Has Lexus missed the mark with its new performance car?
The Lexus RC F is a mixture of a grand tourer and a proper luxury performance car. But is it just a big compromise or can it find the ideal balance?
Despite popular belief, the RC F is not a direct competitor to the BMW M4, or upcoming Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe. It’s just a coupe with a big engine. It’s priced rather sharply at $133,500 plus on-road costs, so it appears cheap next to the Germans (the M4 is $33,000 more).
From the outside the RC F is the most dramatic of the current outlandish Lexus designs. It’s such a departure from what we’ve come to expect from the once conservative Japanese brand that it almost looks out of character. While the Germans make design changes in an evolutionary way, Lexus has all but started from scratch.
In this tester’s opinion, the rear and the front don’t seem to work that cohesively, with the latter far more conservative in nature, creating an unbalanced flow from front to end.
It does look tough though and for the discerning car enthusiasts, it’s a hard car to miss as it flies past you.
Powered by a Yamaha-designed 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V8 engine, which we’ve already come to know in the previous-generation Lexus IS F, the RC F delivers a healthy 351kW of power and 530Nm of torque.
That might seem like a decent amount of grunt, particularly as you consider the new BMW M4, with its 3.0-litre twin-turbo engine, manages 317kW and 550Nm.
Nonetheless the weight difference between the two is at least 280kg in the BMW’s favour, and that’s only if the RC F is optioned with the $14,000 carbon pack that adds a bonnet, roof panel, rear spoiler and interior trim made from lightweight carbon-fibre. Otherwise you’re looking at a 363kg weight difference.
So herein lies the problem with the RC F: it’s just too heavy. Lexus says it’s a GT, so therefore it doesn’t really compete with the likes of the M4 or the Audi RS5, though that seems like a cop out as even if you put it up against the significantly more expensive BMW M6, which is an actual GT, it still doesn’t get the basics right.
In fact, the BMW M6 (1850kg) is 10kg lighter than the standard RC F yet murders it for power (412kW) and torque (680Nm). The two are incomparable of course, as the M6 costs around $300,000, however the point is the RC F doesn’t really deliver what one might come to expect from luxury performance cars or GTs.
Back when we drove the car at its international launch in New York, Lexus engineers told us that the RC F is kept deliberately heavy to make it easier to drive for the average driver.
This is a very common argument from Japanese engineers, one that even the folks who make the almighty Nissan GT-R occasionally use, but in Nissan’s case, the GT-R can do 0-100km/h in well under 3.0 seconds – making its weight largely irrelevant - while the RC F takes 4.5 seconds, or four-tenths slower than the M4.
It comes standard with an eight-speed automatic transmission that labours under the V8 engine and the chassis’ weight. Having driven the last of the IS Fs with a similar setup, it’s interesting to note just how much the gearbox in the RC F suffers off the lights compared to the nimble and rapid-shifting sedan.
There’s never a sense of urgency from a standstill and even when you’re deep into it, you’ll find yourself begging the gearbox for quicker responses to throttle input.
The RC F comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, however we found that both in normal or sport mode, the car would simply ignore our up or down shifts at times, even though the display would show a gear change.
But to get some perspective, the Lexus RC F is the most affordable luxury performance coupe on the market. It comes with every feature you can think of as standard and it’s not exactly slow. In fact, it has so much theatre with its exhaust note that you can (almost) forgive its flaws and come to love it for what it is.
At decent speed around a twisty mountainous road the RC F can be exhilarating to drive. Force it in the right gear and from one tight corner to another, it’s akin to an American muscle car that better understands cornering and grip. You feel the weight, but it all becomes part of the experience.
It’ll let the rear loose if you wish, but its large wheelbase makes for very controllable oversteer that you can really enjoy on a skidpan or track.
Having driven the RC F for a week, it never really felt at home though. It struggled to go fast with enthusiasm and then it delivered a ride that was just a little too hard over bumps or poorly surfaced roads.
We were ready to write it off as being somewhat confused in its intent, but the folks at Lexus let us keep it an extra week and it was in the second week we came to really appreciate what the RC F is all about, an everyday GT that doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.
No, it won’t beat an M4, C 63 or RS5 from the lights, it would even struggle against a Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, but when you finally accept its limitations you’ll understand its potential.
Putting all its driving dynamics aside, it’s fair to say that the Lexus RC F is going to spend most of its life in traffic and it’s the interior of the Lexus that for us is both the biggest delight and disappointment of the whole package.
It’s an amazing interior on paper. It comes with very comfortable seats wrapped in gorgeous leather, sunroof, an amazing sound system and plenty of active safety features. It even has a reasonable amount of room for rear passengers, something the M4 can’t possibly claim.
Yet, there’s something missing to make it special, be it the tiny 7-inch display with one of the most frustrating control interfaces that we’ve ever used, or the button overload on the centre instrument cluster, which feels outdated compared to the sophisticated systems in its European rivals, some of which have been around long before the RC F ever saw the light of day.
It begs the question, who is the Lexus RC F designed for? It’s too heavy to be a performance car and while it’s a nice place to be inside, it’s no better than its German rivals.
Lexus is keen to shed its image of a conservative luxury car company and push both its design and performance credentials and it has done that, but not with the RC F.
For us, the Lexus RC 350 is a much better choice in the RC range. While it might miss out on the larger V8 engine, its performance is not too compromised and considering you can find yourself in one from just $66,000, it’s an absolute bargain.