Two updates and one facelift in, the midlife Lexus RC350 F Sport update makes for the best version yet. But is the likeable price-busting sports coupe now truly loveable? Let's find out.
The Lexus RC350 F Sport is back, with sharper looks and its most fulsome spec yet. And in less than five years, it's come quite a way.
From where, you ask? In late 2014, Lexus lobbed its then all-new RC350 squarely at the usual German suspects occupying the mid-sized two-door sport coupe territory, and here at CarAdvice we got a little excited. In the nine months to July ’15, we reviewed the ‘RC-for-Race-Coupe’ no fewer than seven times. And that was just the six-banger RC350, not the V8 RC F halo car or, arriving late 2015, the entry turbo-four RC300.
When it first arrived, I found the RC350 to be charming in style, lavishly finished, friendly if not terribly sporty – let alone racy – to drive, characterful for both good (general ambience) and bad (cabin electronics), and a viable choice in the segment when chasing big opulence for a sharp buck or you simply didn’t like the German options.
It was an easy car to like; a tough car to love.
Over the past few years, the RC350 fell abruptly off the CarAdvice review radar even though Lexus, to its credit, has been fettling the six-cylinder coupe along the way, bolstering the safety, sonics and dynamic hardware for 2016, then tickling the powertrain, infotainment and tech for 2018. Just recently, for 2019, the whole RC range has been treated to a proper midlife makeover, to a brief where changes to the evergreen mid-size coupe centre largely around adopting stylisms from the more contemporary, more illustrious flagship LC500.
So, what we have is an easy-to-like yet tough-to-love coupe robbing some design magic from a quite likeable, if not truly loveable, Lexus stablemate.
Actually, no, today’s RC350, here in F Sport trim, represents more than simply some Hollywood rhinoplasty even if, specifically, 2019’s update offers little more. Instead, it's the culmination of all the past wide-ranging, on-running improvements into a much more feature-laden package than its 2014 forebear. And at $77,529 list, the growth in spec looks to have easily outstripped the modest $3500 price inflation over its $74K forebear.
It gets better. At the time of writing, Lexus is offering a “free F Sport upgrade” across its ranges and, in RC-land, the RC350 F Sport can be had for Luxury money, or $69,874 list, a value saving of $7655. Ten per cent is a helluva haircut, but you do have to be quick: Lexus says the offer only runs until the end of February…
I’ve long found the RC to have a stirring shape let down by incongruent design features, but the simpler, sharper and more ‘technical’ look – particularly those one-piece headlights now the two-piece ‘Nike tick’ array is gone – work a charm. The impossibly angular Lexus design language can be hit and miss depending on the model line, and it works more confidently and cohesively applied to the updated RC as much as anywhere in the stable.
To stuffy old traditionalists like me, a proper luxury sports coupe needs two things: frameless and/or pillarless side windows and at least six cylinders – straight or vee, your choice – of motivation. These things are important – perhaps even more important than, say, a hefty one-and-three-quarter-tonne weighbridge ticket or a greyhound-like ability to sprint from A to B. All of which can be said about the RC350 F Sport.
Yes, you can save three grand upfront and perhaps more in running costs opting for the turbo 2.0-litre four RC200 F Sport twin, but a fulsome 3.5-litre six-banging heartbeat, recently tickled to 232kW and 380Nm of lag-free natural aspiration, really befits this package. This is something the Germans haven’t so much forgotten but tend to charge six figures for – priced well beyond that of their respective low-spec turbo fours that want for similar money to our RC350 sixer.
The engine’s direct injection and variable-valve trickery seems to do wonders for drivability: response is instant, and there’s ample low end to get those broad 265mm rear Bridgestone Potenzas scrabbling despite keeping some torque in reserve until full swing arrives at 4800rpm. Paired with a nicely refined eight-speed auto, forward thrust is satisfyingly linear with seamless and reasonably assertive acceleration. With the six hovering around its 4800–6400rpm sweet spot, it mightn’t be significantly quicker than rival turbo fours – there’s that kerb weight to contend with – but its nicely plumb delivery and muted, metallic rort contribute in no small measure to its dignified, premium vibe.
Lexus remains one of the few true preachers of natural aspiration’s good book, but even a Luddite optimist like me can see some downsides apparent to those weaned on modern, high-torque forced induction. For one thing, the RC350 likes a drink, if not excessively so: call it low to mid teens around town against a 9.1L/100km combined claim.
Without boost-manipulation wizardry available for tuning powertrain modes, there’s a limited and quite muted lift in purpose when switching from Normal to Sport or Sport Plus, returning a conspicuously sharper throttle, if not adding much in the way of extra thrust as you progress through the presets. It’ll scrabble into the low-six-second mark for the sprint to 100km/h, though, really, the RC350 F Sport is never quite the bona-fide firebrand.
