. The RC F’s V8 only turns over 389 pounds-feet of torque, so it’ll need something more if Lexus wants to compete with the likes of the Corvette.
Lexus should also do away with the “engine sound simulation” if they want people to take them seriously. If we want to hear a car’s exhaust, all we have to do is put it in “Sport Plus Mode” and crack a window.
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