In 1985, BMW launched the original E30-generation M3, and put a target on its back.
The M3 offered the ferocious performance in the body of a practical two-door coupe, and it’s proved an irresistible combination ever since.
Over the years, the M3 has accumulated quite a rogue’s gallery – from the Mercedes-Benz 190E 16V Cosworth to the Audi RS4 – and they keep coming.
In 2008, Lexus launched the IS F, a bulked up V8-powered sedan that had the M3 in its sights, and at the recent 2014 Detroit Auto Show it unveiled a two-door successor called the RC F.
Across Cobo Hall from Lexus’ stand was the latest two-door BMW M model, now wearing M4 badging. The battle lines have been drawn.
Both of these cars are hot-rodded versions of “ordinary” luxury coupes, so designers were faced with the task of enhancing what was already there, without making the end results look like something from Fast & Furious.
You really do have to like the boy-racer look to appreciate the M4 and RC F, with their flared fenders, gaping front air intakes, and massive exhaust outlets.
The M4 is no shrinking violet, but it’s definitely the more restrained of the two.
That’s mostly down to the base 4 Series coupe’s minimalist styling, which looks handsome without taking any chances. Add more aggressive front and rear fascias, a hood bulge, and unpainted carbon fiber roof, and you’ve got an M4.
Those extroverted cues are compounded by styling elements taken from the departed IS F and the LFA supercar, including flared fenders and unusual stacked quad exhaust outlets.
In the end, neither car is classically pretty, but both will attract plenty of attention on the street.
The BMW will appeal to buyers who want a degree of subtlety, and is a bit more dignified than its Japanese rival.
The Lexus lets it all hang out – as any good performance car should – and proves that sporty coupes don’t need to be stealthy.
For trying something new, Lexus gets the nod here.
Interior design, comfort, amenities
Like the exteriors, the interiors of the M4 and RC F are upgraded versions of what you’ll find in the respective base models.
For the BMW, that means a traditional-looking cabin with a console-mounted rotary infotainment controller, and the company’s baffling automatic shifter.
The Lexus’ interior is essentially carried over from the IS, with a slightly more expressive design, augmented with a new sport steering wheel.
The F model also features the same multifunction binnacle as the LFA, which slides sideways to reveal secondary information. This can be a bit distracting.
Both interiors’ familiarity will probably make fast driving easier, but neither is particualrly remarkable.
This round is a tie.
When it comes to powertrains, BMW and Lexus seem to be moving in opposite directions.
The last M3 coupe was powered by a 4.0-liter V8, but the new M4 has a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six under the hood, producing 425 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque.
Instead of making its engine smaller in response to the clarion call of efficiency, Lexus stuck with a 5.0-liter V8 for the RC F. Final figures aren’t in, but Lexus says it will produce more than 450 hp and more than 383 lb-ft of torque.
The M4 will be offered with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed M DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission. The Lexus gets an eight-speed auto, and both cars are rear-wheel drive.
Enthusiasts will definitely appreciate the availability of a clutch pedal in the M4, and the M DCT’s twin clutches will probably shave precious tenths off lap times.
So while the Lexus has more power than the BMW (albeit less torque), the M4 will probably be a more engaging drive.
Factor in the M4’s likely better fuel economy, and the Bavarian brigade wins this round.
This is what the M4 and RC F are all about. It’s what makes M and F more than just random letters.
BMW says the M4 will do 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds with the M DCT dual-clutch gearbox (4.1 with the manual), and its top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
Lexus hasn’t released any hard numbers for the RC F, but 5.0 liters and eight cylinders should allow it to keep up with the beast from Bavaria.
Both cars deploy a significant amount of gadgetry in the pursuit of speed.
In addition to its dual-clutch transmission, the M4 has an Active M Differential that electronically metes out power to prevent the rear tires from getting vaporized.
There’s also M-tuned electric power steering, and Adaptive M Suspension set up with input from DTM drivers Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock.
Lexus doesn’t have any factory race drivers at its disposal, but it did give the RC F its own fully-independent suspension system with monotube gas-filled shocks.
The RC F also has its own trick differential, the Torque Vectoring Differential (TVD), which has three traction modes.
How all of these systems work together will be the key to each car’s success.
Four previous generations of M3 have given BMW plenty of experience, so it’s the odds-on favorite until we can get behind the wheel of both cars.
Both cars are likely to get plenty of attention thanks to their powerful engines and anabolic looks, but there may be a difference when bystanders see the badges.
Even with the new M4 designation, the successor to the M3 coupe is, to say the least, a known quantity. It’s a legend among gearheads, and even the less car-obsessed have probably heard of a BMW M3.
Tell your friends you’re driving a Lexus, and they’ll be impressed by the car’s sticker price more than anything else. The RC F is a brand new and–despite the IS F precedence–still a new type of car for the brand.
So people might not appreciate the RC F for what it is at first glance.
The M4 has street cred, and decades of racing heritage leading right up to today’s DTM cars, which is all pretty cool.
While the M4 is the cooler car, the RC F might be the perfect car for high-speed nonconformists.
In cool factor, then, the RC F takes the checkered flag.