2015 Lexus RC First Drive: A beauty and a beast
Think about a Lexus and a few things are bound to come to mind: comfortable road manners, stellar reliability, excellent resale value and conservative looks. Playing second fiddle, if invited to the concert at all: track-ready performance, youthful energy and sexy design that doesn't mind compromising some interior space for exterior flash.
That all changes with the 2015 Lexus RC 350 and its testosterone-laden brother, the Lexus RC F.
Rear-drive street cred
The Lexus RC is an all-new coupe from the luxury automaker, and unlike its 1990s relative, the Lexus SC, the RC's attitude and dimensions are more about performance than grand touring. Also differing from its more recent relatives the SC430 and IS C, the RC is not a retractable hardtop. The RC is a fixed-roof 4-passenger coupe aimed at rivals such as the BMW 4 Series, Audi A5, Mercedes-Benz C-Class coupe and the new Cadillac ATS Coupe. Likes most of its competitors, the RC 350 gets immediate sports-car cred thanks to rear-wheel-drive. The RC 350 is also available with all-wheel drive for those needing extra traction on slippery roads. The RC F, which has high-performance cars like the BMW M4, Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe and Audi RS 5 in its sights, is rear-drive only.
While some coupe rivals are based on sedan siblings, the RC is its own car, not merely a coupe version of the Lexus IS. The front part of its chassis is based in part on the Lexus GS sedan, the rigid mid-section on the IS C convertible and the rear on the IS sedan, but Lexus proudly points out that none of the portions were directly taken from those other models. And unlike most of its luxury coupe rivals (the Infiniti Q60 being the exception), the Lexus RC comes standard not with a turbocharged 4-cylinder but a naturally aspirated V6. In this application, the engine in the RC 350 and the sportier RC 350 F Sport is Lexus' well-regarded 3.5-liter V6 that makes 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque.
And then there is the RC F, which looks much like the RC 350, but is another character entirely. In fact, it's a monster. As with Lexus' only other mass-produced F performance model, the IS F, the RC F uses a 5.0-liter V8 that howls as you sink the accelerator pedal. With IS F production ended and the LFA supercar's 500-unit allotment sold out, the RC F is Lexus' lone representative among its F models, but it isn't likely to be the last. With a redesigned 5.0-liter V8 that makes 467 horsepower, the RC F is also Lexus' most powerful V8 performance car to date.
On The Road
Our first brush with Lexus' all-new sports coupe came in the form of the RC 350 with all-wheel drive (AWD). Aside from its ability to send between 20 and 50 percent of power to the front wheels for better traction, this model differs from all other RCs in that it uses an older-style 6-speed automatic transmission. The others employ a newer 8-speed version (if you're among the few who want a manual transmission luxury coupe, you'll have to look elsewhere, like the 4 Series, Q60, ATS or A5). There's another distinction to be aware of as the driver of an AWD RC coupe: a hump that protrudes near your lower right leg, the result of the housing needed to accommodate the front differential. I didn't mind the intrusion. In fact, it acted as a comfortable rest for my calf. But my leg isn't yours, so try before you buy. Just about every other facet of the front seats is comfortable. A few minutes in them are proof enough of the effort that Lexus' team put into the front interior half of this 2+2. Regarding the latter half, rear quarters are very tight, even by luxury coupe standards.
As we hammered down from White Plains to Monticello raceway, the V6 wailed to life. Having spent a week in a past IS F, I expected the larger engine in the RC F to sound great, but the soundtrack coming from the RC 350's V6 is surprisingly good. As is its power.
With a stated 0-60 mph time of 6 seconds flat, the AWD RC coupe is nearly half a second slower to that benchmark than the stated time of a BMW 428i xDrive, but it's nothing to sneeze at. The all-wheel-drive RC 350 got us up to speed on every on-ramp and had oomph left over for passing, especially when Sport mode is engaged. Ride comfort is not as soft as, say an ES 350, and neither should it be. This isn't a luxury sedan or even a grand touring coupe, necessarily. It's a luxury performance coupe targeted at a 40-something audience, and its stiffness on rougher roads reminded us so.
