From the moment the Lexus RC350 F Sport threaded through a first sharp corner it clicked that this is not only a proper BMW 435i rival, but is one that could dethrone the benchmark in the premium coupe class.
Lexus nails quality and refinement almost consistently enough that its engineers even seem bored with just ticking off those virtues. Early impressions indicate the Lexus RC350 F Sport brings a fresh set of cards to the table while maintaining the expectations of its brand – don’t skip to the bottom of this test and instead witness one of the closest contests this year.
It is difficult to believe that Lexus – or Luxury EXport to the US – is 25 years old yet is still humble and realistic enough to see itself as a challenger brand. The challenge, of course, is the mighty German trio of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, probably in that order.
The RC coupe is the first-ever compact premium coupe from Lexus. By contrast BMW has been making two-door 3 Series models (recently renamed 4 Series) for longer than the Japanese brand has existed.
Challengers are good for the consumer, as the pricing of this pair highlights.
Lexus has thrown the gauntlet down to the opposition, pricing the RC350 F Sport at $74,000 – just $1000 over the IS350 sedan with which it shares its interior and rear suspension. The 435i coupe, meanwhile, costs $108,530 – $15K over the 335i sedan with which it shares all its fundamentals (engine, chassis).
That is a decent surcharge for losing two doors and a middle rear seatbelt, but it also means there is a vast chasm to the RC350 F Sport in this contest.
We initially asked for the $81,000 BMW 428i, but it was not available to test. It also costs $15K more than the equivalent 328i sedan, which has a four-cylinder turbocharged engine and less equipment than the 435i.
Besides, Lexus targeted the 435i and were more than happy to put its contender up against the Bavarian big-hitter; and even the 435i lacks equipment standard in the RC350 F Sport.
Both models get 19-inch alloy wheels, foglights, three-mode adjustable suspension and variable-ratio steering that requires less twirling of the wheel to get the front wheels pointed.
Both also score front and rear parking sensors with reverse-view camera, full leather trim with electrically adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control and satellite navigation with a premium audio system.
The RC350 F Sport includes a 17-speaker, 850-watt Mark Levinson audio system compared with a 16-speaker, 600-watt Harman Kardon unit in its rival.
Lexus asks an extra $2500 for a sunroof, compared with $2920 over at your BMW dealer. Then there are the items standard on the Lexus but optional on the BMW: digital radio tuner ($500), electric lumbar support ($640), front seat heating ($850 – yet the RC350 also gets ventilated seats) and LED headlights ($3300).
The RC350 F Sport gets a blind-spot monitor, where the 435i doesn’t. Optioning a $7300 enhancement package on the Lexus gives you a collision warning system, active cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beam that will collectively cost an extra $3820 on the BMW; so the gap does narrow somewhat.
It’s a pretty convincing win on the value front to the Japanese coupe, though.
As will become a theme in this contest, however, the pendulum swings back the other way for performance. At least on paper, engineering development limitations are more obvious in the Lexus than they are with the BMW.
The RC350 F Sport is a very heavy car. For a coupe that compared with the 435i is only marginally longer (by 60mm), taller (plus 18mm) and wider (up 15mm) the 1740kg kerb weight seems excessive.
The 1600kg BMW is not only lighter, but its 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder engine propels it from standstill to 100km/h in just 5.1 seconds – a full second quicker than its rival. Even the four-cylinder turbo 428i is faster (at 5.8sec) while being lighter again (1545kg).
Lexus utilises a larger 3.5-litre engine, its six cylinders arranged in a ‘V’ rather than straight across the engine bay like a piano. The absence of a turbo is noticeable though not always problematic.
Using both port- and direct-injection, the RC350 F Sport makes healthy numbers for its displacement. Its 233kW of power puts the 225kW of its rival in the shade, and its 378Nm of torque is well above the 350Nm expected of an engine of this size.
But the Lexus makes its peak twist at 4800rpm, where the BMW lathers on 400Nm between a stunningly broad 1200rpm and 5000rpm.
