It's the first time Lexus has created a compact coupe, and the Japanese have used many ingredients to try and beat the Germans at their own game.
Orange cones on a private road guide a slalom course that at the end threads into a long right then left corner. We are in the standard Lexus RC350 that moments earlier had been revealed as a coupe that would cost barely $600 more than the Lexus IS350 sedan on which it definitely is not based.
The dig here is that the Japanese brand’s first-ever compact coupe would not follow its German competitors, which typically charge $10-15K more for two-door cars than the four-door brethren on which they are definitely based.
If the bright markers were out of the way, the $66,000 Lexus RC350 Luxury we’re lining up in would accelerate from standstill to 100km/h in 6.1 seconds thanks to a burly 3.5-litre petrol V6 and eight-speed automatic transferring 233kW of power and 378Nm of torque to the rear wheels (same as IS350).
It is quite chilly up here at Lake Mountain Alpine Resort that lies about 100km north-east of Melbourne; a timely reminder that you can bet your bottom dollar the A5 1.8 TFSI and 420i don’t include the electrically adjustable, heated and ventilated front seats that are standard on every Lexus RC350.
They will also miss keyless auto entry, an electrically adjustable steering column, full LED headlights, and front parking sensors (in addition to rear sensors and a camera) that are standard on the three-tier RC350 Luxury, Luxury Sports and F Sport range.
Oh, and the 10-speaker audio system with digital radio that we may soon need to block out the screams (or hurls) of our Lexus co-driver.
The reason the cones are here, though, is to attempt to prove Lexus’ bold claim that the RC350 is a dynamic match for particularly the 4 Series that has long been the driver’s car benchmark in the class.
We’ve heard this all before, though, and only a couple of months ago the IS350 sedan went down (albeit fighting) to the BMW 328i, for both steering and handling, in a comparison test of the luxury sedan cohort.
But we’re reminded again the RC350 is not just an IS350 with less doors. Indeed it borrows its rear underpinnings from the latest IS, but the mid section from an IS250 convertible (we know: what the?) and the front from the larger GS.
This Frankenstein creation has a 4.7-metre-long body that stretches 30mm further than the IS350, but with a 2.73m wheelbase chopped by 70mm. The RC350 has a body that sits 35mm lower but 30mm wider, with front wheels pushed out by 45mm and rears by 50mm.
The RC350 Luxury (grey car in pictures) gets off the line immediately. There is no lag because there is no turbocharger, so the coupe responds instantly to a tickle of the throttle and soon winds out with a throaty induction bark fitting for a sporty car.
Upping speed though the lefts and rights raises pressure on the 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza tyres, but the RC350 feels tight and sits relatively flat.
Then comes the sharp flick to the right, at a time when the suspension is already loaded up. The Luxury doesn’t turn in particularly swiftly and feels a bit blunt when responding to a not inconsiderate level of extra steering lock. There is understeer and grabby stability control intervention.
It seems competent, but heavy and flat-footed, a feeling confirmed when you look at the specification sheet and notice this compact coupe weighs 1680kg – more than a Commodore Evoke and a staggering 155kg up on even a six-cylinder turbo 435i.
Another run confirms the competency, but no more.
Then we swap into the $74,000 RC350 F Sport (white car in pictures), the sportiest model of the range that is also tipped to be the most popular.
For the extra price you get more equipment, of course, with a 17-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson audio system, memory seats, a blind-spot monitor and lane-change assist growing the pile of kit.
But the big news for this exercise is the several engineering changes on offer: 19-inch alloys with performance Bridgestone Potenza rubber; adaptive variable suspension with three modes (Comfort, Sport and Sport+) that in the top setting aims to cancel out pitching under brakes and also ease the stability control; variable ratio steering that reduces turns lock to lock from 2.84 to a minimum of 2.35; and four-wheel steering that turns the back wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts to enhance agility and reduce the turning circle from 10.4 metres to 10-flat.
The difference isn’t immediately noticeable through the slalom, but get to the sharp right hander and the RC350 F Sport turns in so quickly it borders on hyperactivity.
With barely time to compute what just happened, the natural instinct was to get back on the throttle quickly as the RC350 F Sport gripped up and transitioned weight to its back axle. In Sport+ mode it allowed a small powerslide before the electronics deftly reigned in the unruly.
Our co-driver may have heard a word beginning with ‘F’. Best of all, we can confirm the superb dynamics of the F Sport on the twisty drive back to Melbourne. It feels nimble and agile; everything an IS350 F Sport is not.
For the casual drive up to Lake Mountain we were driving the $86,000 RC350 Luxury Sports, we should disclose. It gets the same adaptive suspension as the F Sport, but not its four-wheel steering or variable ratio steering, and asks the big bucks because it gets too much kit to mention (read more here).
Despite also riding on aggressive 19s, its suspension (same as F Sport) is perfectly suited to Australian roads.
It thrums quietly over freeway expansion joints, never ever hints at floatiness on even the most chopped up surfaces, yet remains settled and rounds off bumps nicely while keeping road roar to a minimum.
The steering feels far more linear and lovely than the slightly vacant and notchy system in the IS350.
Speaking of the sedan, while the RC350 shares many of its interior parts with the IS350, the way the A-pillars are sharply raked and the lower roofline creates the sensation that you are in a low-slung sporty coupe.
It is a sensation, because the hip point of the RC350 is not changed. You also look back and see not much rear legroom and very tight headroom to be reminded you’re not in an IS350, though rear-riders at least keep air vents.
There is also a 60:40 split backrest to expand the 423-litre cargo area.
The better part of the cabin is the way everything is ergonomic, and opens and closes solidly.
Some of the materials used are terrific, such as the ceramic-feeling audio knobs – a material we haven’t come across before – while the way the F Sport dials physically dance to one side to reveal the trip computer readout is inspired.
The downside is that Lexus can’t escape its Toyota roots in the switchgear or other materials such as the hard upper door trims that feel Camry-esque. For some there will be way too much going on.
The Lexus Touch infotainment unit is more difficult to use than it needs to be – you ‘pinch’ the small touchpad to zoom in and out of a map, or a finger to act as a mouse – and it blocks out functions (such as destination entry) on the move.
That would be fine if the voice control system worked intuitively, but it is one of the least able systems we’ve used.
There’s also an inkling the RC350 weighs as much as it does when the auto regularly drops gears even on light throttle on small hills. Stick it in Sport or Sport+ and it is far happier as the gearbox keeps revs closer towards peak torque (4800rpm).
Although the Lexus never feels sluggish, nor is it completely effortless, and that the sweet V6 is working hard is confirmed by official combined fuel consumption of 9.4 litres per 100 kilometres (a BMW turbo six needs just 7.4L/100km). We saw 14.0L/100km-plus on test.
There are a couple of downsides to the Lexus RC350 package, but in a sense the trio of model grades should appeal to two different buyers.
Faithful buyers of the posh Toyota will love the quietness, smoothness, equipment and value of the Luxury and Luxury Sports, while those seeking a properly good sports coupe will love the F Sport. It’s the one that will tackle the 4 Series with more than just a value case – and watch this space for that showdown.