Well before SUV was an acronym – by a hundred years, give or take – people began adapting sensible four- and five-door horseless carriages into two-door derivatives for little more reason than it looked cool.
And ever since, the expression of sportiness the coupe format presents for the sheer sake of it has swooned car buyers unbound by purely practical decision-making, if often limited by 'everyman' budget. The history of great-looking, modestly powered, reasonably priced coupes such as the 2016 Lexus RC 200t is roughly as long as motoring history itself.
Far more recently, though, the classic coupe idea became somewhat corrupted by heightened expectations of power and performance. Buyers expect excess, perhaps for the sake of it.
Lexus's maiden attempt at a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder RC, however, makes do with 180kW and 350Nm. You don’t have to rewind too many decades to find supercars with such outputs, but by today's measures, they're fairly humble numbers even for a entry-level sporty coupe. Indeed, the 200t looks anaemic in the shadow of the V8-powered RC F producing, at 351kW, roughly twice the power.
At $133,110 plus on-road costs, the RC F is well beyond modest buyer budgets, but from $64,000 (for the entry Luxury), the RC 200t presents all of the F's dramatic looks at half the price. It's pegged squarely at those buyers happy to forsake sheer performance for street presence, and so it should be judged.
There’s a dark cloud of precedence hanging over the RC 200t. Its doubly excessive and potent F stablemate scored a lowly 6.5 from ten after its week in the CarAdvice garage, where its sporting and performance credentials came under heavy scrutiny. Credentials of which the RC 200t presents with markedly more modesty…
Even before it turns a wheel, it would be easy – tempting, even – to tar the RC 200t with a prejudicial brush, and consider it a performance pretender. To write of personal high hopes for the RC 200t would be quite the porky pie.
But when considered for what it’s trying to be, a big vibe coupe in a classic feel-good vein for modestly heeled buyers who care little for head-ripping performance, there’s a lot to like. And after a week behind the wheel, old petrolhead here liked the RC 200t more than expected.
Our F Sport variant ups the entry price to $73,000 plus on roads. While essentially the same powertrain as the base ($64,000 list) Luxury, this mid-spec version adds variable adaptive suspension, 19-inch wheels, larger 357mm two-piece front brakes, a rear limited-slip differential, an F Sport paddleshift wheel and driving focused seating as heightened sporting credentials. A 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, high-spec LED headlights, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert assists, and an engine note enhancing Acceleration Sound Control electronic aura exciter also weigh in this version’s $9000 premium over the already nicely specified Luxury. For a complete rundown of range pricing and specs, see here.
What the RC 200t isn’t lacking for is impact. Bonnet bulge apart, it takes trainspotting to pick one from the twice-pricey RC F. However, that the two-litre version packs nearly 100 per cent of the drama from fifty paces could be viewed as a tank half empty or full depending on opinion: a question of whether it should have the show if it can’t deliver the go to match. It's hard to imagine buyers preferring a meeker design more suitably matched to packaged performance than what the brazen F Sport provides.
It’s not quick. Even with 350Nm clocking on at just 1650rpm, while skipping over Sport drive mode straight to Sport+ (from a default Normal) and loading up the engine under brakes for a step-off launch, the 2.0-litre turbo four struggles to break the fat 265mm-wide rear Bridgestone Potenza tyres’ traction. Acceleration is hardly leisurely, but the powertrain strains under hauling 1700kg-odd towards the horizon, an no amount of sonic trickery from the Acceleration Sound Control – which has skimmed some cream off the top of the LFA supercar’s exhaust note – makes it feel any quicker than its maker’s 7.5s 0-100km/h claim.
Peak power arrives at 5800rpm, in a rather polite and fizz-free manner, and there’s little hope of seeing the farthest reaches of the 6200-7000rpm redline spread as the eight-speed auto upshifts before red is ever reached, regardless of drive mode or if Manual mode is fully engaged – frustrating, as attempts to paddleshift near the low-set rev-limiter can cause inadvertent double-upshifts. The transmission, with torque convertor lock-up in second through to eighth gear, is oh-so-Lexus smooth, but without much fire in its belly the powertrain feels as if it might’ve been lifted from an SUV. Which it is, given the engine premiered in the 175kW/350Nm NX 200t.
Sport+ does inject some urgency but its fangs don’t dig terribly deep and it creates enough belligerence in the otherwise tempered driveline that you’ll be reaching for Normal mode the moment you begin to slow.