Whenever your loafer lands on the throttle of the 435i there’s smooth, creamy grunt matched by a supremely slick eight-speed automatic that grabs cogs quickly and intuitively, but not desperately.
Eight gears are packed into the Lexus transmission, too, and they are juggled far more frequently than in its rival.
During light cruising such as we did from Melbourne down to the Great Ocean Road – where many premium coupes will be seen – the RC350 F Sport would downchange to seventh and sixth gears even on small hills. Press Sport mode and the problem is solved as the auto keeps the tachometer needle above 2000rpm and closer to its sweet spot. Even then, however, the 435i lopes along nonchalantly.
On the fatigue-inducing Victorian freeways there is plenty of time to become accustomed to each coupe.
Inside the Lexus feels chunkier and more like a bespoke, low-slung sports coupe.
The heavily raked A-pillars sweep towards your head, which may not be good for taller drivers. The driver’s seat is more heavily bolstered and the tilt function on the seat allows more range so you can sit low with plenty of under-thigh support. The steering wheel is quite a small, thick unit; everything just feels purposeful.
The dashboard will be familiar to IS sedan owners, but there are extra splashes of leather flanking the transmission tunnel and doors. It is a busy design, not unlike walking into the Ginza district of Tokyo, that will divide people’s opinion.
There are more materials used than you have fingers on the steering wheel, but equally there are some nice touches such as the ceramic audio knobs; the touch sensitive climate controls; and the way the tachometer dial with a digital speedometer inside physically dances to one side of the instrumentation to reveal the trip computer display when the controls are pressed.
What you most have to get over is the Toyota switchgear for the power windows, mirror switches, and boot and fuel flap releases (but we’ll keep that to ourselves, yeah?).
The BMW is airier and you sit up higher, viewing a dashboard that is barely differentiated from the 3 Series. Still, it is just as comfortable, and with little dashes of aluminium-look and piano black trim, is arguably more elegant and restrained in its design. The way its electric seatbelt feeder guides front passengers the seatbelt on entry is particularly classy, too.
A proper handbrake also beats the Lexus footbrake hands down, while the speedometer and tachometer in traditional red look as though they could have come from a 1980s 3 Series, and are as neat and attractive as ever.
Although a head-up display isn’t available in the RC350, paying $1700 extra for it at this level in the BM is shocking.
Above: Lexus RC350 F Sport (top) and BMW 435i coupe (bottom).
For the sports-inclined business executive who needs a home office by day and navigator by weekend, the 4 Series is unquestionably more ergonomic in its infotainment than its rival.
With a simple rotary dial on the centre console, flanked by menu/radio/media/nav shortcut buttons around it, the BMW iDrive system remains the benchmark for functionality. The standard 8.8-inch colour display also remains top class for graphics and slick user interface.
For $1200 you can also get the full suite of connectivity functions for 24/7 concierge calling, real-time traffic updates, remote door lock/unlock with car finder function, and internet-based news, weather, Google local search and app functionality.
Above: Lexus RC350 F Sport (top) and BMW 435i coupe (bottom).
Lexus has a simpler answer to those features with a standard Enform system that uses your phone’s internet for traffic and local area information – though it is standard.
The Lexus Remote Touch system provides a little touchpad for you to swirl your finger onto to guide a cursor on the 7.0-inch colour display. It is very finicky to use, while the graphics are another Toyota-ism that lack class and the system blocks out most functions on the move, leaving you to use the unintuitive voice control system to input a navigation address, for example.
At least your finger can remain steady on the move, because the RC350 F Sport rides superbly across all surfaces. The difference between its Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes is minimal, as there is no hint of float whatsoever in any of them, yet only minor increases in surface intrusion as you go up the chain.
Above: Lexus RC350 F Sport (top) and BMW 435i coupe (bottom).
By contrast the BMW feels floaty in its Comfort setting, bobbing the body up and down over wavy sections of freeway that the Lexus had ignored.
The upside is immaculate compliance over larger pock marks in the road that are picked up in its rival. Switch to Sport – there are only two suspension modes – and things are tied down nicely, and the 435i rides almost identically to the RC350 in its normal mode.