There’s an awful lot of F Sport trickery at play elsewhere under the skin. Above the Luxury variant, which already fits adaptive suspension and the clever VDIM anti-skid smarts via individual wheel braking, the F Sport package adds variable-ratio steering up front and rear axle steering (plus the so-called Dynamic Handling smarts adapting their calibrations), as well as a Torsen limited-slip differential and F Sport-specific suspension tuning including the super flat/stiff Sport Plus mode.
All that might appear a bit of technical overkill; though, tangibly, all of the above trickery conspires to enhance rather than transform the RC350’s sportiness and character. Enhancement is subtle and mostly transparent rather than dramatic, notably the steering. The dogged traditionalist in me believes the simpler the steering mechanism in play, the more natural and frankly better it is. Thankfully, the front end’s variable-gear-ratio design isn’t as unnaturally intrusive (some Audis) or artificial (Infiniti) as some systems out there, while the rear-steer effect isn’t overly conspicuous or nigh on spooky (Megane RS). Nice work, Lexus.
The handling package’s tune is quite faithful to the driving mode labels, though I did come away thinking that: a) while nicely tempered and generally sporty in character, dynamics lean more towards capable grand tourer than properly agile corner carver; and b) it’s a bit too firm in around-town Normal mode.
Much of the former is undoubtedly down to the systems working in unison to provide adequate body control to 1.75 tonnes of inertia during cornering and braking, which is bolstered by rather powerful and progressive six-pot front calipers with two-piece floating rotors. But the too-stiff ride, I’m convinced, is more a matter of Lexus product planners’ taste than it is dynamic necessity.
Specifically, it’s the stiff rear end tune that robs the coupe of around town and cruising comfort: too much fidgety vertical movement and it struggles to smooth out small road imperfections. So, the Lexus transitions from firm (Normal) to downright rigid (Sport, Sport Plus). In fairness, it’s far from overly harsh, instead dulling the premium polish from the all-round driving experience.
An 86 for grown-ups? No, not really. It doesn’t have the Toyota’s lithe dynamic character – did we mention the Lexus’s weight? – and isn’t targeting the same. Nor is it tail-snappy like Nissan’s Zed breed, perhaps the RC350’s most natural Asian competitor, yet an almost entirely different animal. There’s a more dignified blend of touring and sportiness; a mix of Jekyll and Hyde rather than some sort of bipolarity.
The same can be said for the cabin, where a sporty form and driver ergonomics are minted in typical Lexus lavishness, our tester resplendent in Flare Red leather with tasty Naguri aluminium trim inlays that, like the brushed-look central stack surfacing and old-school analogue clock, are new for 2019.
Beyond all else, it’s easily a fancier and more upmarket interior ambience than any premium coupe rival around this pricepoint. The real anchor point to this is the material choice and solidity of the build. The leather is superbly supple, the enlarged F Sport-only 8.0-inch TFT screen is nice and speccy, and there isn’t a square centimetre of cheap, cost-cut plastic anywhere.
However, there’s less enthusiasm for the conspicuously ageing button array on the central stack or the foot-operated parking brake where it ought to fit a less-archaic electronic system (as fitted to our long-term GS F). But – surprise, surprise – the biggest criticism for the RC coupe, or any Lexus for that matter, is the infotainment system…
This is a terribly well trodden ground, but the infotainment’s user interface is downright terrible. The haptic touchpad controller is frustrating at best, overly distracting at worst – Lexus doggedly sticking to its own inimitable path that’s inferior in intuitive logic and ease-of-use compared with, well, any other system you care to name. Changing apps and adjusting features is a chore met with varying degrees of user confusion, and not helped by messy and convoluted graphics.
Space-wise, it's a typical two-plus-two mid-size sports coupe: everything caters for the first row, with row-two accommodation so constricted in leg and head room, it’s certifiably ‘emergency only’ for anyone other than small kids. No big foul, though: it’s no better or worse than a Porsche 911, an Audi TT, a Ford Mustang or any other proper small-to-mid-sized sports coupe.
Ownership-wise, the RC350 F Sport is covered by a four-year/100,000km warranty. Servicing intervals are 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, with no fixed-price program. Safety credentials include eight airbags, a pre-collision warning system, a pedestrian collision pop-up bonnet, lane-keeping and lane-departure warning, plus radar-based adaptive cruise control, though the RC range isn’t ANCAP certified and AEB isn’t listed as a feature on the model’s literature.
Likeable? Extremely. Genuinely loveable? Well, perhaps if you’re particularly smitten by value for money. The culmination of two running updates and this latest facelift creates the most appealing, well-rounded, fully loaded RC350 F Sport to date. One that’s quite the bargain for its usual $75,529 list price given the exhaustive list of standard-fit tech and goodies.