While it doesn’t shine its brightest when hustled, RC 200t is wholly more enjoyable through the balance of driving, from boulevard cruising to spirited back country touring. Despite very low-profile rubber, the ride comfort isn’t overly firm for the sake of it, with impressive compliance that settles quickly over big bumps, smooths out small bumps and doesn’t adversely affect the coupe’s nice, flat stance in corners. It’s completely pleasant around town, yet blends in enough engagement to deliver a ride and handling balance that’s more finely struck than some fancied European rivals.
Lexus claims 7.3L/100kms combined consumption, but around town the RC 200t averaged well into double figures, only dropping into the eights after a fair hike up the motorway. Interesting, the auto had a tendency to avoid seventh and eight ‘gears’ until many kilometres of settling in under cruise control.
Push on the curves and its considerable heft weighs in, though its sizeable rubber footprint proves strident grip and there’s nice clarity to the surprisingly sharp front end. The steering is excellent: linear in response and amply assistant without feeling either leaden or airy, it loads up naturally when you point it towards an apex while maintaining genuine connection between the driver and road surface. Resist the urge to treat it like a race car and it’s a satisfying machine to punt.
Much of the sporty satisfaction can be attributed to the cabin space. While its fussy styling mightn’t be to all tastes, much effort has gone into both overall presentation and finer details, and it certainly not shy on making a generally positive impression.
The F Sport-spec seats, fully electric with memory functionality, are fantastic. They’re completely trimmed in a mix of real and synthetic leather front, sides and back, are ornately stitched and have a high watermark for form-fitting shapeliness. Their positioning, which feels ultra low-slung thanks to the high set centre console, provides an excellent relationship to the wheel, pedals and instrument cluster featuring a central roundel that reconfigures the digital display if you choose Sport/Sport+ from Eco/Normal drive modes.
The feel-good premium accoutrements extend to the dark, low-lustre plastics, satin titanium-look and knurled metal look (door switch plates, glovebox lid) highlights and suede-like headlining. The impossibly lengthy, leather appointed door trims look a million bucks. Devils in details include electric wheel adjustment, a neat frameless rear-view mirror and a floor-hinged accelerator pedal. The analogue clock is certainly a nod Mercedes-Benz’s way.
The haptic trackpad infotainment interface – rather than the 'joystick' input as used in other models – allows a reasonably intuitive sync with the on-screen selections, though the system itself can be slow to react and it's still clunkier than some slicker Euro rivals’ designs. Further, much of the functionality (Local Search, Destination Download, Fuel Finder) adopts the Lexus Enform format that relies on phone data rather than inbuilt resources.
If there’s an area letting the team down in the cabin, it’s the lacklustre square buttons that festoon the central stack, and that Lexus still persists in such a sport-themed model with a foot operated parking brake.
Rear seating is typical two-plus-two in format and space for a coupe this size – forget getting adults behind the driver’s seat until the first row is jammed forward. There are Isofix and top tether facilities for child seats in the outboard positions in a car best suited for transporting small kids in the rear, which also features air-con vents in the rear of the centre console. The boot, at 423 litres, is actually quite roomy, its generous depth allowing space for golf bags and other lengthy objects.
As a package, the RC 200t delivers handsomely in style, presence and panache, while offering an impressively convincing all-round driving experience, in compensation for being a bit undersized in the trouser department. It’s a fine fit for those coupe buyers who care nought about setting the pace.
Consider one thing though: the RC 350 range. Despite recently hiking all three variants’ prices, the V6-powered coupes can be had for just $3000 above equivalent 200t versions, the natural nemesis here being the RC 350 F Sport at $76,000 (against $73,000 list price for the 200t F Sport). And the 350 version adds active cruise, rear-wheel steering and variable ratio (front) steering…though the jury is out as to whether this adds or subtracts from the enjoyment of the driving experience.
Tellingly, we’ve rated the RC 350 in review as the smarter choice compared with the mighty RC F. With a more fulsome 233kW, fatter 378Nm torque band and richer (though also electronically enhanced) sonic character, the RC 350 F Sport offers a thick veneer of sporting mojo – perhaps the key missing ingredient – that’s absent in the RC 200t. And with its more strident 6.1sec march to 100km/h from a standstill, it’ll offer more bite underfoot on those occasions you need or want it.
Even prospective coupe buyers who care little for performance might be foohardy not to cross-shop the six-cylinder if the turbo four-cylinder version blips bright and loud on the coupe-buying radar.