Can the Lexus RC350 challenge the German coupes?
If you want a luxury mid-size coupe, there’s a new entry heading our way from the land of the rising sun.
The Lexus RC 350, which will launch in Australia in November, is a nemesis of the established German coupes. It will be the only coupe that has no sedan equivalent, in a segment rationalised by cost savings on the manufacturer’s behalf.
Unlike the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe, Audi A5/S5 coupe and BMW’s 4 Series, which are all based on their sedan siblings, the Lexus RC is a stand-alone coupe-only model, which means there’s no RC sedan and in a crowded market that demands individuality and a point of difference, that may be its best selling point.
Of course, it’s not an entirely new car. Its platform shares the front end of the new Lexus GS large car, mid-section from the IS250 convertible of old, while the back consists of the new Lexus IS. It’s an interesting way to make a car, take three somewhat different platforms and put them all together, thankfully for Lexus, it works rather well.
The Lexus RC 350 is the rational choice against the high-performance Lexus RC F. It uses a 3.5-litre V6 engine with 233kW of power and 376Nm of torque coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission that will see it move its bulky 1680-1740kg kerb weight (depending on options) from 0-100km/h in 6.3 seconds.
If you’re wondering, then yes, this dual-injection 2GR-FSE V6 engine is indeed a familiar unit that has had applications in Toyota vehicles around the world, though not in Australia, and it’s not exactly the same 2GR-FE unit found in the Toyota Aurion/RAV4/Kluger and Lexus’ own RX 350 SUV.
Pricing is yet to be finalised but we suspect the base ‘Luxury’ variant will be starting with a seven in the price tag, workings its way to the high 80s and early 90s for the F Sport and Sport Luxury variants respectively.
From the outside, the RC 350 is certainly loud and with little tolerance for subtlety. Its bulging body kit leaves little to the imagination (or aftermarket tuners for that matter) and though it may appear out of character for a Lexus at first, it’s important to realise that this is indeed the new Lexus design language and all the collective opinions of the brand’s once-conservative styling are destined for the grave yard.
Step inside and it’s a slightly different story. The hard-edged exterior doesn’t exactly translate well inside, sure the unique and high quality sports seats are a treat and the fit-and-finish is like every other Lexus – unbelievably good – but it’s tremendously busy.
There are so many buttons to work out and their placement seems at odds with today’s needs. The huge emphasis on the CD player, for instance, is just downright out of date. The buttons themselves seem to be a collection of bits from different cars, with controls for the CD player, air conditioning and seat heaters all utilising different shaped and sized buttons.
The tactile sensation of the switchgear is a little underwhelming as well, not to mention the low-resolution 7-inch multimedia screen, embedded rather deep into the centre console and driven by a hyperactive touchpad. It may sound like we are splitting hairs, but when you’re competing against the German cavalry, there’s basically no room for error.
Which is certainly the message Lexus engineers were given, because behind the wheel the RC 350 is a delight to drive. Lexus has modified the engine for a sportier note than one might expect and under full load it’s a grunty exhaust sound that exudes confidence.
Though it’s not as quick as its previously mentioned German rivals, thanks largely to its weight, the RC 350 never feels underpowered, both from a standstill and when overtaking at highway or suburban speeds.
The eight-speed gearbox works beautifully around town, delivering a robust and smooth gear-changing experience beaten only by the ZF 8 speed transmission found in BMWs.
We started our initial drive in the all-wheel drive version, which won’t be coming to Australia, but once in command of a rear-wheel drive model, the sublime road dynamics of the RC 350 became apparent.
It’s not going to match its Germanic adversaries around the twisty stuff (particularly the dynamically class-leading 435i) but it’s a comfortable yet sporty coupe whose aggressive looks are not a mask for any deficiency, as the RC 350 goes as hard as it looks.
Nonetheless, it’s so fundamentally different to the RC F, that it’s somewhat disappointing at full pace. We drove it around the Monticello racetrack in upstate New York and to sum it up, motor sport is not its strength. That’s ok though, because it’s not a racecar and if you option it with the rear-wheel steering system, you can have plenty of fun around a mountainous road.
Ride quality is superb (at least on American roads) and pushed hard into bends the RC 350 is predictable in its faults, which is charming at worst. Sadly, it’s not as competent a driver’s car as the smaller, faster and more nimble IS 350 sedan.
So while it may have an unmatched uniqueness for having no sedan equivalent, it’s not entirely for its betterment. Perhaps the best way to look at the new Lexus RC 350 is as a safe and no doubt ultra reliable aggressive-looking coupe.
It will be perfect for a glorious drive through a scenic road with the other half, it’ll never let you down and Lexus’ unmatchable customer service experience will ensure a lifetime of great ownership experience.
Nonetheless, like its high-performance sibling, the RC 350 enters a market rampant with fierce and highly competent rivals. Considering its use of a relatively old engine family, an eight-speed transmission first seen in the 2006 Lexus LS 460 and in-car technology that is trumped by its rivals, the brand’s emphasis on customer satisfaction is evermore important.
Like its parent company Toyota, Lexus applies a similar “Kaizen” philosophy of good change, or small but continuous improvements in each iteration of its cars. But in the RC 350’s case, there is massive improvement in all regards compared to any Lexus vehicle that has come before it.