As we swapped between an all-wheel-drive RC 350 and a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) model, the differences in transmissions were notable. The newer 8-speed automatic in all RWD RC coupes is smooth and eager, whereas the 6-speed automatic used exclusively in AWD variants is a bit rougher in its shift pattern, most prominently under hard acceleration. That shouldn't be a deal-breaker if you need the enhanced traction that all-wheel drive provides, but it should be a consideration -- and considered another feather in the cap of rear-wheel-drive models.
Other facets of the RC 350's overall road-driving quality -- including steering feel, ride comfort and interior noise level -- are about as pleasing as it gets in this segment. After having some fun on the twisties, it's easy to settle in for a compliant highway cruise. On the infotainment and connectivity front, the optional 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system is superb. We had some connectivity issues when hard-wired into my driving partner's iPhone 5s (Mark Levinson reps told us they are aware of it), but my older 4s worked just fine. The optional navigation system uses a new touch-based interface that you can tap and swipe. In our hands (literally) it felt better than Lexus' mouse-like unit, but could still be frustrating when trying to, say, zoom in on a target while going freeway speeds.
For the last portion of our road exercises we jumped into the V8-powered RC F, the titan among the 2015 RC lineup. Its 161 extra horses were immediately noticeable, as was the distinctive howl of its engine and exhaust note under hard acceleration. More surprising, though, is its compliance amid normal driving such as a freeway commute. Here the hard edge is taken off the RC F. It even strives to be a more model citizen in the fuel-economy department. During light loads the engine switches to the more efficient Atkinson cycle. Using this engineering wizardry, the 5.0-liter engine fools itself into thinking it's a 4.2-liter. The fuel savings are not massive over the prior IS F V8's 23 mpg/highway, the RC F is estimated at 25 mpg.
On The Track
It was on Monticello's 4.1-mile, 18-turn circuit where we had the opportunity to flesh out the RC 350 and RC F's performance credentials. And it was here where their differences felt night and day.
Simply put, the RC F is exhilarating on a track. It's not just that the RC F has instant acceleration (0-60 mph is pegged at 4.4 seconds), a reservoir of power for springing to ever-higher speeds (top speed: 170 mph), and then the ability to snub them thanks to standard Brembo brakes. What distinguishes the RC F is the intelligent technology that makes a nominal track driver feel like a star. From its optional torque-vectoring differential to the way it tightens steering response in Sport and Sport S+ modes, the RC F brims with behind-the-scenes electronics that make you a better driver. Of particular note is the RC's G AI-SHIFT control. Short for "G force Artificial Intelligence", the system essentially measures the G force of the car and sets up transmission shifts accordingly. For instance, under hard deceleration when entering a corner, it rapidly downshifts to the exact gear needed for the best acceleration upon exit. It sounds simple, but behind the wheel it feels like magic and instills driver confidence to take the RC F nearer its limits. With a slew of electronic safety nets, it's easy and entertaining to take the RC F near the edge, but never over it.
A few quick laps in an RC 350 F Sport, which has performance enhancements over the regular RC 350 such as adaptive suspension, larger brakes and the Sport S+ mode, proved fun but nowhere near as rewarding as the RC F. Yet the car hardly embarrassed itself in such a high-speed setting. Here the Sport S+ mode helped make the most of the car's 300-plus horsepower, but with less rigidity and smaller brakes than an RC F, it wouldn't be our first choice as a track car. In reality, few Lexus buyers will take the RC to a racetrack, but those who do will find much to like in the RC F. For the majority of buyers who will use this car as a daily commuter, occasional canyon romps and as a sexy fashion statement, the RC 350 has more than enough gusto to keep things interesting.
Slated to hit dealerships this fall, the 2015 Lexus RC 350 and Lexus RC F have respective base prices of around $43,000 and $63,000, including destination.
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