In a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences, Lexus has been a prisoner of its own success. Ever since the LS 400 debuted in 1989, the luxury arm of the Toyota empire has gone from hit to hit to hit. Yet success has bred an aversion to risk, and the brand's bland styling and numb performance have prevented it from developing the cachet of the German prestige automakers that remain the company's principal rivals.
Lexus signaled its intentions to raise its performance-car game with the debut of the M5-ish IS F sports sedan in 2007 and then, two years later, the limited-production, stratospherically priced LFA supercar. But now, with the introduction of an all-new family of sport coupes -- the 2015 RC 350, the more athletic 2015 RC 350 F Sport, and the bad-boy 467-horsepower 2015 RC F -- Lexus hopes to muscle its way into a segment long dominated by Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.
Brian Smith, vice president of Lexus marketing, predicts annual sales of 7500 Lexus RC 350s and 7500 F Sports, with at least half of the buyers being "conquest" customers coming from other brands. The 2015 Lexus RC F -- the natural competitor to the M4, AMG C63, and RS5 -- is expected to account for only 2500 units, or less than 1 percent of the company's U.S. sales. Still, as Smith says, "Despite their low volume, these niche products are effective brand amplifiers that highlight each carmarker's engineering, design, and performance-car building prowess."
Marketing-speak aside, the RC 350 is designed to fill a niche. The RC F is designed to kick some ass.
Lexus already has a proven line of sport sedans in the IS, which is now in its third generation. But for the sport coupe, the company wanted to scratch-build a car offering bolder styling and more dramatic performance rather than merely scaling down the four-door into a two-door model.
All versions of the 2015 Lexus RC feature a new platform that blends elements of existing sedan chassis. The front section comes from the GS, which gave engineers room to spec bigger tires than the ones on the IS. The center section is based on the IS convertible, which already had been strengthened to compensate for the lack of a roof. The rear section is derived from the IS sedan, which allowed the coupe to enjoy a shorter wheelbase and overhang than the GS.
The suspension is based on existing Lexus practice -- wishbones at the front and multilink at the rear -- though there are upgrades unique to each model. The interior, meanwhile, shares its architecture with the IS, which is to say stylish and ergonomically correct in the contemporary idiom. The exterior profile is satisfyingly swoopy, and the wide-mouth grille that was so polarizing when it first appeared now seems appropriate, if not exactly subdued.
The engine in the base model 2015 Lexus RC and the F Sport is the proven Lexus 3.5-liter aluminum V-6 rated at 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed through an eight-speed automatic when mated to rear-wheel drive and a six-speed auto in all-wheel-drive variants. Lexus quotes 0-to-60 times of 5.8 seconds and 14.3 seconds in the quarter mile and respectable fuel economy figures of 19 mpg/28 mph (city/highway) in the rear-wheel RC 350.
Although moving up to the F Sport doesn't get you more power, you can expect more dynamic performance. Wheels and tires grow to 19 inches, and the brakes are also enlarged. Electric motors on top of the shock absorbers allow drivers to adjust the damper settings from the cockpit. The electronic steering, throttle response, and gearshift times are also progressively sharpened when drivers use a rotary dial in the center console to cycle through Eco, Normal, Sport S, and Sport S+ settings. At the same time, the electronic stability control relaxes to permit larger slip angles while cornering. The F Sport package costs $5085 in rear-wheel-drive models and $4680 in AWD models.
The Big Dog
With the RC F, Lexus is hunting bigger game. Visually, the top-of-the-line model is distinguished by a wider, lower stance, a rear spoiler that deploys at 50 miles per hour, and an optional carbon-fiber roof. Open the door and you slide into a sleek sport seat that's supportive as well as comfortable. Still, the biggest upgrade isn't apparent until you punch the Start button and hear the throaty rumble of the 5.0-liter V-8. And the engine sounds even more stirring while spinning to its 7300-rpm redline.
A normally aspirated motor is an unusual choice in a segment increasingly dominated by engines featuring forced induction. "The current generation of turbos doesn't offer the linear acceleration we wanted," says chief engineer Yukihiko Yaguchi. Still, the RC F can't match the instant thrust of the M4 turbo, which is significantly quicker accelerating from 0 to 60 mph -- 3.9 seconds versus 4.4 seconds. On the other hand, the howl of the Lexus V-8 makes the M4 sound tame in comparison.
To corral the RC F's power, it's fitted with bigger brakes -- six pistons at the front and four at the rear. Although Yaguchi touts his baby as "track-ready," ceramic brakes aren't offered. Neither, oddly, is an adjustable suspension. But there's an optional, and very trick, torque-vectoring differential that's more effective than the stock Torsen limited-slip diff. The torque-vectoring differential is available only as part of two options packages (Premium and Performance) that add a combined $9900 to the price tag.
Track Day Warriors
During a lapping session at Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, the 2015 Lexus RC 350 F Sport proved itself to be taut and capable, though there's no disguising the car's heft -- it weighs roughly 3750 pounds -- in sections that require quick changes of direction. It also comes with an almost bewildering array of electronic stability control settings that range from really annoying to reasonably unobtrusive. To be honest, it's hard to imagine the car seeing much track-day duty, but for owners who are so inclined, the F Sport offers enough power and stick to generate some fun.
As befits the most exotic thoroughbred in the Lexus stable, the RC F boasts significantly more grunt and grip. Of course, numbers like 467 horsepower and 389 lb-ft of torque are required elements in this segment, and you'd expect nothing less of a car that starts at $63,325. But the RC F is the product of a different design philosophy than the competition. "It's not just about being fast," Yaguchi says. "There are many cars in this market designed so that only a professional driver can maximize the performance. The RC F is unique because anybody can jump in the car and enjoy it regardless of his skill level."
The 2015 Lexus RC F offers even more stability control adjustments than the F Sport, and the addition of the torque-vectoring diff provides additional Normal, Track and Slalom modes. In the Track setting, drivers can kick out the tail by booting the throttle and settle into a lovely drift. But the onboard computer reacts immediately to prevent the classic novice error -- abruptly backing out of the throttle in mid-corner -- from resulting in catastrophe, and it applies corrections so seamlessly that most drivers won't even realize that they've just had their bacon saved.
And that's the beauty of the 2015 Lexus RC F. In the hands of a highly skilled driver, the M4 may post faster lap times. But drivers without as much talent and/or experience should be able to come closer to unlocking the potential of the RC F thanks to an electronic stability control system that behaves more like a personal driver coach than a tyrannical nanny. It's too early to tell whether it will be advantage Lexus. But it's clear that the RC will be a player in the game.
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