Does the Lexus RC F stand a chance against the might of the German trio?
Ask any psychologist and they will tell you that first impressions are rather hard to overcome, which is why Lexus has spent the greater part of the last decade trying to do away with its ‘luxurious but boring’ image.
We mean best not because it’s better than a Lexus LFA – that would be ludicrous – but because the brand seems to have finally found that perfect balance between being Japanese – inherently conservative – with the unwavering demands of western wants and needs.
If the IS F was the birth of Lexus's performance ambitions, the Lexus RC F is the coming of age – the sign that it’s finally ready to take on the might of Germany’s heavy-armour divisions. (Not that it means it's necessarily going to beat them.)
It’s a decision made mostly with a transient heart rather than a logical mind (which is probably screaming about how the non-performance version will do just fine) and that has always been Lexus’s undoing in the top echelon of performance cars.
When it comes to core models, it makes perfect sense to own a Lexus. The manufacturer makes (arguably) more reliable cars, offers better customer service and value for money than its German rivals, and it’s unlikely to break the piggy bank when it comes to servicing. But who cares about all that when you just want the best? And that’s the question Lexus RC F buyers have to answer.
The RC F is powered by a naturally-aspirated Yamaha built 5.0-litre V8 with 351kW and 550Nm. Though it may sound awfully similar to that found in the out-going IS F, everything except the engine block is new. That explains the power and torque bump, but Lexus has stuck with its guns and refused to turbocharge the car in contrast to its German competitors.
Couple the V8 with an eight-speed gearbox and it’ll go from 0-100km/h in 4.4 seconds and make plenty of noise in the process.
From the outside it represents the epitome of the new Lexus design language. In order to differentiate itself and standout against the Germans, the Japanese brand has gone all out with the RC F.
There are some distinctive design features, such as the reverse air-scoop that pushes air out of the engine bay, or the rear speed-activated wing that can change angles for optimum downforce.
Jump inside and you’ll be met with a rather peculiar interior design. The buttons, switchgear positioning and their tactile sensation are not up to the German standards (particularly the cool/heat seat buttons that stand out unnecessarily).
The 7.0-inch super-VGA display is unbecoming of a luxury brand, not only lacking a decent screen resolution but also sizing up too small considering how deep it’s placed inside the centre console (and how much room there appears to be for a bigger unit).
That’s slightly disappointing considering a relatively cheap iPad mini will outdo its screen clarity and pixel density in every respect.
The new touch-based interface, which uses a trackpad to detect your finger movements to control the infotainment system is leaps and bounds ahead of the buggy and counterintuitive mouse-like system of other Lexus models, but it really is just further complicating what can be a simple implementation, as seen in BMW’s iDrive and the latest version of Mercedes-Benz COMAND NTG5+.
The forced tactile response to every movement or selection can get very frustrating, very quickly.
But there’s plenty to love about the interior, too. It has a set of amazingly built and cushioned sports seats, which are exclusive just to the RC F. The craftsmanship of the leather trim, roof lining and the lack of basically any noise intrusion even at 100km/h is a huge bonus.
The rear seats can handle two adults if need be, with plenty of knee room but lacking a bit of headroom for anyone even close to six foot.
Outside, it’s hard to ignore the overgrown spindle grille of the front nose, which takes full focus, while the pumped guards and Nike-tick lights ensure it’ll turn heads wherever it goes.
Which is exactly what it did as we left White Plains in New York headed for the highly exclusive Monticello racetrack.
Behind the wheel the Lexus RC F is a true performance car; it feels just as a vehicle of its calibre should. The steering is super direct, power is always on tap and its exhaust note is orchestral at worst.
It sits 5mm lower than the standard RC350 while measuring 13mm longer thanks to its sports-heavy but functional bodykit.
The adaptive variable suspension allows for a semi-comfortable ride around town, with a super firm setting for track. In normal mode we found it well mannered to absorb the well-maintained American highways and country roads, making it hard to assess how it’ll go on our flailing road infrastructure.
The eight-speed gearbox, which is the same unit as that found in the IS-F, is technically inferior to what’s on offer from the Germans (particularly the BMW M4’s 7-Speed DCT). It does a near-perfect job around town or on the highway but when it comes to really having a go – such as on a racetrack – it can struggle in comparison with the rapid-fire manner of dual-clutch transmissions.
The paddle-shifters do help its cause of course and this is the sort of car you can accelerate at near full blast deep into a corner, jump on the six-piston Brembo brakes (380mm front, 345mm four pistons for the rear) and simply turn in for a smooth weight and power transfer into the next bend.
Around the Monticello racetrack the RC F performed lap after lap without complaint. It’s very similar in its behaviour to the M4, in that it will allow you to push it right to edge and then give you some leeway in case you make a mistake.
The 5.0-litre V8 provides ample force to get going but its naturally aspirated nature lacks the hardcore credentials of the 6.2-litre V8 in the soon-to-be-replaced C63 AMG (with a 4.0-litre turbo V8) or the twin-turbocharged might of the M4.
The RC F’s chief engineer told us he didn’t like the M4’s turbocharged characteristic and wanted to leave the 5.0-litre Lexus V8 naturally aspirated as it provides a more linear power delivery.
That may be true – just – but the outcome for Lexus is a slower 0-100km/h time and less torque when it really counts, a sacrifice we wouldn’t necessarily be happy with.
Nonetheless, its linearity means it doesn’t really bite, with controllable oversteer an easy task managed almost entirely by the right foot. However, we couldn’t find an MDM-like mode found in M cars or its equivalent in the AMGs, which allow you to lose traction for those tyre-destroying laps without letting you get completely out of control.
Though it can destroy its rear tyres at will, the Brembo brakes showed little in the way of brake fade despite tremendous abuse.
Where the RC F can get a little unsettled is hot out of corners. Get the racing line wrong by a few centimetres and the RC F does have a tendency to understeer, which can be confusing and a little frustrating considering its rear-wheel-drive setup.
In comparison with its rivals, it lacks the extreme dynamics of the M4 (no doubt a consequence of its hefty 1780-1860kg kerb weight), the brutality or fun-factor of the outgoing C63 AMG and the hard-edged nature of the Audi RS5. It does things the Lexus way, which is required to have its own unique character, and however competent it may be, we couldn’t pinpoint any one thing that it did better than any of its rivals.
In saying that, the RC F is proof that Lexus no longer builds boring cars. It's proof that the Japanese are on-par with their German rivals, even in the performance spectrum.
There's no doubt the RC F will be the best performance-orientated Lexus when it goes on sale. Its road hugging nature and stability around bends is noticeably ahead of the IS F, which is perhaps due to its complicated platform.
The Lexus RC F uses the GS platform for the front end, the outgoing-generation IS250C’s platform for the mid section and the new IS platform for the rear. It’s a bit of a Frankenstein, but it’s done to allow it to fit hybrid drivetrains and bigger componentry at the front, a more rigid structure in the middle and shorter overhangs at the rear.
It also means that, unlike the Germans, this is a custom-built platform for a luxury performance coupe.
Overall, it’s hard to fault the Lexus RC F for what it is, a high-end luxury performance coupe. The problem is, it enters a market contested by tremendously competent competitors, which will likely be further set on fire when the new Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG arrives in 2015 and, if you don't need four seats, the Porsche Cayman S for less coin is far more capable.
A lot depends on the price that Lexus Australia choses for the RC F when the coupe launches in February next year. We suspect it’ll come at around the $150,000 mark to undercut its competition (which is how we have scored the car's price and feature's category), which is a reasonable asking price.