If you call a luxury car to mind, there’s a good chance European rivals to Lexus would make the cut before the Japanese prestige marque does.
Stranger still, the American auto market in the 1950s best defined what the 2020 Lexus RC350 F Sport really is, with the evocative marketing term 'personal luxury coupe'.
The RC range is aimed at cars like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A5 with a facelifted model coming soon, and the BMW 4 Series that is in the midst of a generational change. It promises the amenities of the more practical sedans and liftbacks those models share a name with, but with the kind of panache only a two-door coupe body can deliver.
The RC350 coupe may contain four seats, but it’s not really a four-seater. It’s more, well, personal.
It’s also quite familiar, having debuted in 2014 on underpinnings shared with the IS sedan. A styling update in 2018 keeps things fresh, but apart from minor tweaks to equipment, the package is largely the same.
Of the available RC engines, the 350’s 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 sits between the competent turbo four-cylinder RC300 models and enticing V8-powered RC F nicely, with 232kW at 6600rpm and 380Nm from 4800rpm. Regardless of the engine direction you take, the entire range is fitted with an eight-speed torque converter automatic pushing power to the rear wheels.
That’s plenty of power, but an A5 45TFSI Audi or C300 Benz overtakes the Lexus for torque, and both engines do so lower in the rev range for more effortless day-to-day driving. The Audi's almost line-ball on price, the Benz around $10K more.
Which is where the Lexus carves out its own niche. At $87,636, the RC350 F Sport sits one level above the entry-grade Luxury, and flaunts its incredibly sweet sonorous V6 as a unique selling point against four-cylinder rivals.
Without being an all-out performance machine, the F Sport upgrades include some worthwhile chassis and handling improvements. Things like a limited-slip differential, stiffer (slightly) suspension, variable gear-ratio steering with rear-wheel steering, upsized front brake rotors, and an extra Sport S+ drive mode.
The appearance and equipment package also gets some F Sport tweaks like an 8.0-inch digital instrument cluster inspired by the LFA supercar with a centre barrel that can be slid from central to offset at the touch of a button, more intricate seat stitch detailing and unique colour combos for the interior, dark-finish 19-inch alloy wheels, and 17-speaker Mark Levinson premium audio.
Those features come in addition to inclusions across the RC range, like power-adjustable front seats and steering with memory, front seat heating and cooling, dual-zone climate control, 10.3-inch infotainment screen with AM/FM/DAB+ radio, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto operated via a remote touchpad interface, proximity key entry and push-button start, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights and more.
Unlike the long lists of options presented by rivals, the RC350 F Sport keeps thing brief. A $2500 power tilt and slide moonroof, as fitted, along with a $1500 charge for premium paint, including statement colours like the F Sport-exclusive Cobalt Mica blue and Zinnia Yellow.
Refreshingly, perhaps, that makes the RC350 F Sport a much simpler car to configure. Whereas Euro brands offer long lists of customisable equipment, Lexus allows a choice of paint and trim, and not much more.
The Tuscan Sun yellow-stripe-on-black interior of this car in particular looks far easier to live with than some of the other bold red or white-faced seats available, too.
From behind the wheel – and from the years that have conspired against it – the RC doesn't feel as fresh or high-tech as something like a C-Class coupe. Lexus led the way with its digital instrument cluster, but now it’s more middle of the pack.
The same goes for the infotainment screen. As prestige brands move to conversational voice control, multi-touchscreens and intuitive secondary inputs, the Lexus system demands more focus to use the tiny touchpad, though the ability to plug in a smartphone and let it do the work has bought Lexus some time.
The interface isn't ideal. It can be fussy to land the cursor on the right button on the cluttered menu layout and inconsistent in its operation. At times a broad sweep will barely move the pointer; other times, a tiny movement sends the glowing dot from one side of the display to the other. Add in the movement of a car on the go, and DAB radio menus that constantly reshuffle (a channel-surfer's worst nightmare).
There’s no online connectivity, no inbuilt or e-SIM system, no live petrol prices, parking recommendations or weather forecasts for your destination as found in rival systems. There’s a stripped-down simplicity that may make it appear more approachable than some in-depth infotainment systems, but cutting-edge tech-lovers will quickly run out of functions to explore.
Seat adjustment is more basic than what’s available in competitors, and while still comfy, the front seats never feel as plush or grippy as rivals. Everything is so darn close, though, and when you start picking apart list prices, the cheaper RC is fairly forgivable.