Along with the airier cabin, the BMW has the most rear room here for friends you’re holidaying with, though the Lexus has a more tilted, comfortable bench. Each places a similar premium on headroom, and each provides rear air vents and 60:40 split-fold backrest practicality to enhance boot space; the 435i (445 litres) again just eclipsing the RC350 (423L) for weekend-bag intake.
It may come as a surprise that the wafting, roomier BMW seems to play the grand touring card with more aplomb than its rival, though even then there is a caveat: the Lexus is far quieter, particularly on coarse chip surfaces.
By the time we lunch in Lorne and head for the twisty roads reaching up towards Deans Marsh, there is nothing in this contest.
That Lexus engine may feel slightly undernourished around town, but luckily in a sporting context the V6 feels toey, with excellent throttle response and a throaty, growly induction rasp when you’re on the way to where it loves to be – at the top end of the tachometer.
Suddenly when you’re showing the RC350 F Sport some corners and keeping revs high, the heavy coupe starts shrinking around you. The tight suspension keeps the front end pinned flat, and the grip from the Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres is plentiful.
A 70mm-shorter wheelbase seems to help the RC feel pointier and more agile than an IS, and the variable ratio and four-wheel steering standard in the RC350 F Sport also helps dramatically.
Moving the rear wheels slightly in the opposite direction to the fronts makes the Lexus feel supernaturally sharp when turning into a corner. Actually that could be super-unnaturally, as one tester described the sensation as “weird” – and it is, until you get used to it.
But the steering itself is wonderfully light and crisp, loading up slightly as lock is wound on to communicate grip levels from the front.
Forcing the nose into a corner also helps quickly shift weight onto the outside rear tyre, which acts as the most unsubtle sign the Lexus plasters onto your face, telling you to get back onto the throttle. It’s just a shame the stability control is a bit too interventionist, even in Sport+ mode, and it can be aggressive in operation.
Moving from the RC350 to the 435i is a bit like coming out of a high-intensity, high-tech video game and finding your inner natural acrobat.
There is a lot going on underneath the Lexus – just like the interior, and Ginza – to make such a chunky coupe handle as superbly as it does. By contrast in the BMW there is a beautiful level of balance inherent in its bones, and the way the 435i segues between its front and rear ends is sublime.
You can feel the 80mm-longer wheelbase the way the BMW corners more progressively and gradually. You also feel the weight over the nose from the six-cylinder engine more than you do in the Lexus, or for that matter the 428i that has a lighter four-cylinder up front.
What you don’t feel is much of what is happening beneath the front wheels. While response from the 435i’s steering is similarly incisive, wheel load and road surface change doesn’t tickle back to your fingertips the way it does in the Japanese car.
For that reason you couldn’t call the RC350 F Sport an artificial car to drive. There may be myriad technology going on underneath, but it all comes together quite brilliantly with the low-slung driving position adding to the sense of purpose. It just happens to be in a package that is also quiet, plushly equipped and smooth riding.
The problem for the 435i is actually other BMW models.
The 328i sedan with optional variable steering and adaptive suspension for less than $70,000 is every bit as impressive as this coupe at $110K or the 428i at $83K. The latter cars just don’t feel their worth over the 3 Series, not from a driving nor equipment perspective, where the RC350 F Sport does over an IS350 F Sport.
As an overall package the BMW is more convincing than the Lexus, particularly in terms of infotainment and powertrain prowess.
The extra engineering effort to make it light also proved beneficial in terms of economy – the 435i slurped 9.4 litres per 100 kilometres, up from its 8.1L/100km combined cycle claim; the RC350 11.8L/100km, up from its 9.4L/100km claim.
It’s not uncommon to pay more for something organic like the BMW, versus one that is heavily processed like the Lexus. Equally, however, there’s no denying the win to the best value coupe (literally) by the kilo when it can please drivers and passengers just as well as the one that costs a lot more. The challenger has challenged … and by the barest of margins won.
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