If you do call the rear seats into use from time to time, they won’t fit all sizes, but up to around 170-ish centimetres, rear passengers – at a pinch – can fit in. It’s not a car to pick for full-time four-seat transport, however.
Boot space is rather slim, literally, to the point where the first aid kit and warning triangle aren't stowed from view, but rather strapped in like an afterthought. There’s 374L of storage space available, but you’ll have to swing the lid shut yourself, with no power closing.
The RC350’s V6 also makes things easy to forgive. For running about town it is quiet and mellow, the transmission changes up early, and there are no quirks to come to terms with. You just get in and go.
Flick the drive mode to Sport S or Sport S+, though, and the whole car sharpens up ever so slightly without becoming hard-edged or overtly aggressive. There’s more opportunity to explore the depth of the V6 engine’s ability.
It loves a rev, sounds fantastic as the needle sweeps past 5000rpm, and never turns rough or coarse. Impressive for an engine that’s far from new.
Because of the engine's size, and a lack of inbuilt fuel-saving smarts (like start-stop, for instance), the V6 Lexus claims a 9.1 litres per 100km fuel consumption, but on test returned closer to 10.5L/100km, and asks for 95RON premium unleaded.
With four-wheel steering, the rear end of the RC350 can feel a little airy at very low speeds. You’ll pull around corners much tighter than you might first imagine and the rear stays planted, but can feel a little light-footed.
As speeds rise, the steering turns with the front wheels to aid stability, instead of at an opposing angle to the aid of agility. There’s a more natural feel to the turn-in and handling at anything above walking pace, where the RC really proves its sharpness.
There are some quirks to the Adaptive Variable Suspension. In an urban setting, the ride comfort varies between soft and smooth or firm and crashy, but it’s often hard to know how the suspension will react to a particular scenario.
Some bumps are soaked up readily, others receive a stiff-jointed roll-though. At freeway speeds, the issue tends to resolve itself with a more balanced absorbency, though always with a degree of sporting tension keeping things alert.
While the individual elements can feel a touch odd in isolation, put together as a whole, the RC350 F Sport is a charming, sporty and luxurious automobile. Not one you can share with your friends as easily, mind you. More… Personal.
The term is long gone from the motoring lexicon, but the personal luxury coupe lives on with this Lexus. It doesn’t always measure up against competitors for high-tech bragging rights, but it thrills the driver when poked or can cosset when relaxed.
A little less easy to accept are some of the missing touches that Lexus’s parent company, Toyota, includes in models asking much, much less. A 360-degree camera? Not here. Stop-and-go adaptive cruise? Uh, this one cuts out below a 40km/h threshold. How about a speed limiter? Nope.
Whereas rivals are gearing up with lane-centring that can (potentially, but not officially) follow lane markings for 20 or 30 seconds at a time, traffic sign recognition linked to speed limiters and cruise control, city-speed follow-the-leader capability and more, Lexus’s tech suite seems slim.
The cupboard isn’t bare, of course. There’s still a count of eight airbags, auto high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a reversing camera with dynamic guidelines, and front and rear park sensors, but no ANCAP safety rating.
Owners are covered by a four-year/100,000km warranty. That's better than some luxury brands that are still stuck at three years, but behind the mainstream five-year coverage slowly being adopted. The Lexus Encore program provides a host of benefits for owners and includes three years' capped-price servicing at $495 per visit (12-month or 15,000km intervals) with a complimentary loan car or pick up and delivery to your home or office.
There’s no doubt the Lexus RC350 finds itself in a bit of a strange place amongst a world of more high-tech and sophisticated rivals. Rather than being caught on the back foot, though, Lexus wears its positioning as a badge of honour.
While it’s far from the most analogue of automobiles available, the tech on board feels comfortable and familiar. Particularly for those buyers who are of an age where their kids, or even grandkids, often take care of the household programming, setting and updating.
There’s no steep learning curve with the Lexus. It’s all the familiar aspects of a sporty coupe wrapped in a layer of leather and eye-catching design. The sharp and responsive V6 is a delight, as is the pointed but not overbearing rear-wheel-drive handling balance.
The RC350’s sporting nature can shrink into the background around town, or rise to the challenge of a spirited coastal-road run. It’s an easy car to live with, in part because it doesn’t lead the way or pioneer exotic new technologies.